The mindset needed for Collective Impact

When we were in the US we repeatedly heard about the ‘mindset’ required for Collective Impact.  From reading the literature we understood that collaborators needed to suspend their engrained mindset of isolated impactmy organisation’s mission, survival, program expansion etc – in order for collective impact to emerge – my organisation’s contribution within a system that improves outcomes for everyone in our community.  Since then we have learnt that it is one thing to theoretically understand the required mindset and quite another to actually make the change.

In this blog we focus on the mindset required for Collective Impact.  In doing so, we have spoken with a number of collaborators in a Collective Impact initiative in the Blue Mountains of NSW called the Stronger Family Alliance (SFA).  It is one of many Australian examples of cross-sector collaboration that applies most of the elements of the Collective Impact approach, long before the approach was published by FSG in 2011.

Briefly, the Stronger Family Alliance started 7 years ago. The galvanizing question that initiated the collaboration was ‘how can we plan for the benefit of all families in the Blue Mountains?’  Cross-sector collaborators who had an interface with families were invited to join – those in non-profit and for-profit service provision, the chamber of commerce, retired corporate people, the local council and others.  They were highly influenced by best practice of the day, particularly in the area service co-ordination and integration, and drew on thought leaders to help them form a common agenda.  The Blue Mountains Council housed the facilitator of the agenda-setting process, Tanya James.  Once set, a smaller group of collaborators led the development of a comprehensive plan for action – the Child and Family Plan – designed to align the activities of the collaborators and the broader service system.  In moving into implementation of the Plan, the backbone organisation was formalized as a joint initiative of Blue Mountains Council and the Mountains Community Resource Network with Tanya James as the facilitator.  Cascading layers of collaborative governance and communication were put in place alongside the work of implementation.

The SFA has made great progress in redesigning the local system to better serve children and their families in the Blue Mountains.  One example of a systemic change has been the development of three outcome areas through the Child and Family Plan, being Neighbourhood Service Networks, Moving Children Beyond Vulnerability, and Child Friendly Communities.  Structurally, this has resulted in three subgroups that focus on the outcome areas and enable services to use their core business and current service provision to value-add to other existing service delivery or to plan new initiatives together.  This approach acknowledges individual organisation’s contributions while also driving collective action.

We asked the interviewed SFA Collaborators to reflect on the last 7 years through the lens of mindset.  FSG, authors of the Collective Impact approach, have written about three specifics areas related to the mindset needed for Collective Impact.  We asked the interviewees about each of them.

1.    Shifting from technical problem solving to adaptive problem solving

A strong theme that emerged from the interviews was that the collaborators gradually grew into this required mindset.  While some already thought and acted systemically, in the beginning, most were focused on their own ‘day-to-day’ demands, challenges and opportunities.  Over time, they began to think beyond their own organisation and ask: “how can we respond to challenges or opportunities together?”  The interviewees identified the primary driver of this change as being a program of professional development facilitated by the backbone organisation.  Collaborators came together regularly and engaged in highly valuable shared learning opportunities that allowed them to see the system from multiple perspectives.  This meant the collaborators were able to see social challenges and solutions more holistically, to hold differing views simultaneously, and take a longer-term view.  The content and skilled facilitation of this training created a shared understanding of the adaptive approach needed to achieve the common agenda.

However, the interviewees were quick to point out that the organizational constraints experienced by some collaborators limited their ability to act adaptively.  For example, some government workers may personally see the need for flexible, person-centered approaches but not have the professional freedom with the bureaucracy to adopt that approach.  In circumstances where collaboration occurred despite the inflexible structures of government, was referred to by one interviewee as ‘collaboration under the radar’.

Their advice to other Collective Impact initiatives was to talk openly about the tension between how the collaboration would like to act and what was practical.

2.    There are no silver bullets but there is silver buckshot

Again, all interviewees thought that the process of collaboration – and the skilled facilitation of it – allowed collaborators to see that there were no silver bullets to achieving significant improvement in community level outcomes.  Rather, they came to see that this type of change could only be achieved when they aligned their many initiatives, resources and efforts to a common agenda.  One interviewee emphasized the need for shared measures and good data collection as a platform to allow collaborators to see how their contribution fitted into the larger collective effort and outcome.

3. Credibility vs credit

Generally, all interviewees felt that the SFA had grappled with this particular shift in mindset to varying degrees. They each acknowledged that the enduring characteristics of the social system – competition for funding and organizational survival – meant that collaborators often needed to attribute the success of the collaboration to their own organisation.  The need to own or control attribution in this way had sometimes been detrimental to relationships and trust.  Recently the SFA has put in place a mechanism that formalizes the making of commitments and sharing of attribution.

The advice of the interviewees to others was to develop early a way to deal with attribution – one that helps collaborators understand that the light will necessarily shine on different collaborators at different times, including the backbone organisation and its key people.

In interviewing three of the SFA collaborators about the required mindset for Collective Impact an unexpected theme emerged – the importance of shared measures.  It was not until 2011 when the Collective Impact literature was published and Tanya James introduced it to the Alliance, that SFA realized they were missing this element.  One interviewee hypothesized that had SFA had shared measures in place from the start they might have made a smoother transition towards the required mindset.  Shared measures would have kept the collaborators more engaged beyond the high-point experience of setting common agenda and made it possible to celebrate wins, identify organizational contributions, and collectively chart progress and impact.

Great thanks goes to Tanya James, Convener of the Stronger Family Alliance Collaboration, Dianne Jackson, CEO of Connect, Kris Newton, Manager of Mountains Community Resource Network and Lyn Bevington, Manager of Mountains Outreach Community Service for sharing their insights about living the mindset of Collective Impact.

About Kerry Graham and Dawn O'Neil

Social change consultants


  1. Hi Kerry and Dawn,
    I have found your web publications on Collective Impact very interesting.
    I am an evaluator of social policy and programs, with an emphasis in recent years on collective impact. About half of my working life was spent in social and policy areas in health and community services and I have always had an interest in improving policy approaches and services. I have found many NGO’s practicing it despite the funding and policy constraints. I would love to connect with you and have a discussion about this as I am thinking of doing a PhD by publication and maybe doing snippets for the Conversation. Perhaps you would be interested in some joint work as well. (what I am doing at the moment is honorary) so there is no money in it. I have just moved from Canberra to Wollongong but I can travel.

    Kind regards

    • HI Margaret – apologies for taking so long to reply. Kerry and I would love to connect with you., We are very keen to get to know researchers and evaluators wanting to work developmentally in Collective Impact work. Kerry is based in Sydney and I am in Melbourne so perhaps we should start with a Skype call? My email is If you send your skype address or phone details we can arrange a good time for us to talk.
      Thanks for reaching out

      Dawn and Kerry

  2. Hi Dawn & Kerry –
    Great to discover you web site. I work on collective impact/collaborative network initiatives in the northeast US. I too have recognized the need to help people see with a new mindset, so they can work and collaborate in new ways. The heart of this is a shift from working in organizations to networks of collaborators at a larger system scale. I thought you might appreciate this blog I wrote about leading change with a network mindset:

    • Kerry Graham and Dawn O'Neil

      Many thanks for your comments Beth and for posting your very insightful blog. Dawn and I are planning a trip to the States in October 2014. perhaps we could connect while we are there? k

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