In early 2013, funders, environmental educators, and researchers crowded elbow-to-elbow around a 20-year-old redwood forest shelf fungus. On the 23rd-floor conference room of a San Francisco skyscraper, a skilled educator engaged the group in conversation around this object. Hushed tones filled the room, punctuated by the easy laughter and engaged questions one would expect from a collegial group.

Yet, the group hadn’t always looked this way. Just a year and a half earlier, members of the group sat stiffly in office chairs as they wrestled with an exciting, yet daunting, question: What might be possible if their organizations worked together to increase the impact of environmental education across the San Francisco and Monterey Bay regions?

Two years after beginning their collaborative work, the group—now called ChangeScale—had developed a vision statement, business plan, and set of activities aligned to measurable goals. Supported by a backbone organization, ChangeScale’s core organizational partners committed to bi-monthly, daylong meetings, which built strong relationships and trust.

Since the collaborative’s inception, ChangeScale had used the five conditions of the collective impact approach to guide its work: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and a backbone support organization. ChangeScale pursued this work with an underlying commitment to equity—a key collective impact principle. (See “A Brief History of ChangeScale” at the end of the article.)

Since the collective impact framework was introduced in a 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article by John Kania and Mark Kramer, hundreds of collaboratives around the world have used it to structure approaches to persistent social issues.1 Being a relatively new social-change framework, however, only a thin basis of empirical research exists.2

Concern about the rapid proliferation of this approach has prompted a call to strengthen the research core, reflect critically on the situations in which the approach may be more or less effective, and identify potential stumbling blocks.3 Researchers from Columbia University’s Teacher College, for example, note that, “Knowledge of collective impact—what it entails, what obstacles it faces, and how to overcome them—is limited,” and that “while optimistic accounts of collective impact reforms are plentiful, insightful details about how organizations carry out the ventures, how they take root, and what impact they have remain rare.”

To address this knowledge gap, we examined the unfolding of a collective impact process during the first three years of ChangeScale’s development.4

ChangeScale’s leadership set out to specifically address the collective impact conditions in designing the initiative. Indeed, our study found evidence of those conditions when examining ChangeScale’s initial phase: The nine collaborative partners spent the first two years developing a common agenda, which was comprised of a strategic plan and vision statement with six crosscutting goals.

In ChangeScale’s third year, the partners initiated mutually reinforcing activities designed through working groups and outlined in the collaborative’s planning documents. Frequent, open, and transparent communication characterized the condition of continuous communication. Supporting the communication, planning, and coordination needs of the collaborative, backbone support evolved over the first three years into a full-time director position, as well as additional support staff. By late 2014, specific, shared measurements had not yet been established. As partners recognized those measures as the critical next step, in December 2014, ChangeScale established a working group on measurement and evaluation.

Our findings suggest that the five collective impact conditions were instrumental to enhancing, strengthening, and bolstering ChangeScale’s success. Concurrently, our research uncovered differing perspectives on the direction and progress of those aspects. Such differences suggest potential limitations of formal, long-term collaboration guided by the collective impact approach, raising questions about strict adherence to the conditions.

In this article, we discuss dilemmas that arose during the collective impact process, with a focus on the problem-defining and early implementation stages. Building on themes from Columbia University’s review of the history and theory of cross-sector collaboration in education, we make several suggestions of how to address those dilemmas in a collaborative process.
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