Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 4, 2014

Collective impact: moving collaboration into another dimension

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 4, 2014

Collective impact describes the next evolution of collaboration.

I’ll say what “collective impact” means a few paragraphs from now, and will include a chart and a youtube video.  I’m still learning about the idea, so this is quite preliminary.


But first a story.

I came across the phrase a few months ago when a friend returned from a weekend conference wanting to quit her job and devote all her efforts to achieving something called collective impact.

I’ve been around long enough to recognize true believer symptoms. Someone in the honeymoon embrace of a cult is not going to be talked down from a new idea high.  Even if the idea is simply a restatement of something anyone who’s been paying attention already knows. So I did my best to listen politely.

A few weeks later, my wife started speaking with a collective impact vocabulary.

I can’t pretend to listen politely to her because we’ve been married too long.

Instead I went to my default academic trick. “That sounds interesting. Is there any research on it?”

Ten minutes later I had two articles from the Stanford Social Innovation Review in my e-mail: “Collective Impact,” and “Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity.”

My wife does not fight fairly.

She knows anything with the words “emergence” and “complexity” in the title eviscerates my “If this were important I would already know about it” resistance.

It took me a few weeks to read more than the title. I grudgingly allowed myself to learn I didn’t know enough about collective impact to critique it.


Fast-forward a few more months.

I had an opportunity to talk with some fusion center directors. In preparing for that meeting, I read the 2012 National Network of Fusion Centers report (released in June 2013).

It struck me as I was reading the document that many of the dynamics described in the report were similar to the problems collective impact wants to address.  And they weren’t problems unique in homeland security to fusion centers: governance, measurement, goals, multiple stakeholders, and so on.

According to one source,

Collective impact is a significant shift from the… current paradigm of “isolated impact,” because the underlying premise of collective impact is that no single organization can create large-scale, lasting… change alone. There is no “silver bullet” solution to systemic… problems, and these problems cannot be solved by simply scaling or replicating one organization or program. Strong organizations are necessary but not sufficient for large-scale social change.”

Sounds like life in the homeland security enterprise to me.

Collective impact is also not a silver bullet. It is not particularly appropriate for technical problems, claim its advocates.

However – and here I rely on what advocates say because I have not seen the research – collective impact initiatives are “being employed to address a wide variety of issues around the world, including education, healthcare, homelessness, the environment, and community development.”

It seems to me collective impact might be a helpful way to think about – and act within — “the information sharing environment,” “cyber security,” “preparedness,” “border security,” and who knows how many other thorny homeland security issue areas.

One test of its utility will be if someone says, “We already do that, but we call it….”


So, what is collective impact?

Here is the definition I see most frequently:

“Collective impact is the commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a complex social problem.”


Two more data points about social impact.

There seems to be wide agreement that five conditions have to be met if collective impact is to have a chance of working. These are the conditions I thought about while I was reading the Fusion Centers Report. The information sharing environment has a shot at achieving all five. (Insert the appropriate NSA caveat here):

a common agenda

– shared measurement

– mutually reinforcing activities

– continuous communication

– backbone support.

Here’s a chart with more words about each of those conditions:



I’ll close with a 2 minute youtube video that summarizes the concept.  I think collective impact is an idea worth exploring.


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Comment by E. Earhart

March 4, 2014 @ 5:02 am

Interesting post and linked articles, more reading warranted.

-collective impact initiatives are “being employed to address a wide variety of issues around the world, including education, healthcare, homelessness, the environment, and community development.” These are not issues where one usually thinks of success. Not doubting the 3-4 examples provided, but if this is really working, on these issues, it should be taking off like wild-fire. Is it possible this is so anti-establishment it is not getting the recognition it should?

-leaders decided to abandon their individual agendas.
Good luck with this one. The inability to do this has created what some individuals have identified as the single biggest threat to our survival today, FACTIONS, they permeate so much of our society and resources.

-And it requires the creation of a new set of nonprofit management organizations that have the skills and resources to assemble and coordinate the specific elements necessary for collective action to succeed. Why does it need to be “Nonprofit management organizations?

-The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails. In the hls ecosystem, DHS would be the supporting backbone? Not the brain, heart, lungs, and fist,, right?

-Curiosity is What We Need . . . “we live in a complex world, we often don’t know what is going on, and we won’t be able to understand its complexity unless we spend more time not knowing… Curiosity is what we need.” Stated otherwise, Imagination is what we need.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 4, 2014 @ 5:04 am

YUP! The whole stronger than the sum of its parts. Thanks Chris for the post and links.

And DHS? Value added?

Comment by John Comiskey

March 4, 2014 @ 6:23 am


Collective impact sounds like what the HLS community and White House purport to be the product of the “Whole Community” strategically collaborating to secure the homeland and other things.

This blogger agrees and laments that most leaders will resist [to the death] their own agendas and will resist more so in the long term.

Until leaders are judged/measured on their collaborativeness (meta-leadership), collective impact will be “what happens” and not necessarily what a collective “wants to happen.”

The degree to which the globalization and technological advances provide impetus for collaborative bedfellows is TBD.

Comment by Street Cop

March 4, 2014 @ 11:08 am

In my small corner of the world, free flowing money artificially sustained individual agenda’s for years. Now, the money is tight. Failure to recognize that collaboration is the only way to continue dooms the non-believers to failure and is a disservice to our fellow Americans. John is absolutely correct,HLS will lead to even stranger bedfellows…

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 4, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

Watched the video so here is a suggestion!

Take any or all of DHS and set up some sort of chart of the Collective Impact 5 factors and see what might be done?

How exactly does DHS collaborate with DoJ and/or DoD on common agendas or missions?

Pick some specific examples like the Federal Protective Service and the U.S, Marshals Service!

Comment by Judy Boyd

March 5, 2014 @ 8:33 am

Perhaps the concept of “collective impact” can serve as a methodology for analyzing the effectiveness of applying complexity principles to Black Swan events and slow-motion disasters. It may complement the computer modeling that Ted Lewis, Melanie Mitchell, Rafe Sagarin, and Albert-Laxzlo Barabasi have been exploring in their books on complexity theory.

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