New Study: Collective Impact Produces Real Changes in the Lives of Real People


We are happy to share with you the recently published: “When Collective Impact Has an Impact: A Cross-Site Study of 25 Collective Impact Initiatives,” conducted by a research team from the organizations ORS Impact and the Spark Policy Institute.

This study, commissioned by the Collective Impact Forum (an initiative of FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions) was designed to look at the question: “Does the collective impact approach contribute to systems and population changes?” In order to explore these questions, the research team studied 25 sites – with eight comprehensive site visits – and has generated a rich set of findings that should be useful for anyone participating in a complex, multi-sector collaboration.

A key finding of the report is that “the role of the collective impact initiatives in contributing to population change alongside other efforts or enablers is a critical and valuable aspect of social change.”

This finding bolsters research AIFCS has done with several dozen communities working to support better lives for Opportunity Youth. The AIFCS evaluations have shown early wins for communities that form strong collaboratives that include systems-level changes. The new CIF report bolsters this work by demonstrating that long-term, mature community collaborations can improve the lives of community residents.

The new Collective Impact Forum research also looks at the role of and focus on equity, defined as the just and fair inclusion in a society in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential, n collective impact projects. At AIFCS, we’re focused on equity and in supporting communities to approach their work with an equity lens, looking at structural barriers to opportunity, and in approaches that have meaningful inclusion of those most impacted by the problems communities are seeking to fix.
We believe this new research tells an exciting story that supports this approach. It appears to show a strong link between an intentional approach that focuses on equitable outcomes, using equitable processes supports attainment of equitable outcomes in communities.

The content below highlights some of the key findings from the rich and nuanced report.


Population Level Changes

Overall, the study found that CI efforts had noticeable impacts on population-level changes – real differences in the lives of the people and places where the work happened:

  • 20 of the 25 collective impact sites studied had achieved population change on at least one outcome
  • For eight out of eight intensively studied sites, the research team found that collective impact undoubtedly contributed to the designed population change.
    • For three of these, there was evidence that the CI approach had a strong contribution to population change, with low plausibility of any alternative explanation for how that change could have otherwise occurred
    • For the other five sites, the researchers found evidence that CI had been a necessary element of the population change story, but alone was not sufficient for explaining the population change achieved (i.e., it was necessary but not sufficient for creating the change)

System Changes

The study also looked at what type of system changes the deep-dive sites were affecting, and how those related to population change:

  • Changes in services and practices are the most common systems changes achieved across sites; formalized system changes were also frequently seen in sites
  • Amongst the eight site visit sites, the three with no strong plausible alternative explanations were more likely to have a focus on data and on resources, whereas the five where collective impact was necessary but insufficient for achieving population change were more likely to focus on political will and policy change
  • Population changes generally stemmed from changes in services and improved practices and policies

Early Changes

In addition to population and system changes, the study looked at what early changes were created by the collective impact initiative that lay the foundation for these subsequent changes.

  • The most frequent early changes that were identified by the eight site visit sites as contributing to longer-term change were the collective impact initiative’s role in strengthening partnerships, building and enhancing collaboration, increasing or reframing visibility on the issue, and building political will.
  • Across the broader set of 25 sites, additional early changes included increasing data availability and use, and increasing the capacity of local partners

Advancing Equity within Collective Impact

The study also looked at how initiatives approach equity in their work – specifically the initiatives’ capacity to engage in equity action, implementation of equity-focused actions, and their representation and meaningful inclusion. They found that initiatives with strong and emerging equity focus showed promise in their equity outcomes; those with no focus typically did not see results that advanced equity with a few exceptions.


Finally, the study highlights four implications that are relevant to all collective impact stakeholders:

  • Collective impact is a long-term proposition; take the time to lay a strong foundation
  • Systems changes take many forms; be iterative and intentional
  • Equity is achieved through different routes; be aware, intentional, and adaptable
  • Collective impact initiatives take on different roles in driving change; be open to different routes to making an impact

For more depth, we encourage you to read the Executive Summary and the Full Report.