Collective Impact: Successes and Challenges From the Field

By Lisa Dillman
March 2015
group of teachers working together

Collective impact has emerged as a popular model in the Northwest, and nationally, for addressing long-standing challenges in reaching community-level educational goals and achieving of success for children and families. As existing collective impact initiatives begin to mature, newer collectives can learn from the successes, challenges, and growth areas identified by their predecessors.

To explore the emergence of collective impact as a growing model for improving education outcomes in the region, REL Northwest staff recently spoke with funders and implementation teams from initiatives in five Northwest states. The findings provide the type of “lessons learned” that can benefit not only newly formed collective impact initiatives but also a wide range of groups embarking on large-scale collaborative efforts.

In our discussions, funders and implementation teams across the Northwest expressed optimism about collective impact as a framework for systems change as well as a strong willingness to reorganize around this structure. They explained that making progress on complex issues, such as school readiness, can’t be done alone and that collective impact provides a useful framework for building on existing strengths and prior relationships and in aligning stakeholders already working on these issues from different angles.

Relating to the success of the start-up and early implementation phases of their collective impact efforts, funders and implementation teams highlighted these areas.

Shifting to a Collective Impact Mindset

Partners explained that the framework “helped to coalesce leaders across the community” and gave them a way “to think about and talk about the education system.” Partners also emphasized the value of establishing a “backbone” team to guide the group through setting goals and defining measurable objectives and to provide logistical support for the initiative’s working groups and meetings.

Building Shared Ownership

Funders and implementation teams described the strengthening of existing relationships and the development of new partnerships as key successes. One partner said that broad-based ownership is what will allow the community to make progress toward improving outcomes for students.

Improving Coordination and Alignment Across partners

Collective impact efforts have also seen early success at improving the alignment of funding and strategies to support the initiatives’ goals. Partners are increasingly shifting their work to align with the initiatives’ goals by embedding aligned strategies in their own strategic plans.

Funders and implementation teams also described key challenges.


While initiatives across the Northwest make strides toward building shared ownership, partners described the difficulty of authentically engaging specific sectors in the work. We found that organizations that have historically competed for the same resources may have trouble working together and/or with the backbone organization.


Getting started, sustaining momentum, and demonstrating results were all challenges that funders and implementation teams faced in regards to the slow pace of their systems change work.


Concerns included human capital needs and difficulty securing funding for collective impact structures.

Rural issues

Distance alone can make it difficult to coordinate communication and meetings, but rural areas also face additional challenges in implementing collective impact efforts. It can be difficult to ensure representation from different counties, for example, and to facilitate engagement among distant partners who may be facing different educational issues.


Even though many Northwest collective impact initiatives are in relatively early stages, sustainability challenges are already emerging, particularly related to maintaining enthusiasm and commitment among partners and funding levels. Stakeholders noted the difficulty of keeping a coalition intact for the long haul—especially in retaining partners who were involved in the early stages but whose roles become unclear as implementation proceeds.

Shared measurement, one of the central tenets of the collective impact approach, was both a success and a challenge in the Northwest. Developing more focused metrics for implementation and outcomes, building capacity for sharing data, and using data for continuous improvement across partners highlights many of the groups’ technical assistance needs.


Some stakeholders lamented the reliance on preexisting school data and missing other important data points (e.g., common metrics from youth-serving, community-based organizations like the Boys and Girls Club).

Data systems and data sharing

Collective impact initiatives across the region struggle to share data among partners, with the lack of centralized or streamlined data-collection systems listed as a challenge.

Data Use

Initiatives also vary in the extent to which they are using their data to shape policy and practice (for example, ensuring that partners make adjustments if they do not achieve the progress they had hoped to see).


Beyond tracking progress on their key metrics, collective impact initiatives often do not have formal mechanisms in place for evaluating the development of the work, the implementation process, or the impact it has on student outcomes.

In addition to data-related challenges, partners broke down areas into three main categories the areas in which they need support to grow:

Design and Planning

Partners would like outside facilitators to guide them through initial conversations, to help in developing templates and toolkits for tasks such as action planning and building relationships with the business community, and to provide coaching and meeting opportunities for networking and sharing lessons learned.


Partners also expressed a need for local and regional partners to contribute technical assistance to support implementation tasks beyond the expertise or capacity of the funder or backbone organization.


Beyond tracking progress on their key metrics, collective impact initiatives are often in need of establishing formal mechanisms for evaluating the development of the work, the implementation process, and/or the impact it has on student outcomes.

Collective impact is still a young strategy, as the concept was articulated as recently as 2011. As groups that embrace the framework move forward, they can learn from the successes and challenges from their own recent experiences, make headway in filling their technical assistance needs, and provide emerging groups with foundational knowledge of what works.