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A Role for Local Government in Collective Impact Initiatives

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
December 4, 2023

There is growing recognition that society’s most difficult problems cannot be solved by government alone. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, drew attention to the ways in which the nonprofit sector can facilitate (or hinder) a successful public health campaign. Furthermore, the failure to address pressing social problems like homelessness, low educational attainment and poverty, have negative economic impacts on communities. Such impacts include labor and talent shortages, closing businesses and increased resident dependency on tax-funded public assistance programs. The importance of the nonprofit sector in addressing such challenges is nothing new. In the 1990s, the Reinventing Government movement emphasized the role of non-government organizations in providing services that were traditionally the purvey of government. Public Administration research frameworks like New Public Management and New Public Governance seek to explain, at least in part, how governments can utilize the nonprofit sector in service delivery.

On the nonprofit side, Kania & Kramer (2011) coined the term collective impact, which refers to a community of nonprofit organizations working collectively towards positive societal change. The authors presented specific cases in which nonprofits collaborated to provide services to communities, and also proposed five specific conditions for collective impact:

  • Common Agenda: A community of organizations with a unified vision for positive change.
  • Shared Measurement System: A unified approach to setting goals and measuring macro-level progress towards those goals.
  • Mutually Reinforcing Activities: Nonprofit organizations coordinating with one another so as to limit duplication and maximize their collective coverage.
  • Continuous Communication: Nonprofits need to be in regular communication to fully understand what other organizations are doing, and to communicate what they are doing to other organizations.
  • Backbone Support Organization: An organization with the staff, expertise and ability to manage the collective efforts of the initiative.

Creating the conditions for collective impact are challenging. Nonprofit organizations may be in competition with one another for limited resources, may have different visions of change and may include stakeholders skeptical of other organizations involved in the initiative. One organization’s commitment to a collective impact initiative may exist only to the point where they feel they are losing agency over aspects of their mission. Hence it is common in practice for such initiatives to start with great fanfare, only to atrophy over time, eventually becoming nothing more than a monthly meeting viewed as mostly a nuisance for all involved.

A key reason collective impact initiatives can struggle is the lack of a capable backbone support organization. The challenge is particularly acute in areas with limited donor bases. Rural areas in particular often lack the philanthropic capacity to fund strong backbone organizations capable of directing collective impact initiatives.

A potential remedy for limited nonprofit capacity in rural areas is for local governments themselves to serve as backbone support organizations. Such an approach marries Public Administration governance reform frameworks like New Public Governance, with the concept of nonprofit collective impact. How might this work in practice?

First, local governments would need to create a structure for local nonprofit organizations to communicate with one another in a formal capacity. Citizen boards and commissions, a common vehicle used to facilitate communication between local government and the community, is a logical way in which to formally organize local nonprofit leaders. Second, that board can collaborate with city leadership to create community level goals and key performance indicators that can be integrated into strategic plans and public reporting for both the municipal government, and the participating nonprofit organizations. Third, local governments can provide incentives for organizations participating in collective impact initiatives. Incentive could include funds through a revolving loan or grant fund, back-office support, grant writing and performance measurement and management. Fourth, and related, is the dedication of a full-time municipal employee to staff the collective impactive initiative. 

Admittedly, using local government as the backbone organization for a collective impact initiative invites the perception of a top down, rather than bottom up, approach to collective impact. For it to work, local governments must be true partners willing to serve the participating nonprofits, and not authorities dictating to them. However, the upside is great. It could increase collaboration among nonprofits in rural and under-resourced areas, connect nonprofit organizations directly with policymakers and allow local government leaders to further utilize area nonprofits in service delivery, thereby improving performance and efficiency. 

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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