In 2011, the nonprofit consulting group FSG coined the term “collective impact” to describe broad, multi-sector collaborations that can involve government, schools, business, universities, foundations and nonprofits. While collabor​ations of this kind have existed for more than 100 years, collective impact has in recent years attracted attention nationwide as communities try to tackle problems that are too complex for any one institution to solve on its own. Despite the growing interest, however, there has been little research on contemporary forms of cross-sector collaboration.

To fill this gap, Wallace commissioned Teachers College, Columbia University, to conduct a study examining cross-sector collaborations to improve education. Al​though they face a number of challenges, “current collaborations show promise for creating a new kind of venue to bring local partners together who often have not cooperated in the past and have even been in conflict,” the authors say. “Importantly, most of the collaborations we studied seem to have helped calm often-contentious urban education politics and establish enough stability for partners to move forward.”

The report is the third and final in a series, presenting findings from comparative case studies of eight such initiatives across the country. Between 2015 and 2017, researchers took an in-depth look at three collaborations—Say Yes Buffalo, Milwaukee Succeeds, and All Hands Raised in Multnomah County, Ore.—and a more limited look at five others (Alignment Nashville, Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority, Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, Oakland Community Schools, and Providence Children and Youth Cabinet). They visited each city one or more times to observe meetings and other activities and interview participants and stakeholders.

The challenges the initiatives have faced are diverse, from working with school districts that may see collaboration as a distraction from their core goals to finding ways to engage marginalized groups in the decision-making process; securing stable, long-term funding; and managing expectations that may be unrealistically high.​

In spite of such hurdles, the initiatives have shown sufficient potential for benefiting education reform that the authors call for patience in evaluating them.  “While it is still early in the game, we think there are enough indicators of good things happening that the waning of the movement would represent a loss,” they say. 

The report takes a comprehensive look at the components of collective impact, from funding to data use to strategic relationships. Among the many findings are the following:

  • Collaborations need a credible and compelling rationale, as well as committed advocates, to get started.
  • Collaborations can serve as venues for advocating and developing a “cradle-to-career” vision of education, even when the resources to carry out that vision aren’t fully in place.
  • Most of the studied collaborations assigned leadership responsibilities to local elites and used a variety of venues to keep community members informed and engaged.
  • Supporting a “backbone” organization to coordinate among the various players is a primary expense of collaboration.
  • Collaborations seem to be helped, not hindered, by efforts to gather and use data, despite a range of obstacles, including privacy concerns and uncertainty about which metrics to use.
  • Affiliation with national networks gives collaborations access to strategic ideas, program guidelines, technical support and some funding opportunities.
  • Some collaborations take a “colorblind” approach, directing resources to students who need them without explicitly focusing on specific groups; others directly take on racial inequality and class disparities.

In addition to the full report, the authors have prepared an executive summary and a longer overview​ of the study and discussion of key findings.  

 Points of Interest

  • Case studies show that collective impact efforts in education can be a “slow but often steady” process and deserve more time to mature.
    A close look at collective impact efforts in education shows they can be a "slow but often steady" process. Give them time, researchers say.
  • Cross-sector collaborations in education can serve a valuable function by promoting a “cradle-to-career” vision of education—even when they don’t have the resources to make it a reality.
    Cross-sector collaborations in education can rally communities around a cradle-to-career model of education—even if they can't make it a reality right away