How Public Policy Can Support Collective Impact

Posted by Forum for Youth Investment on December 08, 2014

Approximately 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.1 Over 49 million Americans live in households that experience hunger at some point in the year.2 Scores on reading achievement for 17 year olds have not improved since 1971.3 More than 30 percent of adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese, accounting for at least 10 percent of the national health care budget.4  Almost 75 percent of exoffenders will be arrested within five years of release from prison.5 The number of gangs has increased by 15 percent since 2006.6 Nearly one in nine people living in the United States are veterans,7 and up to 40 percent of those veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, impacting employment, family, and community relationships.8

These statistics describe problems many years in the making, and over time, nonprofits have created innovative programs to address them. Funders have invested billions into programs, measured their success, and scaled effective interventions. Government has played a role in both program delivery and funding. All parties have had some success, and all can point to bright spots of positive outcomes for program participants. However, too few have achieved large-scale, lasting success
in their target populations. Why is that?

The problems we face are not simple, predictable, or linear. They do not fit neatly into electoral cycles or grant timelines. They are complex and involve many fluctuating actors, conditions, and norms. Yet many people in the social and public sectors feel constrained by a traditional approach to solve these problems through a single strong program, a single funding stream, or a single organization. They often understand the implications of complexity but feel bound by rules that oversimplify the range of possible responses. In a time of scarce resources and intractable problems, however, no one in the social sector, including policymakers, can afford to believe in singular solutions.

Instead, we must all embrace the notion that addressing complex problems requires a collective impact approach that involves many actors from different sectors committing to a common agenda to solve a specific problem at scale. Many communities have adopted this approach, outlined in Table 1, and achieved success in tackling such complex challenges. If implemented more fully, the collective impact approach could increase the effective use of public resources.

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