Collective Impact

Tom Holland
January 2016
Campers helping another camper over wall

A young woman walks down the trail to the next station. There, in front of her, is a wall towering over her. The wall is ten feet tall and six feet wide, and as she and her group of peers walk up to the structure, a counselor comes out from behind it. A fabricated tale ensues where the counselor gives the outline for the team-building exercise. But the girl is clear about one thing: The goal is to get everyone in their group over the wall to the other side. Looking around at her group, she does not know how she can tackle this problem. At the group's disposal is nothing but their own strengths. She knows this problem is too big to solve alone, but with the right sort of chemistry, maybe, just maybe, she can be a part of the group that conquers this massive wall.

A Societal Issue

Like scenarios play out in camp programs all the time — a major problem to overcome (i.e., a high wall, a low ropes course, etc.), where the goal is clear but the steps needed to achieve that goal and overcome the obstacle are less than clear. On a daily basis, camp youth development professionals and teachers pose these problems to younger audiences to challenge their thinking, to grow their minds, and to initiate a sense of team that will hopefully inform their decision making later down the road.

While the data clearly indicates that participants in camp programs grow in their ability to work as a team, our society is noticeably lacking in its ability to pull together to tackle major issues not just as individuals, but as a collection of organizations. Much like the young woman and her approach to the wall, many youth-serving organizations stare down big issues and feel helpless as to what they can do alone to conquer such a massive hurdle. The "walls" for youth-serving organizations are varied. They range from the role of camp programs in education to the changing demographics of our country to providing a camp experience for all children who want one. Due to the daunting nature of each of these "meta-issues" many people see that wall ahead and choose to ignore it, or shrug their shoulders knowing their own limitations and those of their one organization.

However, as organizations begin to congregate in front of the wall, the opportunity to think like the young woman should become the reality. The wall, while being too big for any one organization to tackle, seems to shrink when each organization looks around and realizes the collective impact they can have together. This realization is only the first step toward success. The next steps are actually working in unison to conquer the wall.

Collective Impact

In 2011, John Kania and Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review coined the phrase "collective impact" (2011). The concept was introduced to demonstrate how well-calculated, collaborative efforts between organizations could have an impact on large-scale social problems. The article told the story of many major issues that had been tackled by a collection of organizations. These organizations came together with their resources to maximize each of their individual strengths as a team with the goal of major social change.

Central to the concept were conditions that existed within all the organizations prior to attempting a collective impact approach to a problem. These conditions were:

  • A common agenda or vision among the group of organizations
    This common agenda included a shared understanding of the issue at hand and a generally accepted approach to solving that issue. (Get over the wall.)
  • A shared mechanism for measuring success
    With different measuring sticks, the whole effort could be derailed due to confusion over what success looks like. (Get each and every person over the wall.)
  • Mutually reinforcing activities
    The skills of each organization complemented each other. They all played a role to achieve success. (We have communicators, we have those who can quickly break down the problem, we have those skilled at pulling the team together, and those who encourage others, and all have a role in getting us over the wall.)
  • Continuous communication
    The successful efforts had a constant stream of effective communication. (How do we help each other up and over the wall?)
  • Backbone support
    One organization or entity served as the fulcrum for the rest of the group. Through this organization, funding was established, communication funneled, and game plans were housed. (Often, this is the role of the supportive counselor who is there to assist and support so the wall doesn't seem so daunting.)

What the authors failed to identify as another core factor to future success was the belief that each individual organization, no matter how small or large, how simple or complex, had it in their ability to positively change the world. This belief in the impact that one organization can have is the "pre-condition" to each condition.

The implicat ions of this simple pre-condition and the seemingly simple conditions set forth by Kania and Kramer have major implications within the youth development community. With communities struggling to find the right formula for the education for our children, and with an increasing emphasis on the impact time out of school can have on the growth of a child, youth development programs like camps can have a major impact on the educational landscape. However, to do so often takes a unification of multiple organizations.

Local Impact

In Teton County, Wyoming, the issue of summer learning loss reached its peak when the school board took on the issue of lengthening the school calendar for the entire district some years ago. While the measure did not pass, it got the conversation started for local organizations to come together and provide an opportunity for children who, due to capacity and pricing issues, the local day camp could not address. At the end of the process, camp was offered to kids across the county who had never been able to have the experience; but the unique part about the program was that the activities for each child would occur through the support of many organizations in the community.

This success story is one of local youth development professionals coming together to solve a complex problem. The first summer of the Summer Sampler Camp had all the conditions necessary for a successful collective impact approach (Moody, 2015). The organizations that came together all had a common agenda of getting more children of Teton County involved in their summer programming. With this common agenda, the various groups that came together — a church, a library, a school, the local national forest, a children's museum, and the local literacy center — complemented each other's work. While some of the programs offered summer camps, none of them alone could assist all the needs of the community. They were bound to each other by their complementary programs, and they decided their initial measuring stick of success would be the enrollment into this new type of summer camp option for children in the county.

Key to the success of the program was the backbone organization of the Teton County Library, which supported the efforts of the various players from other organizations. While organizations stepped up and offered their services through transportation, food, or programming, the library led the effort by supplying personnel to realize the vision. The library also provided the organizational capacity to put all the pieces together for a collective success. Finally, the library personnel organized the constant communication between all the players that was required to be a part of the group.

After three years of running the program, it is clear that the collective impact approach has worked well for the group. They have now served many campers who got a taste for different local programs in the summer months. Isabel Zumel, of the Teton County Library and key player in the effort explains, "What we have been most successful at is coming together to get the involvement of local families in high-risk situations who might never have a camp experience." Beyond this, though, they have demonstrated the collective impact model that others can replicate. For collective impact to work, she explains that "the starting point cannot be money. The issue and how to solve that issue are much more important. When there is unity around the table on how to solve an issue, real change can happen."

National Implications

While we can demonstrate examples of the successes of a collective impact approach with greater ease at a local level, the case made by Kania and Kramer in their work surrounding this topic is that the greater, grander implications can also be felt at the national level. While the problems at the national level may at first glance seem more complex than those at the local level, the same requirements still exist for future success of a collective impact approach.

Camps and youth development programs should not only look locally to see who they can partner with to solve major issues, but they should also look for opportunities to work with groups similar to their own to find resources that can be bound together for larger momentum. Those groups can be associations like the American camp Association. Further, an organization like ACA, is uniquely positioned to commit staff time and resources to be the backbone organization that binds the cause together.

We face a problem of great local and national consequence. How to adequately educate children and prepare them for their lives in the 21st century is of major concern for many. The traditional classroom is now just one of many elements in the child education equation. Camp and similar youth development programs face the problem of articulating our value so that we can be known as one of the key elements that should also be in that formula whose output has such major implications.

To be in the equation though, requires that we work together, collectively, to achieve impact. Our association and its members seems well poised to tackle local and national issues with this sort of approach. We have programs, partnerships, and key relationships with other organizations that complement each other. We have a backbone organization in ACA that could be the mechanism for constant communication with all players. We have a shared agenda, and surely we could identify the common mechanisms to evaluate success.

Like so many times before, we find ourselves amassing before the wall. Experience tells us that within our association we are skilled at this test of teamwork. The wall is never too high when we pull together to accomplish collective goals. We are rich in our programmatic offerings and we are strong in our collective voices. With experience and the expertise of collective impact on our side, we will rise to conquer any problem.

Kania, J. & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from collective_impact Turner, S., Merchant, K., Kania, J., & Martin, E. (2012).

Understanding the value of backbone organizations in collective impact, part 1. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from understanding_the_value_of_backbone_ organizations_in_collective_impact_1 Moody, F. (2015, July).

Teton transformations. Jackson Hole News & Guide. Retrieved from teton-transformations/article_5858a190-3210- 5631-90f0-4e46bc2dc314.html

Tom Holland is the American Camp Association's chief executive officer.

Photo courtesy of Colvig Silver Camps, Durango, Colorado.