Collective Impact and the Five North Stars: A Roadmap for Systems Change

As nonprofits work to define and realize their missions, they are continually challenged to balance their day-to-day work supporting individuals while also working to both understand and achieve visions of transformation and excellence. Overwhelming demand for services minimizes the time and intellectual resources of agencies to express the future of the organization and that of nonprofits in general. While executive directors understand the need for systems change, the pressures of operations make shifting the focus of their organizations nearly impossible. 

Because time is at such a premium, effective leaders should work to identify frameworks and research to not only identify the structure of the systems change but the processes for achieving it. Put more simply, they might ask, “what does the research say we should do and how can we get there?”  The answers come from two important sets of research: the Collective Impact Framework and the Five North Star Initiatives.

Five Elements of Collective Impact

The Collective Impact method is grounded in the belief that, “no single policy, government department, organization or program can tackle or solve the increasingly complex social problems we face as a society” (Collaboration for Impact). Its roots lie in the 2011 seminal work of John Kania and Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The Collective Impact framework is based on five key elements: Common Agenda, Common Progress Measures, Mutually Reinforcing Activities, Communications and the concept of the Backbone Organization to pull these all together. As a Tamarack Institute-trained Collective Impact facilitator, I have had the pleasure to bring these vital concepts to social service agency representatives from across the country.

While this outlines what systems need to be in place, the challenge becomes the obstacles impeding progress. For a thorough look at these challenges and for the call to action to overcome them, we can shift the discussion to another vital organization.

Alliance for Strong Families and Communities

In early 2018, the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities published a report entitled, A National Imperative: Joining Forces to Strengthen Human Services in America, commissioned, “because of a growing concern about the financial health of community-based organizations (CBOs).” The report sweeps broadly and drives deeply into this matter, but did not stop at describing its detail. The effort details the simple yet sophisticated “Five North Star Initiatives” designed to put CBOs on the path of financial stability. These initiatives are: Commitment to Outcomes, Capacity for Innovation, Strategic Partnerships, New Financial Strategies and Regulatory Modernization.


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Notice that besides the common number of “five” across these frameworks, these “elements” and “initiatives” are both very simply stated and have a no-nonsense approach. To get people to not only agree, but to also “buy in” (fund, grant, support, finance, endow, donate, bequeath, give, etc., etc.) they need to understand the “why.” And in today’s life, time is our most precious commodity. As nonprofits continue to invest in their communities and human capital, and compete for the resources that allow them to pursue their missions, they must remember to continually extract complexity from them.

The recommendations of the Collective Impact Framework and the Alliance’s Five North Star Initiatives, when combined, serve as a roadmap for systems change. This roadmap not only transforms internal operations, but also informs what funders and policy makers need to do to support CBOs. The Alliance meticulously details what is needed to achieve both micro and macro financial stability, and how nonprofits can act both individually and at a national level to get there. Several months ago I was able to attend a keynote by Susan Dreyfus, President and CEO of the Alliance, who expressed a deep belief in the Five North Stars, and the power of the social sector to be influencers of larger systemic change.

In October, I will be at the 2018 Alliance National Conference in Denver. If you are attending, be sure to attend the Solutions Showcase where I will present on “Collective Impact and Technology: What’s Needed for Individuals & Organizations to Achieve Common Goals.”  Please connect with me and we can further discuss any of these topics. I will also be free to assess your organization’s use of technology in the pursuit of case management and/or long-range strategy.

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Eric Vance

Eric Vance

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