Posted Wednesday, September 10, 2014 at 6:35 pm

By Jeff Edmondson and Ben Hecht

After three years of hype, Collective Impact seems to be going through some growing pains. In some cases, it looks similar to traditional collaboration efforts, which confuses investors and practitioners on how to put collective impact into action.

But for us, there is no “Plan B”. Communities need to embrace quality collective impact to build the civic infrastructure required to move the needle on the biggest challenges we face—from education, to workforce development, to health. They need to gather cross-sector partners in identifying and building on what already works in supporting community needs.

Through the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network, committed communities have implemented collective impact to make instrumental change for kids and are starting to see sustained improvement in a common set of measurable outcomes. These communities have shared their successes and struggles to advance the collective impact field.

In our recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, we discuss four principles that underlie the StriveTogether Theory of Action (TOA), which provides a guide for communities to build civic infrastructure. The TOA’s quality benchmarks differentiate this work from traditional collaboration and lead to long-term sustainability. Here are some examples of communities implementing these principles.

Build a Culture of Continuous Improvement

The Commit! Partnership in Dallas County, Texas, builds a culture of continuous improvement throughout their work, which is spreading to partner school districts, non-profit organizations, and individual principals and teachers. By charting and analyzing local data, Commit! has created “hope charts” to help identify bright spots and practices leading to improved outcomes.

The data has already helped improve third-grade literacy. Specifically, the hope charts showed that students’ overall reading scores often correlated with access to a leveled library. It became clear that schools with these libraries had higher reading scores than those without.

With the data, Commit! partnered with a local district to leverage existing resources to provide libraries in all participating schools. They continue to use data to provide additional literacy instructional supports, including a reading academy to extend professional development for early grade teachers.

Eliminate Disparities

For All Hands Raised, in the Portland, Oregon, area, closing the opportunity gap is priority number one.

Through disaggregating data, the partnership saw disparities in graduation rates between white students and students of color. Through strong leadership throughout the school district and partnership, organizations throughout the community are challenging themselves to do more and expect more, changing internal policies, investing in effective programs and organizing courageous conversations to discuss the causes of pervasive achievement gaps.

Over the past three years, the graduation gap for students of color has closed from 14.3 percent to 9.5 percent. In several large high schools, the gap is gone

Leverage Existing Assets

Through the Theory of Action, communities use existing assets by applying a new focus on what is working, rather than creating more new programs. Milwaukee Succeeds has leveraged its local college resources in a tutoring initiative. The partnership connected a local charter school with a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater education professor, who looked at the school’s data to pinpoint areas of need for early-grade literacy.

The professor designed a tutoring program around her findings and bussed 25 college students to work with charter school students. Now, the program has grown to more than 50 college Marquette University students who tutor multiple times a week.

Engage Local Expertise and Community Voice

City Heights Partnership for Children in San Diego actively engages parents in readying their children for school. With a Literacy Toolkit, parents and children are provided daily activities in preparation for kindergarten. Through the help of local literacy organizations, parent liaisons (Parent Promotoras) and other partners, such as Teach for America, toolkits help kids gain the basic literacy skills needed for kindergarten.

To ensure collective impact leads to real, long-lasting improvements for students throughout the country, we need to draw on lessons from other communities while adding a high level of quality to the work. We must push ourselves to meet higher standards to make a difference for the kids we serve.  We are excited that there are over 40 additional communities in the national StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network working to model these principles every day. And, we know that by learning from the work of these communities, practitioners can tackle other complex problems and not only prove the power of this work, but also improve lives in ways we never could have imagined.

To learn more on this topic, see the article Defining Quality Collective Impact or join the Oct. 8 webinar Communities Defining Quality Collective Impact.