Collective impact practice: interview with Marc Pfitzer from FSG

On the occasion of our collective impact practice the i-propeller team talked to Marc Pfitzer about the collective impact method and why it is so valuable. FSG is about to publish a report on its impact and learnings so far, so keep an eye out for this too.

Linde Wolters, i-propeller (L.W.): What is collective impact? What is it about?

Mark Pfitzer, FSG (M.P.): Collective impact is the only way to address complex societal problems. It recognizes that complex problems are systemic and that the only way to improve the failures of a system is to engage the system’s actors themselves in changing how the entire system operates.

L.W.: Where does it come from? How did you come up with this system’s approach?

M.P.: Our mission at FSG is to uncover practices that lead to extraordinary changes. In 2009, we took a pause and asked ourselves which of our work we felt excited and proud about. We also wondered why we felt they were potentially creating change on a different scale. Those projects had a pattern that we picked up as collective impact.

I was working at the time with WWF. It had grown into 60 different organizations with their own boards and source of funds and focusing on the local conservation issues. The organization was siloed and was unable to actually have the scale or ability to work on those issues across countries. The leader at the time recognized that we needed to create network initiatives (…) to address these cross cutting winks and think of them as cross cutting systems.

This is when my team and stumbled upon Strive, an initiative by th US city of Cincinnati of 300 organizations trying to reform the cities educational system all working on the same agenda. So we studied Strive. This is where we came up with the five principles of collective impact[1]. This is also when we picked up a distinction between simple, complicated and complex problems.

L.W.: What is that distinction about?

M.P.: It depends on the boundaries around which you put the problem. Take malaria for example: treating malaria is a simple problem, developing a new malaria drug is a complicated problem and eradicating malaria is a complex problem. If you want to address a complex problem, the only way is collective impact.

L.W.: What is the difference between collective impact and shared value?

M.P.: They’re completely different. Shared value is the notion that addressing societal problem is a source of competitive advantage for companies. Collective impact is about the recognition that the only way to solve a complex problem is through system’s changing. But it turns out that if you develop a product or service in a company that is meant to create shared value, you probably need to change the system as well in order for that innovation to scale. The problem is: companies are not legitimate to change systems.


L.W.: What is really innovative about collective impact?

M.P.: It’s fully embracing the breakdowns of silos, really fully. I think that’s the essence of it and that you accept that what emerges from a group of well intentioned people may determine where you are going to focus on in the future rather than a group of people knowing from the outset what they are going to need to focus on.

L.W..: I guess that if I ask you for what you could best use collective impact you’re going to answer “to solve complex problems” right ?

M.P.: You are right. A complex problem, a fragmented system that’s not talking to each other, that’s in silos and where the problem is recognized as being significant. One of the biggest challenge many face is sustaining the momentum and energy for the ten years or whatever it takes to achieve change.

L.W.: Is there a sector where it is used more than in others?

M.P.: It is used more for national/domestic/municipal level issues for now. What we see is a lot of great initiatives but they’re not connected to each other. This is where the cascading levels could be more interesting moving forward. Right now we’re in a world where people are replicating. But there is a lot of value saying “All these cities/countries should be connected to the same network of solution providers and experts, here’s the global common agenda and here’s how we do shared measurements”. It would provide a framework and resources for these cities/countries to leverage much more effectively than each of them reinventing the wheel.

L.W.: Looking at your experience and through the lens of collective impact, if you look at a problem such as climate change and the way the governments are trying to tackle this in bringing in industries, do you tell yourself “I can spot from a mile away it’s not going to work” ?

M.P.: Climate change breaks down into 25 different issues. But let’s say you take a subset of the climate change problem, de-carbonization of the transport industry for example, then you might have a chance to do collective impact. If you get all manufacturers and truck builders to change their standards, then it creates pressure in an entire political system to create a policy change. But what it doesn’t do is get the companies/governments/other actors to think about what the future system will look like. Another problem is that the sub-issues will be determined by who feels the pain together. And maybe there’s a problem with the whole system but if only a portion of the system feels the pain then it starts there.


L.W.: Do you have any success stories or failure stories to share with us?

M.P.: Sure, I can tell you about some traps in which we fell. We were trying to do systems change in the coco sector: end poverty in coco and bring it back into environmental sustainable practices. Anyway, we fell into our first trap there: we excluded governments for expediency sake. Turns out the lack of true engagement of government undermined the potential of the rest. I call it the exclusionary trap and it goes back to silos, mindsets, legacies and mistrusts.

The other trap is to not anticipate the value of change of the future system to all the system actors. Who would gain and how much would they gain from such a change ? That information is powerful to mobilize and sustain action because you are shooting towards the prize as opposed to tracking progress. This anticipation is vastly undermined and under exploited and this is the second thing we haven’t done enough of and for which I see a huge potential.