Part one of a two-part series on collective impact.

Eight years ago, USA Today labeled Tacoma, Washington a “dropout factory” with only 55 percent of its students graduating from high school and even larger gaps among low-income students and students of color. Today, 86 percent of Tacoma students graduate from high school with gaps narrowing, or entirely erased. In 2016, 92 percent of black students in Tacoma graduated from high school, three percentage points higher than their white peers, according to Graduate Tacoma.

This is what is possible when communities commit to a shared vision and work together to change practices and systems to achieve it.

Tacoma is a community within the StriveTogether network, a national movement of 70 communities working to get better results for more than 10.4 million children. StriveTogether’s vision is that every child receives the necessary support to succeed from infancy through adulthood. Today, we know that this is not the case in every community across the country. Approximately 2 out of 3 fourth graders in the U.S. failed to score proficiently in reading in 2015, and a child who can’t read at grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate from high school.  If that same child lives in poverty, he or she is 13 times less likely to graduate.

While the families or the children themselves are often blamed, the real problem lies within the systems meant to serve them. For example, although 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5, 90 percent of public education spending occurs after age 6. Likewise, black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school as a result of disproportionate discipline. Because of discriminatory housing policies and inequitable school funding structures, a child’s zip code is too often the determinant of his or her success. These are just a few examples of systems failures.

Recognition is growing that isolated efforts to fix complex social problems don’t get results. But collaboration itself is not enough to achieve true “collective impact.” StriveTogether’s brand of “quality collective impact” is about changing and redesigning these systems to get better, more equitable outcomes and achieve population-level impact.


What is Quality Collective Impact?

StriveTogether communities approach changing systems by using a proven methodology, our Theory of Action. Our collective impact framework, built hand-in-glove with local communities, guides community progress through four core principles and a continuum of quality benchmarks. Each of the 70 members participate in an annual assessment process to document their progress and results.

Our community partnerships have the incredibly difficult challenge of changing adult behavior and long-held structures of power to get better results for every child. The Theory of Action and StriveTogether’s resources and supports, such as Results Count leadership development and collaborative continuous improvement, are critical for helping leaders move from talking about change to acting upon it.

At StriveTogether, this is what distinguishes “quality” collective impact. Simply bringing sectors or stakeholders together is not enough to ensure every child is able to reach his or her potential. Quality collective impact requires shifts – in mindsets and actions – that are guided by data and a commitment to community-level results rather than individual or organizational goals. It also requires a realignment of resources – both human and financial. When a community is able to identify and rally around a north star, use data to understand and act on strategies to improve outcomes in real-time, and shift funding policy and funding streams, real change is possible.

This framework for quality collective impact is in service of one primary result: Getting better and more equitable outcomes for every child, from cradle to career. Communities that ultimately change systems are working to eliminate disparity gaps in outcomes and rebuild systems to reduce structural racism and inequality. The Cradle to Career Network believes that equity matters. Current systems are built to perpetuate inequities in the lives of students of color and students experiencing poverty. Equity is at the heart of our work.

Collective impact has prominently joined the social sector vernacular in the last five years and could fall victim to widespread exposure with little impact, but across the country, StriveTogether is seeing real-life results.

We share four of those bright spots in part two of this series.