It seems that “Collective Impact” is all the latest buzz in philanthropy but some folks are using it when they really mean “Sustainability”. Here is a short outline of my thoughts on the differences and interaction between the concepts of sustainability and collective impact for funders. What do you think?
Collective Impact is a grant making framework for social and community change which includes multiple funders and agencies who develop a common agenda, a shared measurement system, standardized and frequent communications, mutually reinforcing group activities that support success, and the coordination and leadership of a respected backbone organization.
Sustainability is a concept most frequently used to describe long term capacity development at the individual organizational unit, less frequently at the programmatic level and almost never in a larger collective. It is the financial and operational capacity of a nonprofit organization to endure challenges, control, and grow its source streams into durable, long term maintenance of well being or continuous functionality across several dimensions (ie financial, governance, executive leadership, core staff, distributed stakeholders, brand recognition, etc.).
The two concepts have some interaction at the margins of maturity. As a collective project ages and takes on scale, habitual practices and staff, sustainability (beyond reliance on the original core partners) takes a more prominent role. In my experience, however, they are often simply passing ships in the night; never touching. Collective programs tend to fall apart before they can enjoy the benefits of a mature sustaining capacity even if they function as a successful effort for several years.