Field Notes: Collective Impact and Homelessness

written by Norm Suchar
January 15, 2014

More homeless assistance funders and community leaders are looking at the Collective Impact approach as a framework for their efforts to prevent and end homelessness. I’ll discuss how communities are using this approach in a moment, but first here’s a quick summary of five conditions of collective success, which I’m quoting here from the article, “Collective Impact” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

“Common Agenda Collective impact requires all participants to have a shared vision for change, one that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions…

“Shared Measurement Systems …Collecting data and measuring results consistently on a short list of indicators at the community level and across all participating organizations not only ensures that all efforts remain aligned, it also enables the participants to hold each other accountable and learn from each other’s successes and failures…

“Mutually Reinforcing Activities Collective impact initiatives depend on a diverse group of stakeholders working together, not by requiring that all participants do the same thing, but by encouraging each participant to undertake the specific set of activities at which it excels in a way that supports and is coordinated with the actions of others…

“Continuous Communication Developing trust among [nonprofits, corporations, and government agencies] need several years of regular meetings to build up enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts…

“Backbone Support Organizations Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization and staff with a very specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative…”

How could a community use such an approach to end homelessness? Based on our work with many communities around the country, here are some suggestions for adopting a collective impact approach.  

Identify a backbone organization
In communities with an effective homeless assistance system, there is an easily identifiable organization or agency that plans, oversees, and coordinates homeless assistance across the community. A backbone organization will be much more effective if it has control or at least influence over a significant share of homeless assistance funding. Our upcoming conference will have a session devoted to the role of backbone organizations in achieving collective impact.

Develop shared goals and outcomes
Shared goals and outcomes should drive decision-making in a community. They should inform everything from the Continuum of Care (CoC) project ranking process to the content of job descriptions. My colleague Kim did a nice blog post recently about developing a vision for homeless assistance.

Invest in system planning
The work of creating, organizing, and overseeing a homeless assistance system requires dedicated staff and resources.

Invest in data
Some of the most common disagreements in a community—How much should be invested in emergency shelter? Is rapid re-housing working? Who is underserved?—can be answered with data. Unfortunately, many communities either do not trust their data because of data quality problems, or do not have the capacity to analyze their data. Investing in data and analysis is often difficult because there are other pressing needs, but it is essential for making progress.

Change funding and accountability
The most direct and effective way to create system change is by ensuring that funders, including government agencies, foundations, and large private funders, agree on a common funding strategy that accomplishes the following:

  • Funds only programs and activities that are consistent with the design of the new system and its shared goals and outcomes;
  • Invests in system infrastructure, including data and system planning; and
  • Aligns outcome measures, eligible activities, eligible populations, and reporting requirements with the community’s shared goals and outcomes and with other funding sources.