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Collective Impact at United Way of San Diego County

[Editor’s Note:  For the first in an occasional series on Philanthropy Insights, we invited Kevin Crawford to be a guest author.  Mr. Crawford, President & CEO of United Way of San Diego County and a new director at the RSF Foundation, discusses United Way and local “collective impact” efforts.]

United Way and Collective Impact

My goal when taking the helm of United Way of San Diego County nearly one year ago was to identify the value-add of the organization. I wanted to know how our organization could not only make a greater impact addressing needs in San Diego, but even make some of those needs go away.

We found the value-add in the concept of collective impact. We believe that when organizations are addressing a social ill, this social ill should also be decreased community-wide. We need to ask: “Are we making the problem go away, or at least moving the needle?”

For example, instead of five partners separately trying to help San Diego children, all of these organizations can agree on a collective goal and share their talents and resources to improve the lives of local kids and their families, and then track the progress. This is collective impact.

What is Collective Impact?

Collective impact is a cross-sector approach that unifies experts from multiple organizations in the community for a common agenda to address a complex social problem. These experts agree to a set of goals that will be measured in the same way by all organizations involved. We work with nonprofits, business and community leaders, city and county governments, schools and parents to ensure every child is surrounded by the tools they need to succeed in life. The concept was first introduced in a 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

United Way has officially been a collective impact organization for nearly a year, although we have been involved in efforts using this framework for several years. We won’t make an investment to solve a social problem unless it is using a collective impact approach. United Way of San Diego County is one of several United Ways across the nation that are using the collective impact model.

One local example is Project 25, which was a huge milestone for local homelessness. United Way brought together numerous entities around the same table to help San Diego’s most chronically homeless – who use a lot of public resources and money. The idea was to provide them permanent supportive housing, so they could have a home and the support they needed to stay there.

The county provided the wrap-around services; the city helped with the housing; St. Vincent de Paul Village managed the program; and we worked together with the hospitals, police and other public resources to track progress. Project 25 has housed 35 people and saved San Diego $4.5 million so far!

Investing in Collective Impact

With collective impact we are directing investment dollars toward holistic solutions to social problems. At United Way of San Diego County, we have a new perspective on those who financially contribute to solving social problems – we see them as investors in our community, rather than simply donors. Traditional models don’t provide the structure for coordination and communication and may lead to overlap or gaps in services. Collective impact allows our investors to be more strategic about their charitable giving.

We want to encourage contributors to invest in cross-sector networks of effective coordination, collaboration and evaluation that have the greatest potential to make significant impact on the causes they care about rather than giving to a single organization that might operate in a silo.

By aligning our agenda with like-minded organizations, we can collectively create the most focused, positive impact.