Collective Impact: No Longer a Luxury

By Brendan Smith,  a Director and the Chief Operations Officer for Nation Builder  


How Nation Builder Collective Impact was formed   

In a unique move within the South African nonprofit sector, Nation Builder Collective Impact has emerged from two well-established initiatives: Nation Builder and Valcare.  Nation Builder was formed about 12 years ago out of the Mergon Foundation, while Valcare has been involved in social impact for over 20 years. Both organisations used similar approaches to  activate and enable social change in collaboration with social investors, nonprofits, and other key stakeholders in South Africa using the Collective Impact model.  Following a fourteen-month participatory stakeholder consultation process, it was decided that Nation Builder and Valcare join forces to enhance their work and offerings to their member organisations. Nation Builder Collective Impact, (trading as Nation Builder), is managed by the original Valcare operational team and is governed by a Board consisting of representatives of both organisations.  


Collective Impact  

The five components of the innovative collaborative approach called Collective Impact, which is at the core of Nation Builder’s work, are:  

  • A common agenda.  
  • Shared measurement systems.  
  • Mutually reinforcing activities.  
  • Continuous communication. 
  • A backbone support organisation.  


The term Collective Impact was first used in a Stanford University research study that identified a notable decline in funding for social initiatives by corporations, foundations, and philanthropists, because they were not seeing the transformative changes they desired. In response to the concerns highlighted in the report – lack of coordination and isolated interventions of individual organisations that led to limited success, disillusionment, and disinvestment – areas of high impact were investigated and reasons for success were explored. The researchers noticed that multiple organisations working together in a coordinated effort, facilitated by a central organisation that provided training, capacity building, and resilience support, achieved significant impact. Collective Impact is a powerful framework for tackling deeply entrenched and complex social issues. It is a structured approach that fosters collaboration across business, philanthropy, nonprofits and local communities to achieve lasting social change.  


Traditional funding vs Collective Impact 

Traditional funding models follow a short-term, project-based approach, emphasising immediate outcomes. They have limited operational support and funding is usually in the form of small grants. This hinders financial sustainability and long-term planning and growth. In this model, an unequal dynamic exists between the funder and the organisation, wherein the funder’s agendas or interests often take precedence over long-term impact.   

Collective Impact, on the other hand, offers a holistic approach with several key features. Long-term, sustainable social impact is the primary focus. It is collaborative. Multiple organisations work together, leveraging each other’s strengths to achieve more. This approach creates a platform for social investors and nonprofits to become equal partners in solving problems together. There is a focus on organisational development, capacity-, operations- and even wellness support.  

The social impact sector places significant demands on organisational leaders and staff, often resulting in burnout and various health issues – both mental and physical. If a leader of an organisation is physically or mentally absent, it affects not only them, but potentially hundreds if not thousands of beneficiaries. Therefore, the often-overlooked need for wellness support should be a key consideration for any social investor. 


Cultivating a thriving social sector 

It is Nation Builder’s mission to activate and enable national social change through a membership network of social investors and nonprofits.  We envision a resilient, thriving, and sustainable social sector where nonprofits and social investors co-create and co-labour to achieve lasting transformation. 

To achieve this vision, we focus on several key areas:   

  • We work with investors and nonprofits to create standardisation in impact measurement indicators and reporting guidelines to ensure consistency and transparency.  
  • We provide capacity support, including training, development and resources, business coaching, and mental health- and wellness support.  
  • We facilitate multiple collaborations on complex social issues, bringing hundreds of nonprofits and corporates together to solve complex problems on local and national levels. 


Organisational Development is the cornerstone of Collective Impact 

During one of our capacity-building sessions, one participant raised a common concern regarding staff development: : “What if we train them and they leave?” The facilitator’s response was poignant: “What happens if you don’t train them, and they stay?”  

Zooming out and applying this thinking to the social sector as a whole, one may ask what would happen if we don’t capacitate the social impact sector, and they stay? A well-equipped and collaborative social sector is vital for enduring impact in our country. It is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity. We simply cannot afford negative spirals of inefficiency and inability to make lasting change in the social sector. 

Over the past five years, Nation Builder has facilitated over 350 training sessions, collaboration events, and activations, engaging hundreds of nonprofits across South Africa. In addition, we conduct multiple site visits and develop individual and collective action plans to tackle complex challenges. (See the Text Box below for more information on Nation Builder’s initiative in the Cape Winelands District).   

Nation Builder connects hundreds of organisations across South Africa, fostering a collaborative ecosystem that empowers individuals and communities to thrive. Working with these support organisations in our network helps create to a multiplication effect.   


Tracking progress on four key indicators  

One of the ways we track our progress is by using a metric system that measures four key indicators of a member organisation: Collaboration; Leadership and Governance; Sustainability; and Monitoring and Evaluation. The results are highly encouraging – all participating organisations have demonstrated improvement in these categories, within the greatest advancements observed in Sustainability, and Leadership and Governance. These improvements translate into a more robust and impactful social sector where structure, process, strategy, and collaboration are fundamental to measured success and sustainability.   

Committed to the development of evidence-based future initiatives, we are also strengthening our existing partnership with Northwest University to do research in the form of a Case Study on the Collective Impact approach, in order to develop context specific evidence that can be actioned.  


The benefits of Collective Impact  

It is evident that Collective Impact plays a pivotal role in strengthening the philanthropic ecosystem. It increases efficiency and effectiveness.  Through collaboration, it also:  

  • Eliminates duplication of efforts and ensures that limited resources are directed towards shared goals.  
  • Fosters sustainable and long-term change as investors invest in the sector as a whole rather than individual efforts.  
  • Promotes shared learning and innovation, where both investors and nonprofits learn from each other’s successes and failures, leading to more effective solutions to social problems.  


The Stanford Report makes a powerful conclusion regarding Collective Impact and philanthropy. “This requires a fundamental change in how funders see their role, from funding organisations to leading a long-term process of social change. It is no longer enough to fund an innovative solution created by a single nonprofit, or to build that organisation’s capacity. Instead, funders must help create and sustain the collective processes, measurement reporting systems, and community leadership that enable cross-sector coalitions to arise and thrive.” 

We often encounter a lack of understanding about this approach. However, as we navigate the complexities of social issues, Collective Impact is becoming increasingly accepted as a beacon of hope guiding us towards a future where collaboration, innovation, and shared purpose drive enduring social change.   

A collaborative ecosystem in action in the Cape Winelands District

The work that Valcare has been doing in the Cape Winelands District is just one example of initiatives that will continue under Nation Builder Collective Impact. Implementing Collective Impact is not easy – however, while it requires significant effort and investment, the results are undeniable. In the Cape Winelands District, we collaborate with over 300 organisations across various sectors. Seventy-six percent of these organisations report building solid relationships and collaborations with each other. This intricate network creates over 80,000 touchpoints, ensuring that approximately 20,000 beneficiaries receive multifaceted support.

What does this multifaceted support look like? Imagine Thandi, an 11-year-old girl whose father is in prison and her mother is unemployed. Through Collective Impact, Thandi receives after-school care at a local organisation centre and nutritious meals from a partnering organisation. Part of her aftercare is linked to a nearby sports centre where she plays soccer and learns life skills. At that same centre, another organisation helps her deal with trauma through play therapy. Her mother is enrolled in a job readiness programme at the same centre, and there she learns about yet another organisation that can help Thandi’s father reintegrate into society upon release from prison. This exemplifies the power of Collective Impact. The availability of support systems to assist Thandi and her family in every part and stage of their lives.


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