Insights from MFAN’s Approach

Navigating Collective Impact Evaluation

May 20, 2024

In the realm of meaningful social change for military families, collaboration is key. Yet, navigating the complexities of collaboration requires more than just good intentions—it requires a strategic and informed approach. Importantly, how do we determine, or measure, the success of collaborations? At MFAN, our Insights team has been at the forefront of efforts to build expertise in collective impact evaluation. 


Internally, we evaluate our own collective efforts such as our Advisory Board, Military Family Financial Readiness Coalition (MFFRC), and Military Housing Roundtable (MHR). Externally, we help lead the evaluation efforts of the Hidden Helpers Coalition, a group of nearly 100 organizations working to build awareness and strengthen support for the children of wounded, ill, or injured service members who step into caregiving roles at home.


MFAN’s subject matter expertise in program evaluation has allowed us to successfully assess impact across both large and small scale initiatives, bolstering effectiveness for our own programs and those of our peers.


understanding collective impact

Central to our evaluation efforts is a deep understanding of the collective impact framework. Collective impact initiatives address complex social issues (many faced by military families) that require a variety of players and organizations to solve. Authors John Kania and Mark Kramer coined the term “collective impact” in a seminal paper published in 2011 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. While the concept of collaboration is not new, the authors identified requisite factors associated with successful collaborations focused on large-scale social change, rather than the “isolated impact” of individual organizations.


Collective impact is not just a new way of collaborating; it is a structured approach to problem-solving that includes five core conditions:


  • Common agenda
  • Shared measurement systems
  • Mutually reinforcing activities
  • Continuous communication
  • Backbone organization

When MFAN’s insights team started internal collective impact evaluations, we quickly realized the importance of learning from others and building our expertise in this area. MFAN is continuously seeking opportunities to learn and openly share information and observations with other practitioners working in this space. 


What we have learned has not only transformed our internal approach to evaluation but has led us to be skilled experts in collective impact evaluation. In addition to hosting trainings, we have organized workshops at national conferences sharing insights gained from our use of the Theory of Change framework as both a communication tool and a method for launching collective impact evaluations. This framework helps us clearly define and understand how coalition members’ actions and strategies impact short, medium, and long-term outcomes. This process has helped many organizations address the essential conditions needed for collective impact, including agreement about a common agenda, effective measurement systems, and clearly defined activities or strategies that support one another 


Evaluation tools can bring clarity and simplicity to complexity. When organizations come together for the first time, they need an entry point to understand how their diverse organizations align. At MFAN, we see evaluation as the ideal framework for the cross-agency communication that collective impact requires. People want to know their time and effort is making a difference.


Crafting a one-size-fits-all evaluation model for diverse stakeholders and sectors is challenging. We are proud of the ability to tailor the evaluation strategy to fit the context of each collaboration. For example, with our internal collaborations, MFAN tracks outcomes quarterly. With the Hidden Helpers Coalition, we conduct annual outcome tracking surveys. The results across both efforts are communicated and used to understand not only how the coalition is working, but what difference it is making.  


In order for a collective impact initiatives to be successful, we need to understand that collective impact is not a solution, but rather a process. As leaders in both research and program evaluation, MFAN is dedicated to driving positive change through informed collective action. We know that through continuous learning and collaboration, military families will reap the benefits.

About the Author

Kate Clavijo, Ed.D.

Associate Director of Program Evaluation
Kate Clavijo has more than 20 years of experience conducting evaluation and applied research, in a variety of areas: education, housing, homel…
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