Collective Impact and Opportunity Youth: Movements at the Crossroads

Advocates for young people must often choose which issues and strategies to champion at which time, and find ourselves competing for resources and attention. Rarely do we have the opportunity to combine approaches that could fundamentally change how decision makers think about policy, practice and human potential.

That’s why what’s happening now is so notable.

The past few years have brought a renewal and reframing of two powerful American ideas: collective action and individual success. Now these ideas are coming together at the intersection of “collective impact” and “opportunity youth.” 

“Collective impact” is a new term for an idea that has building in communities across the country for years. It holds that demonstrably improving complex problems requires deep collaboration among many sectors and players – real collaboration that requires the disciplined development of specific conditions and standards to monitor progress. “Opportunity youth” is the new name for young people disconnected from school, work and community – and the phrase behind a movement that says reconnecting them is critical not only to their personal success, but to the social and economic health of communities.

Leaders who have been tackling the opportunity youth challenge got a shot in the arm last year when the White House Council on Community Solutions – a collaboration of boldface names in business, philanthropy, entertainment and government – chose to focus on this population of young people. Now the Aspen Institute has announced the council’s nongovernmental successor, the Aspen Forum on Community Solutions. Like the council, the Aspen Forum is charged with applying collective action to improve the odds for America’s 6.7 million opportunity youth.

To get started, Aspen convened pioneers in youth development and collective impact to ask a critical question: How do these two movements connect? The answer will determine how well we move the needle on both.

The Connection
Collective impact is a set of standards and strategies for action that can be applied to any goal. The collective impact movement has resonated among those interested in building partnerships to improve college and career success. Reconnecting opportunity youth is a population-focused goal; it needs to couple precise goals with precise strategies. 

The intersection between collective impact strategies and opportunity youth goals provides us with a rare opportunity to test the theories and components of collective impact under formidable conditions. For opportunity youth, this just might be the most effective approach.

We all know that the child and youth field is notoriously fragmented, with accountability, resources and data split across more than a dozen public systems. This fragmentation is particularly acute in services and supports for older and opportunity youth.

Let’s use the Ready by 21 Insulated Education Pipeline to illustrate this problem. Ready by 21 says the traditional cradle-to-career pipeline needs insulating layers of social and civic development opportunities, along with prevention, protection and treatment supports. Below the pipeline I’ve added three broad age slices, from early childhood to adulthood.


As we move along the age continuum toward adulthood, the fragmentation of services and supports increases. In the early childhood arena, linkages between family and formal child care providers, between pre-K and elementary school educators, and between health, social services and education systems have become the expectation.  So has the coordination of policy and advocacy efforts. 

For older youth there have been no such expectations and, until recently, no pressure for systems to work together on a shared agenda.  The coalitions, programs and policies designed to address segments of the opportunity youth population are as diverse as the reasons behind their disconnection.

Implementing collective impact strategies shines a spotlight on this need. Fulfilling that need is particularly challenging, as the lack of coordination across systems and within communities is more severe for opportunity youth than for any others. Those youth are also the most likely to have been involved with tertiary services, such as child welfare, social services, welfare, juvenile justice and public housing.

For a compelling and insightful exploration of the many forces that hold down poor and disconnected youth, see this New York Times article on the Chicago neighborhood where President Obama cut his community organizing teeth. It highlights the comprehensiveness and humanity of efforts of the Youth Advocate Programs in Chicago to guide those youths to success.

You can see why it’s hard to imagine a tougher road test for the five necessary steps of collective action, as defined by John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG. (See their article on collective impact here.):

Common Agenda – All participants have a shared vision for change including a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.

Shared Measurement – Collecting data and measuring results consistently across all participants ensures efforts remain aligned and participants hold each other accountable.

Mutually Reinforcing Activities – Participant activities must be differentiated while still being coordinated through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.

Continuous Communication – Consistent and open communication is needed across the many players to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation.

Backbone Support – Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization(s) with staff and a specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative and coordinate participating organizations and agencies.

The need to move young people through a series of supports to connect them to education, work and community makes it impossible to coast through any of these checkpoints. We all – including the Forum for Youth Investment and its Ready by 21 partners – need to help this road test succeed.