The power of collective impact

As Director of Community Impact for United Way of Lancaster County I have enthusiastically embraced the collective impact framework and challenged our Community Impact Partners to think systemically. Last May, I was given the opportunity to attend a three-day intensive Collective Impact Summit hosted by Tamarak Institute in Kitchner, Ontario, Canada.

Tamarak, founded in 2002, was built upon the idea that “all change, even very large and powerful change, starts from very small conversations held among people who care.” With this mindset at their core, Tamarak quickly become the world leader of Collective Impact, establishing one of the more prolific learning centers for research, best-practices, and effective application for community change in North America. To say I was thrilled to learn best-practices from such a renowned institution was an understatement!

When I arrived, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of individuals from around the world who shared my passion for positive, impactful, systemic change. Some participants came from as far away as Australia and England! Collectively, we shared the belief that when we are effective in strengthening community capacity to engage citizens, lead collaboratively, deepen our sense of community and innovate in place, our work contributes to the building of peace and a more equitable society.

I came away with so many lessons from my three-day retreat, it’s hard to pick my favorite topic – was it learning about influencing policy change? Or how to better build sustainability? Or, maybe it was measuring impact through stories?

While I may not be able to pick my favorite topic, I can tell you about my favorite presenter: Mark Cabaj. I heard Mark speak on the first day. He spoke with laser-sharp wit and knowledge about the evolution of Collective Impact and the need for “continual evolution in the Collective Impact revolution”. From the first moment Mark spoke, I was HOOKED. His ability to take complex issues and break them down into manageable, but impactful steps, seemed effortless. Mark described the work of the backbone (my role at United Way) in such a beautiful way, I still have the quote on my desk:

[As the backbone organization] we see our role in your learning journey kind of like a lighthouse – we scan the field for new ideas, we shine a light on powerful stories, and we help you navigate through your unknowns. The complex nature of community change means that a lot of our work takes place in environments that are unchartered.

Over the course of the three-day retreat, I attended every single workshop which was led by Mark. I spoke to him about the thrilling work happening in Lancaster County, and over tea and poutine (a Canadian specialty), we discussed ways to further move the needle on complex issues, not just for 10 or 100 families in Lancaster…but for EVERYONE. I left feeling invigorated and armed with tools that would not only serve the work being done at United Way of Lancaster County, but could be shared for the betterment of all our Collective Impact Partners across the county.

When the time came to begin discussing the next Collective Impact Summit for Lancaster County, I advocated for Mark Cabaj to be our keynote speaker. It only took a single phone call with Mark before the entire Community Impact department at United Way was singing his praises and ready to bring him to town.

I am so pleased Mark will be the keynote presenter at United Way’s Collective Impact Summit on September 13th. If I could learn so much from a few hours with Mark, what kind of knowledge and passion would he inspire when he spoke to 100+ individuals from all over Lancaster County over the course of an entire day?! I hope you all will join me in learning with Mark – and each other – at the Collective Impact Summit. See you on September 13!

Join us on Wednesday, September 13 for the second annual Collective Impact Summit. Register online:


Story Submitted by:

Ashley Brown
Community Impact Director
United Way of Lancaster County