Abraham, 12, and his dog, Delta, pose for a photo during Artpace's Chalk it Up 2015. (Photo: Josh Huskin)
Abraham, 12, and his dog, Delta, pose for a photo during Artpace's Chalk it Up 2015. (Photo: Josh Huskin)

Nonprofit organizations typically aim to achieve positive, lasting change, but no single organization can assume the responsibility for tackling any major social issue. Many philanthropic organizations have adopted an innovative and structured approach by collaborating with strategic partners in order to address an identified social problem.

Collective impact, first described in the 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review, provides a framework for addressing and solving deeply ingrained and complex social problems in order to power significant, lasting change in communities.

More and more organizations around the world are adopting the collective impact approach which uses a structured form of collaboration to tie together the commitments of stakeholders from government, business, philanthropy, and nonprofit organizations as well as engaged citizens to achieve a common agenda for social problem-solving.

The San Antonio Area Foundation is a homegrown example of an organization that embraces collective impact in its dedicated focus on working toward effective and enduring social change, and the Area Foundation is not alone.

In 2013, SA2020 adopted the collective impact model as its organizing framework. A number of coalitions working on key SA2020 indicators followed suit: the Mayor’s Fitness Council uses it to combat obesity, the Diplomás Latino Student Success initiative to improve Latino college graduation rates, and the P16Plus Council of Greater Bexar County employs collective impact to drive student achievement in San Antonio.

Initiatives must meet five conditions in order to be considered collective impact:

  • There must be a common goal or agenda;
  • There must to be a shared system to measure progress;
  • Activities must be mutual, meaning stakeholders across sectors must coordinate activities;
  • Communication should be continuous; and
  • There should be a ‘backbone’ organization, with provides ongoing support through an independent staff dedicated to the initiative.

So, how is the San Antonio Area Foundation adopting collective impact and navigating collaboration across different sectors in the city in order to achieve common goals?

For an initiative to be considered collective impact, it must meet five conditions. Image courtesy United Way of Northern California.
For an initiative to be considered collective impact, it must meet five conditions. Graphic courtesy United Way of Northern California.

It Started with the Animal No-Kill Initiative

Before collective impact became known as such in 2011, the Area Foundation entered into its first collaborative partnership with the City of San Antonio’s Animal Care Services and other animal welfare organizations in 2007 to launch the Animal No-Kill Initiative. This was the first time the Area Foundation had expanded its reach across sectors and worked with the City to find a sustainable solution for the pervasive issue of stray animals in San Antonio.

In 1986, Estelle Tuna established the Aid to Helpless Animals Trust at the Area Foundation in order to end cruelty toward animals and provide support for medical, food, and shelter services. Her fund supported agency programs that addressed crisis care for animals, responsible pet ownership, and better quality of life for animals.

Once the Area Foundation’s board of directors had identified common issues and goals between the City’s Animal Care Services and Tuna’s trust, it began to serve as collaborative leader for this effort. The Area Foundation convened a cross-section of community leaders – the Animal No Kill Consortium of Partners – to provide guidance, leadership, and oversight for the no-kill effort. In 2007, then-Mayor Phil Hardberger announced the strategic initiative to make San Antonio a no-kill community by 2012.

In 2006, the live release rate for animals in shelters was 11%. By January 2016 Animal Care Services announced that they had reached the milestone of a 90% live release rate for all animals brought to the shelter.

Susan Steves Thompson, the Area Foundation’s vice president for grants, programs, and services, cited this work as an example of how the collective impact model’s proactive and prescriptive approach can alleviate an issue in the community.

“With the success of the Animal No-Kill initiative, we felt we had a reproducible framework for tackling other issues,” Kate Edwards, director of communications and marketing, explained.

The Move to Strategic Funding

By 2010 the Area Foundation moved from responsive, ‘transactional grant funding’ to a more strategic approach. Consultants from FSG, the nonprofit that coined the term “collective impact” in its 2011 article, examined how the Area Foundation could impact high school graduation rates by focusing on how middle schoolers utilize their time when they’re not in school. They also recommended that the Area Foundation help strengthen local nonprofits by providing training and support in critical core areas.

The San Antonio Area Foundation has multiple grant opportunities available throughout the year. Image courtesy of the San Antonio Area Foundation.
The San Antonio Area Foundation has multiple grant opportunities available throughout the year. Image courtesy of the San Antonio Area Foundation.

After six months of discussions with corporations, as well as civic, nonprofit, and philanthropic leaders, the Area Foundation board decided to dedicate a large portion of its discretionary funds to two specific areas of impact: strengthening local nonprofit organizations so they can become more efficient and helping high schools improve their graduation rates.

These two strategic initiatives became Strengthening Nonprofits and High School Completion, marking the Area Foundation’s transition to a becoming a local leader in tackling complex social issues and championing collaboration as the way to solve social problems.

In an interview with the Rivard Report, Thompson spoke about the game-changing development in the Area Foundation’s ongoing efforts.

“When we received the gift from Mr. Santikos, we knew the way we funded organizations would change,” she said. “His generous gift enabled us to have a greater impact in our grant making. It opened up new opportunities that we did not have the opportunity to fund before.”

(Read More: How Santikos Foundation Funds Will be Granted)

While the Area Foundation is responsive to community issues with its grant making, its vision is to fund for lasting change. With assets of about $921 million and 500 different funds, the Area Foundation is committed to be the best steward possible of those funds.

After Santikos’s death on Dec. 30, 2014, his gift radically changed the Area Foundation’s work.

“The Santikos gift represents about 75% of our discretionary grant making,” Thompson said. “Of that, we gave $6.5 million last year, $12 million this year, and we’re on track to grant $15 million next year.”

The majority of the Santikos funds are funneled into the Area Foundation’s existing grant funding. Annual responsive grants are awarded in two grant cycles on an annual basis in the areas of animal services, arts and culture, children and youth, community-at-large, medicine and health care, and seniors.

“The January and June deadlines for our Annual Responsive process provide two opportunities each year for submissions,” Thompson explained. “There are multiple other opportunities throughout the year for nonprofits to apply for a variety of funding.”

The Way Ahead

H.B. Cavalcanti is director of strategy and evaluation at the San Antonio Area Foundation.  Photo by Scott Ball.
H.B. Cavalcanti is director of strategy and evaluation at the San Antonio Area Foundation. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Area Foundation’s increasingly important role in the community saw the creation of a new position this year: H.B. Cavalcanti, Ph.D., a former sociology professor with expertise on assessment of large-scale research projects, took on the role of director of strategy and evaluation in July 2016. Cavalcanti is responsible for tracking large-scale changes in the San Antonio area and working with community partners on big data solutions, thus collectively determining what gets measured and how.

“We created this position because we knew we needed to measure and assess impact from funding,” Thompson said. “We’ve seen real community change where we’ve had a strategic focus and followed the rigors of collective impact – for example, with the Animal No-Kill initiative and our high school completion initiative.”

Cavalcanti’s main responsibilities lie in providing research and assessment for the Area Foundation’s grants, programs, and strategic initiatives.

The SALSA Initiative – Successfully Aging and Living in San Antonio – is one of the Area Foundation’s newest programs. Bexar County is expecting dramatic growth in its senior population – almost doubling in size in the next 20 years. The SALSA initiative will look for strategic partners who share the same goals, to help seniors lacking access to crucial resources.

(Read more: Texas is Graying and the State Needs to Adapt to It)

“The population of senior citizens will increase,” Cavalcanti stressed. “The city’s demographic is changing so we need to be prepared.”

The Area Foundation will fund the research efforts that will organize, collect, and analyze data in the SALSA initiative.

So what is the bottom line?

Through its expertise, leadership, funding, and collaborative approach, the San Antonio Area Foundation is uniquely positioned to take on larger community issues by addressing them in a targeted, measured way, and, thus, improve the quality of life in San Antonio.

“The fact that we’ve hired a person who’s dedicated to strategy and evaluation reflects the Area Foundation’s desire to make sure our donors’ dollars are being used as effectively as possible,” Edwards stressed.

“When donors entrusts their dollars to us, we are dedicated to being the best stewards of their gift and to ensure the best impact through data driven initiatives.”


Top image: The San Antonio Area Foundation supports a variety of local initiatives, including animal no-kill and high school graduation efforts. Photo by Josh Huskin. 


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Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.