Let's say you want to make a charitable gift to a local organization that is trying to combat domestic violence. They seem to really know what they are doing and report a significant reduction in incidence of violent crime in families as a result of their work.

You might also ask them about who else is involved in making a difference in this area. Or better yet, about who they're partnering with and how they're coordinating their work to create the greatest impacts for social change.

Image source: Flickr user Keith Williamson.

Realistically, with persistent or complex issues, no one approach will make a momentous difference, and no single organization can make those changes as a solo actor. Real impact in these challenges is more likely when players from different arenas work together to tackle problems in a coordinated effort. This is in essence the approach of collective impact, a current trend in philanthropy. Although this may seem obvious, it is more challenging than it sounds.

Let's take our domestic violence example. Think of all of the people who are engaged in domestic violence interventions: police and the criminal justice system and countless nonprofits working in different ways -- through education of abuser and abused, creating safe houses, staffing hotlines, etc. There are foundations trying to address the problem through funding and academics doing studies to find out what causes and stops domestic violence. The local government probably also has programs to address it, and local corporations may also be doing their part to stop the violence.

The challenge is that these players are not sharing an agenda, nor using the same measures to determine strategy and success rates. In fact, some of these organizations may be working at cross purposes or competing against each other -- for your charitable giving dollars or for the publicity associated with tackling an important issue.

There may be some collaboration going on, yet that is different from creating real cross-sector projects that are run collectively. Collective impact work requires a coordinator of efforts, usually in the form of a recognized leader organization. Nonprofit forums, consultancies, commentaries in the philanthropy press, and academic research are evolving to provide the intelligence needed to help make collective impact work play a bigger role in the social sector and become more commonly used.

What can you do as a donor to support collective impact projects? Start by being clear about your own philanthropic goals, so you know what you bring to the table. Then ask good, probing questions about cross-sector partnerships. And when you are looking for the effectiveness of the nonprofits that you support financially, be aware that their efforts are probably tied to other organizations who are also trying to make positive change happen in the same issue area. That is not a bad thing. It is a sign that they are doing their best to leverage resources -- both theirs and yours -- for the greatest impact.