“Collective Impact”…by Whom?

Every few years, nonprofits take on a new buzz idea. Don't get me wrong...many of these ideas have helped grow our nonprofit capacity and have shaped the broader public's view of our work. In 2011, Kania and Kramer published a five-page article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled “Collective Impact”. This article made it to the ears of public, private and nonprofit leaders across the country, and the term and concept has begun to shape funding strategies for government and private foundation grants, as well as how nonprofits on-the-ground are thinking about their work.

The Collective Impact strategy is, at its core, a simple idea. As one would assume by its name, it posits that when stakeholders from myriad institutions (business, political, nonprofit) come together, the impact they can have is one of greater scale. There are five core components of the Collective Impact model:

common agenda
shared measurement
mutually reinforcing activities
continuous communication
backbone support

Sounds good, right?

Having been trained as a community organizer, these concepts aren't new. Organizing efforts across the country have been creating coalitions and building impact collectively (lowercase i, lowercase c) for decades, and it has been a great movement forward to see funders and government bodies recognize the value of coalitions. At the same time, Collective Impact (capital C, capital I) fails to place much significance on the thing that community organizers value most - the voice of those most impacted by the issue being addressed.

Last week, Tom Wolff wrote a great article titled "Voices from the Field: 10 Places Where Collective Impact Gets It Wrong," critiquing this and other oversights of the Collective Impact model. He notes that well-meaning, highly-educated people of influence can only do so much when they come together if they are missing this critical voice of the impacted community members. You see, I grew up in a world of well-meaning, highly educated folks. I am a well-meaning, highly-educated person myself. And I think I have alot to add at the roundtable of discussion on how to make our communities healthier, safer, stronger, etc. But what I don't have is all that much experience. I am not poor. I am not a natural target for the police. I have a stable home and a safety net. I can observe the struggles of those around me and learn from them, but at the end of the day, I can still walk away. The people who know the ins-and-outs of the struggle, who know exactly how the problem feels - they should be the ones making decisions about what change they seek, not simply academics and medical professionals and politicians and nonprofit leadership (no matter how dedicated and intelligent they may be).

And I'm not talking about just having people sit in a room while others lead the conversation. Too many coalitions have their token few residents who sit back and listen (often without professional interpretation to help them even understand in the first place) but don't get involved. I'm talking about real leadership. Decision-making power. Running meetings. And challenging the traditional power-holding leaders if need be.

Sound difficult? Time-consuming? Absolutely. Authentic leadership development of residents and low-income leaders is hard. It takes alot of time. And a good organizer or community outreach worker will meet with them 1-1 before each meeting to prep, to teach, to train, to role play. Afterwards, that organizer will meet with them again to debrief and evaluate and prepare for the next meeting. We can't just throw residents into coalition meetings and expect them to keep up. The people around these tables are fast-talking, high-level thinkers and I know that many of the residents I have worked with have little formal education and limited English skills. But, oh, what an opportunity! Think about it...a low-income resident leader impacted by gangs running a meeting where the Police Chief is present. Or an immigrant mom sitting side-by-side the CEO of a local hospital to discuss the challenges of providing care to undocumented families. Isn't it a beautiful vision? So yes, it is most certainly time-consuming and challenging, but it is a necessary part of lasting change.

I encourage you to check out Tom Wolff's article and read more about his critiques on this growing trend. To me, the broad embrace of Collective Impact is a step in the right direction. The broad support at an institutional level of the Collective Impact strategy shows that folks could see that the existing body of community and nonprofit work wasn't reaching the scale that we needed it to to make expansive impact. The embracing of this model aligned with people's yearning for something more. His article adds to the dialogue on how we take this model and continue to add in more lasting strategies to meaningfully engage those most impacted by addressing systems, policy and institutional inequities. Bringing low-income residents to the table to have an authentic seat and decision-making power takes more time than most groups are willing to give, but when folks can create that space, and good organizers and staff know how to train residents well, the results are far more lasting.

Not convinced?  Check out Melody Barnes and Paul Schmitz's new article in the Stanford Social Review, citing multiple examples that prove that "how policymakers and other social change leaders pursue initiatives will determine whether those efforts succeed. If they approach such efforts in a top-down manner, they are likely to meet with failure."  So yes, it takes time, but that's just how good change works.

2 thoughts on ““Collective Impact”…by Whom?

  1. sandra kroll

    Kerry, that is precisely the value of the Black Lives Matter movement. Those who would re-work it as an ALL Lives Matter movement are specifically those who would end up taking the reins once again. (We Unitarian Universalists are especially prone to do just that!)
    Actually, I can trace efforts to put the “victims” of the system at the helm of the programs designed to bring some relief – I can trace that back to the War on Poverty, when low income people were hired to operate programs in some cases brought to the tables where programs werr being develpped and/or evaluated. That was revolutionary in those days.

    • admin Post author

      Thanks for your comments Sandy! And yes there have been many examples throughout recent history of this being done well and also very poorly. I trust we are learning and moving forward in our understanding of how lasting social change happens!

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