When Collective Impact Isn’t – Part 2

In Part 1 of “When Collective Impact Isn’t” I posed the question I heard raised at a recent Collective Impact Champions for Change meeting of backbone organizations  in Cincinnati:  When is a community change movement using the Collective Impact framework and when is it using the framework in name only but doing “business as usual?”  As the Collective Impact framework proliferates there will be community based initiatives that will simply re-brand their BAU (“business as usual”) initiatives as Collective Impact in order to ride the wave.

In my previous post I wrote that “a key to understanding the difference between Collective Impact and business as usual is that the how of Collective Impact is at least, if not more, important than the what…The what of Collective Impact is easily summarized into its five conditions: shared agenda, shared measures, mutually supportive activities, continuous communication, and an infrastructure (backbone organization) to coordinate and lead the work.  It was correctly observed by the Champions for Change participants and faculty that some (maybe even many?) social change initiatives have used these five as a checklist to assess the activities of their existing initiative and, if they can check off each of the five boxes, TA-DA!, they are newly christened as a Collective Impact initiative.”  Checking off the five boxes only creates a faux Collective Impact initiative unless attention is given to the how (process) of using the framework.

Understanding and implementing the how of Collective Impact is essential to having a community change initiative that legitimately lays claim to the title.  To be clear, both the what and the how are important and initiatives can err by giving too much emphasis to one over the other.  On the one hand, an over-emphasis on the how of process risks achieving the goal of the initiative.  Haven’t we all been a part of those groups that meet, plan, include, meet some more, plan some more, and include even more, but never seem to get anything done?  They are like race cars on an oval track – they appear to be going somewhere, even quickly, but never really go anywhere of consequence.  In recent years, though, nonprofits and communities have been so driven by the what of outcomes that success may be attained but not sustained.  This is because initiative durability or sustainability is largely a result of the how, not the what, of Collective Impact.  (For more on this, see my previous blog titled “How to Sustain Good Work without Fundraising.“)

During the Champions for Change meeting I identified four indicators that a community initiative is failing to achieve the how of Collective Impact.  After each indicator is a query that can be used to evaluate whether as much attention has been given to the how as to the what of an initiative that seeks to use the Collective Impact framework:

  1. Self or Other-Appointed Backbone:  Is our backbone organization self-appointed, other-appointed or has the community appointed it?  A self-appointed backbone is understood to be a group or organization that steps up and says, “Hey, we’re going to do a Collective Impact initiative on this issue and WE are the backbone organization.”  While admirable that a group or organization would do this, it can be a fatal flaw in the process.  An other-appointed backbone is a group or organization that another entity, such as a funder, has appointed to be the backbone.  It suffers from the same fatal flaw.  Fundamental to the process of Collective Impact is the idea that backbone organizations are identified and empowered to provide leadership and support by the community.  The definition of “the community” is important.   I think of it as the “whole community” which means it needs to include not just the BAU folks (e.g., people with status, power, and position in the community) but the folks that can be easily forgotten, overlooked, or outright ignored, by which I mean the people to whom the initiative is aiming to help.  The term I learned in Cincinnati for this group that I really like is “Residents with Lived Experience.”  Residents with Lived Experience are those with direct experience with the issue the initiative is attempting to address.  While the BAU folks have a role in connecting the initiative to resources and services, Residents with Lived Experience will be the ones using those resources and services.  If they do not feel full trust and confidence in the backbone organization and its leadership of the initiative, the whole thing could fail for no other reason than lack of participation by the community.
  2. Top-Down Decision Making:  Does our backbone organization make the key decisions for the initiative or does our backbone convene the community in a participatory decision-making process that informs the initiative?  The Collective Impact framework encourages the identification of community champions who can provide leadership, including decision-making, in the initiative.  In my work with communities, I’ve suggested champions need to be found among at least three different groups in the community:  Grass Tops (people with access to resources through traditional power and status); Grass Roots (people without traditional power and status but who are so deeply respected in the community that their participation “holds sway” with many others); and Residents with Lived Experience.  I’ve observed that top-down decision-making is the default when there is an intense focus on achieving outcomes.  In such situations though it is easy for those being “served” by the initiative to feel like it being done to them rather than with them.  It is important to remember, if creating a long-term durable initiative is a high priority, that top-down decision-making is a major threat to sustainability because it often takes away community buy-in and ownership.  If you are interested in learning about a decision-making method and structure that creates equivalence of voices and results in high commitment and buy-in, I encourage you to take a look at Dynamic  Governance, a process I’ve been reading about for nearly two years and have recently begun to learn to implement.
  3. Pre-Determined Needs & Solutions:  Does our backbone organization already have a need and solution in mind for the community or does the community have a meaningful decision-making role in identifying both? In recent years, since the monumental failure of the D.A.R.E program to accomplish its goal of reducing substance use among youth (see the previously mentioned blog on this site), there has been an increased emphasis on the value of rigorous evaluation research.  The impact of this emphasis is being felt across disciplines that address many issues that are typically of concern to communities: school success, hunger, homelessness, violence prevention and reduction, teen pregnancy, etc.  The idea is this:  if government, funders, and communities are going to invest in addressing important issues that affect a lot of people, then the investment needs to be made in those programs and projects that evaluation research indicates have strong evidence for success.  These have become known as “evidence-based” programs.  Undoubtedly there is high value to investing in those things that are most likely to succeed, right?  Unless the whole community, including Residents with Lived Experience, are part of the process of identifying its greatest need and the best evidence-based solution for the need that the community can support, there is risk of at least four types of failure:  1) The Failure of Partial Understanding (wrong need paired with an evidence-based solution that addresses a different need or right need paired with the wrong evidence-based solution); 2) The Failure of Ignorance (right need paired with a bad solution, that is, one that really just doesn’t work); 3) The Failure of Cluelessness (wrong need paired with the wrong solution); and, 4) The Failure of Community Participation (right need paired with right solution but no community participation in the selection process, hence no ownership or commitment).  There are, of course, many variations of these that could be added to this list – if you’ve got one you’d like to add, please put it into a comment below.
  4. Exclusion of Residents with Lived Experience:  Does our initiative intentionally engage community Residents with Lived Experience of the issue being addressed and do we create equivalence in decision-making?  Liz Weaver of Tamarack Institute argued effectively in one meeting that community initiative decision-making needs to observe this rule: “Not About Us Without Us.”  That is, decisions should not be made that affect the lives of others when those being affected are not part of the decision-making process.  I’ve tried, successfully I believe, to weave this idea throughout this blog so I will not belabor the point.  Well, maybe just a little.  I really do understand good intentions.  My whole career in nonprofit work has been driven by the intention to do as much good for as many people as possible.  It is easy for zealous, good intentions to go off the Doing Good track, plow under the very community we are trying to help, and do more harm than good.  I’m a zealot and I’ve gone off the track a few times, too.  There are four strategies I’ve learned for staying on the Doing Good track.  First, slow down.  Second, now that we’ve slowed down, we can take time to listen to the Residents with Lived Experience.  Third, pay attention to what they are telling us.  Fourth, and finally, plan and do the good work with them, not to them.

More later…


Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

2 thoughts on “When Collective Impact Isn’t – Part 2”

  1. Hi Tom! Nice to catch up with some of your work … I’ve been turned onto collective impact for tpp (by Katy and Kim) and will be disucssing with PA stakeholders at our upcoming PA Adolescent Sexual Health Conference — email me if I may plug your blog!

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