My Day at the White House

I was surprised (no, stunned) and honored with an invitation to the White House early last week for a meeting that took place at the end of the week. I was clueless why I received the invitation, especially on such short notice, so I called and asked if it was a mistake and, if not, what were they thinking? It wasn’t a mistake but the person I spoke with couldn’t tell me why I was invited (which is not exactly a confidence builder). It was all a bit mysterious but I went anyway thinking it was probably a mistake and I would either get thrown out or picked up by the Secret Service. Still, just in case, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

After five security stops (one online and four in person), I got into the building and I learntjust-me why I had been invited. It seems a recent research paper that Ed Saunders and I published earlier this year in Community Development, the journal of the Community Development Society, got some attention. Ed, who is the former Director of the School of Social Work at the University of Iowa, and I have been collaborators for 25 years, since 1991. Our recent research and paper on the integration of community engagement, collective impact, and sustainable community development grabbed the interest of a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official and that person, in turn, moved it up to the White House.

I was invited to the meeting as a way of introducing me and our work to the people in the Administration and around the country who are working on the President’s Promise Zones initiatives in 22 disadvantaged communities. (Also, my Midwestern self-deprecating roots tell me I should note that I was an easy “get” for the meeting because I live only 30 minutes away.) Because this is a 10 year initiative that is not tied to a Federal budget line, it is expected that the Promise Zones initiative will survive the change of administration later this year.

The unique, and apparently appealing, facet of our work is that it situates the social change phenomenon of collective impact within the larger framework of community development. Collective impact has been widely adopted by government, funders, and communities around the globe.

Many thanks, and kudos, to Norm Walzer, the editor of the special collective impact issue of Community Development.  I’m sure Norm is always pleased to know when people are reading the journal.

Thanks as well to Paul Born and Liz Weaver and their crew at Tamarack Institute for giving me the blogging and workshop space to vet, and vent, some of our ideas to their constituents in Canada. Tomorrow I head back to Toronto to be with them again in the Community Change Institute this coming week where I’ll be a learning lab leader and also lead a couple of workshops. It is always great fun to work with them!

Ed Saunders and I have enjoyed a long collaboration on program development, evaluation, theory development, and testing. It is gratifying to know that people are reading and finding value in our work. My work with Ed has been some of the most enjoyable and satisfying of my career.

It is even better if our hard work contributes to making the world a better place, especially for those who are disadvantaged and marginalized in our society.

It was a far more interesting and amazing day than I expected. I didn’t get thrown out or taken away by the Secret Service, but it was still an exciting day.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every day.

Tom Klaus

What if…”Better Practices” not “Best Practices?”

An emphasis on using “evidence based practices” is stifling experimentation. This was the statement I posed in a poll within my last blog, back in February 2015, just before I got sucked into a vortex of Federal grant writing from which I am only now extracting myself. The results are in and a full 77% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the statement is true.

Before we run out and create an “evidence based practice” of wild experimentation on the basis of this finding, however, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, this was a highly unscientific poll that was not intended for grounding a new discipline but only for stimulating dialogue…which it did. Second, I am not really a “best practice” or “evidence-based” curmudgeon, but I am not an uncritical fan of them. On some days, I may even be more critic than fan.

In fact, we need “best practices” and “evidence-based practices.” I was particularly taken by the comments of my friend Andy Penziner who offered this defense of evidence-based practices in a comment on my blog at

First, evidence-based solutions/best practices would seem preferable to pet solutions or random practices. Second, context and generalizability should always be acknowledged and considered. Third, a creative, open mind should never be stifled in favor of blind deference to whatever the best practice d’jour might be; they can coexist. Finally, as for pleasing funders or conforming to their priorities…well, it’s kind of a fact of life, eh!

I would like to add two additional points to these. One is that there are some situations in which “evidence based practices” are the best and only practices you absolutely want. For example, do you want to see a doctor that is not using evidence based medicine in providing care for you? Probably not. Do you want to live in a high rise building that has not been built to the standards of evidence based architecture and building construction? No way! Do you want fly down the highway in heavy traffic inside an automobile that has not been built to evidence based standards and carefully tested? Absolutely not. Keep in mind that my previous blog was a bit of a rant about using “best practices” and “evidence-based” practices to address complex social problems. A complex social problem is one that eludes solutions proposed by “best practices” and “evidence-based” solutions because it shares the characteristics of a complex adaptive system. It is dynamic; has many interdependent agents or factors; one change in the system affects changes throughout the whole system; and it is robust in its ability to do all of these things. Within complex social problems, there may be a place to use some “best practice” or “evidence-based” interventions for very specific purposes. However, to believe that one or two or even three or four “evidence-based” interventions can solve the whole of the problem is just wrong thinking. It is also to commit the error Andy warns about: failing to acknowledge the role of context.

The other thing I would like to add to Andy’s list is that “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” also have useful historical value. They tell us what did and did not work well in the past, which may have value for our current situation. Considered in this light, “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” can suggest to us “better practices that may work” though they offer no guarantees of working in our situation. I bristle against “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” when they are presented as the “solution” regardless of the context, which, in the case of social problems, is usually complex.

I have become increasingly fond of the idea of “better practices that may work.” This allows me to feel comfortable standing in both the worlds of “evidence-based” practice and “what if” experimentation. On the one hand, it allows me to consider the evidence of proven and best practices. On the other, as Andy indicates, it helps me to keep a creative, open mind; always consider the context; and avoid uncritically adopting the evidence-based practice of the moment.

The key word in the phrase “better practices that may work” is “may.” “May” does not offer the guarantees of “will.” To say something may work is to say just as clearly that it may not work which is a loaded proposition for many folks.

It is loaded with the risk of failure. It is loaded with the humility required to admit that one does not have all the answers. It is loaded with the requirement to engage in the uncertainty, angst, and, some would say, joy and excitement, of “what if” experimentation.

Over the past few months I have been compiling some “what if” experiments with regard to community engagement on complex social problems and have been discussing them and exploring their implications with increasing regularity with my clients. If you work with communities to address such problems, here are a few of my questions to help you think of your own:

  • What if…people with lived experience of the social problem we are trying to address were really welcomed into our coalitions, leadership teams, and other planning groups? (As my friend Tommy Ross has said, “There is a big difference between an invitation and a welcome.”)
  • What if…that welcome included having the same decision making power as the rest of us?
  • What if…we valued and prioritized relationship building and social networking as community engagement strategies more than using social media and marketing?
  • What if…we focused more on creating community ownership of change than “buy in” to the change?
  • What if…we used principles to guide our work rather than checklists, protocols, and performance measures?
  • What if…we were to build trust before trying to change things?
  • What if…we shared the leadership and did not insist on being out front?
  • What if…we were to conduct evaluation that is focused on developing a better effort rather than measuring achievement of outcomes?
  • What if…we were to embrace the risk of “better practices that may work”?

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

Tom Klaus

Beyond the Comfort of What We Think We Know

Has an over-reliance on “best practices” and “evidence-based” practices struck a deathblow to our ability to think creatively and our courage to be experimental?

My mind is still mulling over my experience at the inaugural Collective Impact Summit last October in Toronto. No individual presenter had a greater impact on my thinking in that meeting than Brenda Zimmerman. Dr. Zimmerman, who died tragically on December 16 last year in an automobile accident, was a leading thinker in the application of complexity theory to both for profit and social profit (aka nonprofit) organizations and our understanding of change. She is widely known for her book, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, written with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton.

Dr. Zimmerman’s presentation and workshop at the Summit challenged, stirred, and animated my thinking in a number of ways. One that has been most profound has been pushing me to rediscover the value and validity of experimentation. I think of experimentation as the courage to ask “What if we tried…(fill in the blank)?” rather than rotely following the recipes, formulas, and checklists of “best practices” and “evidence-based” approaches.

I know better than most the safety of recipes, formulas, and checklists. The ability to apply or replicate evidence-based solutions to problems is often the surest course to achieving the measurable outcomes demanded by many funders. However, the unintended consequences of fidelity to our recipes, formulas, and checklists can be horrific.

For example, under pressure to meet some funders’ timetables to apply the best evidence-based solution to a complex social problem in our community, we ignore, in our haste, those who have genuine expertise with the problem and whose wisdom we need: those who live the problem every day.

Ignoring these, whom Dr. Zimmerman called “context experts,” can lead us, in turn, to an over-reliance on evidence-based solutions which appear to have demonstrated success in addressing similar complex community problems. As a result, we identify an evidence-based solution that worked for another community, but which does not really work for our community, or even at all. We assume the solution will work because the problem over there looks very similar to the one we are trying to solve right here. We even try to “tweak” the solution with various approved adaptations to make it fit better. In the end, we discover we have simply forced the proverbial “square peg into a round hole.” In our shame, we write-up carefully worded reports for the funder to make the evidence-based solution sound more successful than we know it was and, in some cases, our reports merely add to the myth of that particular evidence-based solution.

However, we are not the only ones who know that the evidence-based solution we selected to do to the community did not really work. Those context experts know it, too. Their secret knowledge of the solution’s poor fit and its failure significantly weakens the likelihood of sustaining the solution in the community. After all, the community might not have wanted or needed our solution in the first place and may be glad to see it now, finally, go away. Sustainability stems from successful solutions owned by the community; and ownership grows out of trust, respect, and meaningful participation of the context experts – which we did not demonstrate from the outset.

Nonetheless, we climb further into the “best practice” and “evidence-based” trap. We are confident the next time we will find the right fit if we just follow the formula a little more carefully.

What if the problem is the formula? What if the process is flawed? What if our assumptions about expertise, best practices, and evidence-based solutions are all wrong? What if we have allowed our blind trust in best practices and evidence-based solutions for complex social problems kill off our human capacity for genuine creativity, thoughtful experimentation, and the ability to simply ask, “What if….?”

I am going to leave you with these questions but I plan to continue this conversation soon. In the meantime, take a moment to complete the poll at the bottom. I would like to know what you think.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

Tom Klaus

Developing Nonprofit Story Worth Following

The Nonprofit Quarterly daily online newsletter, Newswire, has been covering a story in the state of Maine that bears watching by every nonprofit leader. Governor Paul LePage’s tax and budget plan coming before the state’s Legislature levies taxes on nonprofits and eliminates the charitable gift tax credit, even as it cuts taxes for higher income individuals. However, Governor LePage is not alone. Several other governors and states are pressing for variations on this plan. Maine, however, might be a “bell weather” for things to come, hence it deserves the attention of nonprofits throughout the United States.

Some readers of this blog may know that I also write for the Newswire and this Maine story is one that I and few other NPQ writers have been following closely. My latest article on Governor LePage’s promises that a “flood of money” will come into nonprofits under his plan appeared in the Newswire today, February 23rd. In the first paragraph of my article you will find links to four other articles that have recently appeared in the Newswire highlighting different aspects of this story, including an earlier one that I wrote about the impact on Maine’s nonprofit summer camps, which are a major economic driver for the state.

The NQP Newswire stories are generally quick reads, less than 500 words. However, if you cannot get to them today, please book mark them and come back to them at your earliest convenience.

Be greater. Do good. Every day.


New Teen Pregnancy Prevention Funding Opportunities Posted

Good Saturday morning!

The U.S. Department of Health Human Services Office of Adolescent Health posted four new teen pregnancy prevention funding opportunities last weekend (January 10) and one just before the holiday break on December 23rd. These are major funding opportunities for organizations that are working in teen pregnancy prevention. Each of the five opportunities has a different focus and funds very different activities. Please be sure to read them carefully. Each also requires a letter of intent to apply for the funding as well as a full application. In addition, each opportunity has a different timeline for receipt of letters of intent and applications.

To learn how to access detailed information on each of the opportunities, click here or on the “Funding Alert” link above. To learn more about how we can help, click here or on the link above to “Evaluation Research.”

Best wishes for a successful application!

Be greater, do good, everyday.


Upcoming GrantStation Webinar with Tom Klaus

Since you have your brand new 2015 calendar already to go, here’s something to put in it.

Creating Change with Collective Impact – A NEW Webinar from GrantStation.

Collective Impact is a term coined by FSG, a social change consulting group, to describe a cross-sector collaboration that focuses on solving complex social problems by embracing a common agenda. In 2011 “collective impact” was identified as the number two philanthropy buzzword of the year by a writer in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Since then the “buzz” around collective impact has only continued to grow. In this webinar, Tom Klaus will take a closer look at the collective impact phenomenon, tackling some of the most important questions: What is collective impact? How does it differ from other collaborative approaches? Is it merely a new name for collaboration? How does collective impact work? How has collective impact changed since its introduction? How do you decide when a collective impact approach is the best fit for your project and your funder?

This webinar is designed for grantwriters, executive directors, project managers and staff, as well as development staff.

The webinar will be held on Thursday, February 12, 2015. Visit the link above to register or click here.

Date: Thursday, February 12, 2015

Time: 2:00 PM Eastern Time (U.S.), running for 90 minutes

Fee: $89.00 per person, $150.00 per site.

About the Presenter:

Dr. Tom Klaus (PhD in Organizational Leadership) is a nonprofit/social profit consultant who has worked at all levels of nonprofits from direct service, to executive leadership, to heading complex national initiatives. Tom is a “pracademic,” steeped in both the study and practice of nonprofit organizational leadership, collaboration, and community engagement. He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University (Philadelphia) in the School of Leadership and Development, where he is a pioneer in teaching collective impact. Tom is a frequent keynote, plenary, and workshop speaker and trainer. He is also a prolific writer, blogging on community engagement and collective impact on his own site ( and Tamarack, a Canadian institute for community engagement, and contributing to the NPQ Newswire.


I am pleased and honored to be working with GrantStation on this new webinar. GrantStation is an organization dedicated to creating a civil society by assisting the nonprofit sector in its quest to build healthy and effective communities. offers nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and government agencies the opportunity to identify potential funding sources for their programs or projects as well as resources to mentor these organizations through the grantseeking process. GrantStation provides access to a searchable database of private grantmakers that accept inquiries and proposals from a variety of organizations; federal deadlines; links to state funding agencies; and a growing database of international grantmakers. In addition, GrantStation publishes two newsletters highlighting upcoming funding opportunities, the weekly GrantStation Insider, which focuses on opportunities for U.S. nonprofit organizations, and the monthly GrantStation International Insider, which focuses on international funding opportunities.

If you are new to GrantStation, please take a few minutes to learn more at GrantStation is an important resource for nonprofit organizations seeking to create and sustain the greater good in their communities.

I hope you are able to join me and GrantStation for this webinar on February 12, 2015.

Be greater; do good; every day,


“The Least of These”

My life is haunted. Some of the things that haunt me are the ghosts of stupid things I have done over the course of my life. Many, though, are the spirits of compelling ideas that just will not let go of me. One of those ideas is captured in the phrase “the least of these.” The phrase “the least of these” comes to me from the Christian scriptures, the spiritual text with which I am most familiar, though it refers to an ethos to be found in many cultures and faiths. The ethos is that members of the human race, and the societies they form, have a moral and ethical responsibility to care for “the least of these” in their communities. “The least of these,” in one sense, is a relative term as it can refer to those whose needs are greater than our own. However, it more generally refers to those who have found themselves in great need and difficult, even desperate, circumstances, through no fault of their own. They are often known to us by their status in society: marginalized. The failure to care for these others, in fact, is a failure of our humanity and to the whole of humanity, and some would also believe, to God.

“The least of these” are the reason for my career. It was a calling to serve “the least of these” that led me to ministry within the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) when I was a young man. It was the same call that led me into mental health counseling and then the field of adolescent sexual health. It is the call that today has guided me to focus my work with social sector (non-profit) organizations, including faith communities, in order to help them become the best guardians and providers of “the least of these” that they can be.

This blog often finds me writing about community engagement and Collective Impact. “The least of these” has also been haunting these subjects for me as well. Yet it is with regard to these two topics that my thinking is still forming and for which I hope to receive greater light from others. Therefore, I am just going to put my ideas out here for your consideration and invite you to have a conversation with me.

Why Find a Cure 2
Bumper sticker seen in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, April, 2014

If a social change movement is not about “the least of these,” then it is just a business and social change is just another industry providing greater benefit to those working within the industry than to those whom it is supposed to serve. Earlier this year I was working on an organizational study for a client and in my research came across a compelling article[i] in which the authors made this point with what they called the “health disparities industry.”  The authors cited the literature that defines “industry” as a sector of the economy that manufactures goods or products or provides a service. An industry has an elaborate infrastructure, a specialized set of activities, and stakeholders. Then the authors made the case that the health disparities movement had, in the United States, become an industry that more often used the issue of disparities to sustain itself than to help those who actually experienced the disparities. My own research has similarly found that an industry has grown up around the issue of the sexuality education of young people in the United States, the field in which I have worked for many years. The industrialization of the field has meant, among other things, that concern for its own sustainability has contributed to the institutionalization of the decades’ long intractable conflict over sexuality education in U.S. public schools.

Collective Impact is a framework for social change that has really caught on since its introduction in 2011. Actually, that is an understatement. More accurately, and metaphorically, it has taken off like a rocket and it is yet to be seen just how high it will fly. Through it community change initiatives of all sizes and many organizations have been introduced to its five conditions, the concept of emergence, and the power of backbone organizations. Some are taking time to learn, understand, grasp and implement the ideas undergirding Collective Impact and others are simply slapping the cool new name onto their existing work to impress funders and garner media attention. I am an early adopter and fan of the Collective Impact framework and have used and extended it in my own work.

Yet, I worry.

I worry that “the least of these” are left out of many Collective Impact initiatives. Yes, I know leaders of these initiatives would likely argue that my worry is absurd. “After all,” they might argue, “the initiative exists to help ‘the least of these,’ does it not?” Okay, so it might. HOW it does this, I argue, is at least as important as WHAT it does, especially if sustainable community change is to be achieved.

  • Does it invite “the least of these” to the table where the COMMON AGENDA is created that impacts their lives?
  • Does it train and equip “the least of these” with the skills and knowledge to participate effectively with other initiative partners?
  • Does it build and maintain a culture among all partners that values the participation of “the least of these” in the selection of the BACKBONE ORGANIZATION, SHARED MEASUREMENT strategies, and MUTUALLY REINFORCING ACTIVITIES to be undertaken?
  • Does it use an inclusive decision-making process that ensures the voice and vote of “the least of these” counts?
  • Does it have CONTINUOUS COMMUNICATION systems in place that ensure equal and equitable access and participation of “the least of these?”

Collective Impact initiatives that leave out “the least of these” are just the same old coalitions involving the usual same old players doing the same old things in the same old way. As such, it is business as usual and business as usual is not social change.

I believe community engagement that values “the least of these” and seeks to include them as full partners holds the promise of keeping Collective Impact on track as a powerful framework for social change. Yet, there is still a need to keep “the least of these” at the heart of community engagement. Without “the least of these,” I worry that community engagement merely becomes the industry of marketing.

Hoping this will be a conversation that continues to shape my thinking on these issues, here are my questions for you:

  • What worries do you have about either leaving out “the least of these” or, conversely, fully involving them in your Collective Impact initiative or community engagement work?
  • What is working for you to keep “the least of these” at the forefront of your Collective Impact and/or community engagement work?
  • What would you like to do more of in the future to ensure “the least of these” stay front and center in your work?

Thanks for allowing me to think aloud in this space. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Be greater; do good; every day,


[i] Shaw-Ridley, M. & Ridley, C. R. (2010). The health disparities industry: Is it an ethical conundrum? Health Promotion Practice, 11(4), 454-464.

Rethinking Sustainability

Let’s get real about sustaining good programs, and even good organizations.  One of my consulting clients has had me on the road over the past few months helping a group of nonprofit organizations create sustainability plans.  The nonprofits have a common funder, which has asked them to continue, in full, a complex project each was heavily funded to create and implement over several years.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I was going to be the bearer of bad news to each of these groups:  sustainability is not possible…if it is defined as simply replacing dollars.

The math just does not support the reality of replacing their awards dollar-for-dollar.  For that to happen, each organization would have to raise at least 15% of their original award in new money, compounded each year over the five years of funding they received, to be ready to continue on their own when the money spigot is turned off.  This kind of growth in contributions is Herculean even in the best of times.

These are not the best of times for nonprofits as illustrated recently in an article from The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  In brief, of the 400 charities in the United States that raise the most money, donations grew only 4 percent in 2012, and the projection for 2013 is only 3 percent.  Even the United Way Worldwide, a powerhouse in fundraising on behalf of nonprofits in communities around the world, is struggling.  It had only a 1 percent gain from 2011 to 2012 and, since 2007 when the recession began, it has seen at least a 16 percent drop in private donations.  Yes, the United Way is a big organization as are all of those 400 charities.  However, some of them, like the United Way, are also funders of smaller, community-based organizations like those I’ve been visiting over the past few months.  I think you get the idea.  It’s pretty scary stuff, even for Halloween week, so I’ll let you read it for yourself.

My experience in the nonprofit world is that we’ve too often thought of sustainability as simply replacing the money we need to operate our programs and organizations at the status quo.  When the economy is thriving, it tends to work, though it is still a shortsighted strategy.  In lean times, like those we have been facing, it is not realistic.  Today we assume, only to our own destruction, that we actually can simply replace the money.  Since 2007 I’ve seen too many good organizations and good programs cling to this concept of sustainability even as they were closing down and turning out the lights.

What is a realistic approach to sustainability today?  This is the question that has haunted me for some time, especially as I’ve been working with a lot of organizations to help them create sustainability plans for their massive, possibly over-funded, projects.  I don’t have any clear answers but I do have some ideas bubbling up.

Idea #1:  None of us need as much money as we think we do, to do good.  I actually winced when I wrote that because I don’t really want to admit it.  However, I do believe it.  If we are working in the social sector (a term for the nonprofit sector that I’m becoming increasingly fond of), then we need enough funding to pay our staff their worth, to deliver high quality services or programs, and maintain an effective infrastructure.  This can still amount to a lot of money, but what is it about the concept of “nonprofit” that we don’t seem to understand?  Yes, nonprofit work is a business, but it is business that has social good as a bottom line, not profitability.

Idea #2:  Financial stability is realistic and attainable, financial sustainability is neither in the current economy.  I have come to differentiate between financial stability and financial sustainability.  Financial stability means pretty much what I described above:  enough funding to pay staff their worth, to deliver high quality work, and maintain an effective infrastructure.  Financial sustainability, however, is about maintaining the status quo by replacing funds dollar-for-dollar.  Many nonprofit leaders are rightly concerned for raising sufficient funds to merely achieve stability.  I recently completed some research that found a consensus among small nonprofit organization leaders that fundraising was their single most stressful task.  The burden they carry is a great one.  Sometimes, however, it just isn’t possible to sustain every aspect of an organization’s work at its current level.  In fact, some things should not be sustained.  Some services and programs are better provided by other organizations.  Sometimes they are better off being maintained and sustained by volunteers in the community.  Some programs and services are no longer needed.  And, honestly, some services and programs are lousy and should be discontinued altogether.  These are tough calls to make.  Sometimes the political pressure and grief a leader gets from within her/his organization make it impossible to do anything except jump on the fundraising treadmill.  What kind of organizational culture would emerge if leaders were to make those tough calls?  Would they experience less or more stress?  Would there be a renewed focus on doing good for the sake of good?  Just wondering.

Idea #3: Community ownership = sustainability.  This idea has been growing very large for me over the past few months and last couple of years.  The more I learn about social change and sustaining it, the more I become convinced of the power of the community, and society as a whole, to create and sustain the change that is most meaningful to it.  Those of us who are veterans of the American nonprofit system are really experts at coming up with good things to do TO other folks whom we believe need them (as a result of our endless needs assessments).  What I’ve observed on the ground, however, is that our needs assessments rarely engage the people with lived experience of the issue we are trying to address.  Instead, we convene meetings, advisory groups, and, even focus groups, of the usual suspects and ask them what the community needs.  Ironically, and unbelievably, I’ve seen many of these kinds of needs assessments conducted with people who don’t even live in the community, they only work there.  The justification for including these folks?  They are experts.  However, who is really more expert on their community than the people who actually live in it and deal with the issue on a daily basis?  This top down approach has to be propped up through endless fundraising efforts (financial sustainability) and appears to be successful as long as the cash is flowing into it.  However, when the funders lose interest and the money dries up, the nonprofits often go away (many must go away to survive) to greener fields.  This is an oft told, and shameful, story of social change in the United States.  On the other hand, when the community (those people with lived experience of the issue) own the change, it doesn’t go away regardless of the funding.

These are ideas that have been bubbling up within me.  Even more, I’ve allowed the paradigm shift they imply to take root.  The ideas are still bubbling so you can expect to read more about them here in the future.

More later…


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