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.
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.
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. Firstly, this was a highly unscientific poll that was not intended for grounding a new discipline but only for stimulating dialogue…which it did. Secondly, 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 www.nonprofitgp.com:
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 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”?
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 righthere. 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.
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.
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.”
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 (www.nonprofitgp.com) 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. GrantStation.com 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.com. 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.
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.
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.