Tom’s Blog

Of Dog Walking and Dissertating

I’ve been spending an unnatural amount of time talking to people and making extensive notes on the conversations.  Before you assume I’m moonlighting for the National Security Administration (which is within 10 miles of where I live – hey, aren’t they supposed to be in a secret location?) or call the authorities on me, let me clarify this is all in the name of science.  Honest.  Its part of the dissertation research I’m doing.  I’m in the final lap of the PhD race (aka RAG, for Running the Academic Gauntlet).  I collected the data which included 35 intensive interviews with some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, each interview was painfully…er, painstakingly…transcribed, and the data have been pulled apart, examined, put back together, reviewed and analyzed ad nauseum.  Four of the five chapters have been written and are now in the hands of a couple of trusted and capable reviewers and next week I finally get to begin the process writing the summary and recommendations.  Oh, what is the dissertation about, you ask (thanks for asking, by the way)?  It is a qualitative, grounded theory study of the motivation to lead among leaders in sexual health organizations that are engaged in the long-term, contentious national (U.S.) dialogue on the sexuality education of young people.

On February 28th my spouse gave me the gift of devoting full-time to dissertating.  I left a long-time full-time position as Director of Sustainability and Capacity Building with a terrific global nonprofit to devote full-time at home working on the Dissertation (capitalized now for how it has taken over our lives).  In my spare time, I get to work on setting up the Non-Profit GP consulting practice (note the not-so-subtle product placement promotion), cleaning up after meals, sweeping the floors, keeping my bathroom clean, and walking the dogs, Madison and Dolly.  I’m not sure writing blogs is supposed to be on the list, so let’s just keep this between you and me, okay?  In truth, I’m spending a lot of time working on the Dissertation because I’ve got a pretty tight timeline.  My Dissertation defense hearing was just scheduled for September 19, 2013 and by the end of the year I’ve either got to have a decent consulting practice going or I need to find a real job.  So I’ve been slogging away.  By July 15 my Dissertation chair needs to see the whole thing and it has to be to my full committee by August 15 to stay on track.

Dolly and Madison
Dolly and Madison

So, my research is on motivation to lead and I’m learning much about the subject when I take Madison and Dolly on their walks throughout the day.   Both came to us from a dog rescuer who got them from a “backyard breeder” in the Midwest.  We are pretty certain Madison is Dolly’s mother.  Both were cropped and trimmed to look like the stereotypical miniature schnauzer in some rather inhumane ways.  Unfortunately, both were also debarked by the breeder.  While we don’t know for sure what conditions were like for them in their former “home,” we do know they came with certain deficits to our home – they didn’t know what dog treats were, they had not eaten “normal” dog food, they had never been trained to walk on a leash, they weren’t house broken, they didn’t know how to play, and, most sadly of all, they were exceedingly submissive to humans out of fear.  The rescuer explained that Madison had been one of the favorites of the breeder so her fear of humans was less.  Dolly, however, to this day, too easily cowers, fears brooms and mops, and defensively barks when people move too quickly near her.  Dolly and I do have a special bond, though, and she follows me everywhere I go while Madison tends to prefer her “mom” to me.

The walks we take together are a fascinating experience and we must be an odd sight to the neighbors.  Dolly charges out of the door first, followed by me (and I also serve as the porter for lugging the “doggy doo doo” bags), and Madison brings up the rear, acting as if she really doesn’t want to be bothered with going for a walk.  As we move down the sidewalk Dolly continues to practically strain at her leash while Madison practically makes me drag her.  There we are, slowly moving down the sidewalk, heaven forbid we actually go fast.  We occupy at least 18 feet of the sidewalk (Dolly’s 6 foot leash, Tom’s 6 foot wingspan stretched between the leash handles walking sideways, and Madison’s 6 foot leash).  Thus it continues for several minutes until something more exciting happens (e.g., squirrel, rabbit, one of their dog friends, or something really interesting to sniff, which is most anything.)  Though Dolly appears to be the leader of this pack, it is actually Madison.

Madison is what I’d describe as a “quiet leader.”  She doesn’t appear to be the one in charge at all.  She is an introvert, she’s passive, doesn’t care about other dogs, and generally never gets as excited as Dolly about anything.  But she is in charge.  Why?  Because Madison wants to be in charge and likes it (affective MTL, for those of you who know the theory).  When she wants to stop, we all stop…and we don’t go again until she is good and ready.  There is a more traditional way in which Madison exerts herself, however.  Whenever Dolly stops to answer a nature call, Madison immediately moves to the spot and “marks” over it.  Dolly fully understands who is in charge.  She won’t mark over Madison and always defers to her.

While Madison’s behavior seems to be consistent with affective MTL (motivation to lead), Dolly apparently subscribes to the “Great Dog” theory of leadership and happily follows Madison.  For me, though, it’s all about Charismatic leadership.  I’m a sucker for “The Girls” (by which they’ve become affectionately known throughout our neighborhood) and I’d follow them anywhere…and I often do.

That’s it for now.  Nothing really heavy here…just needed a break from the Dissertation.  Besides, it’s time for a walk…

More later,

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

If I have to explain it, it won’t be funny…

If I have to explain it, it won’t be funny….

A great way to close out the week with humorist and fellow dissertationist Jeff Logan.

Collective Impact & Complexity Resources – Check Them Out!

I’ve recently come across a couple of resources that I wanted to share.

First, FSG has recently put out a video about the Cincinnati, Ohio “backbone” meeting in March.  In some recent posts I wrote about my experiences at that conference which focused on “backbone” organizations for Collective Impact initiatives.  If you’re not familiar with Collective Impact or the concept of “backbone” organizations, this is a nice introduction.  If you look closely, you may also see somebody you recognize.  Watch the video here!

Second, my son, Jake, gave me a new book for my birthday a few weeks ago.  Jake and I have a similar, but odd, sense of humor so he often gets me a funny book or DVD.  This year he gave me “Using Complexity Theory for Research and Program Evaluation” by Michael Wolf-Branigin.  Not quite the usual fare and not really a funny book.  And, the book already had about a half-dozen pink Post It flags distributed throughout it.  Really odd.  Then I began to look at each of the pages the flags were marking.  Turns out Jake was Dr. Wolf-Branigin’s research assistant at George Mason University for over two years when he was getting his MSW.  During that time he worked closely with Dr. Wolf-Branigin on portions of this book.  Jake’s contribution was signficant enough that he gets several mentions and is credited as the co-author of chapter 7 (Developing Agent-Based Models).  Dr. Wolf-Branigin was a terrific mentor to Jake and certainly gave him some extraordinary opportunities, including co-authorship, not just on this book but on some upcoming research articles as well.

Now that I’ve had my “proud dad” moment, let me also say that the book is really good and quite useful for anyone that is a fan of complexity theory (which I am) and yet is somewhat puzzled to understand how evaluation research works in complexity (which, again, I am).

In closing, I think I’ve also mentioned in previous posts that I’m deep into data analysis and writing up research findings for my dissertation.  I’ve been trying to write occasional posts on this blog as well to try to shake off “dissertation brain” but haven’t been a regular in my posting as I’d like to be.  I’ve got another in progress that I hope to be posting by early June.  So, stay tuned.  In the meantime, check out the video and the Wolf-Branigin book.  Good stuff!

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

Community Engagement and Touchy Topics

Is there a more touchy topic in American communities than the issue of sexuality, particularly adolescent sexuality?  Recent research I’ve been doing suggests it remains one of the most difficult topics for any community to come together on to address.  I’ve spent several years of my career working in the sub-field of teen pregnancy prevention.  Though I started by developing and delivering teen pregnancy prevention curriculum directly to youth in schools and community based organization (CBO) settings, the success of my work gave me the opportunity to replicate the program at both organizational and community levels throughout the United States.  As a result I often found myself in the middle of intense organization and community-wide conversations about adolescent sexuality.

I have to confess that much of the time I did it wrong.  It’s not that I was trying to mess up.  In fact, I was doing what I had been taught to do:  identify and understand a problem, formulate a solution to the problem and apply the solution wherever I find the problem.  There are many public health interventions where that approach works just fine.  For example, immunization.  Once the virus has been identified and understood, a vaccine can be formulated and widely applied with the expectation that a vast majority of the population will benefit from it.  However, some public health issues are better informed by social science than medical science.  Teen pregnancy is one of those.  Viewing it through the lens of social science allows us to glimpse the context of complexity that surrounds teen pregnancy.  A few years ago Teenwise Minnesota (formerly MOAPPP, the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Parenting) created a visual that attempted to capture the complicated nature of the challenge of teen pregnancy.

Teenwise Minnesota Teen Pregnancy Puzzle
Teenwise Minnesota Teen Pregnancy Puzzle

The Teenwise Minnesota Teen Pregnancy Puzzle illustrates that no less than 12 factors in every community contribute to solving the complicated puzzle of teen pregnancy.  The issue is never addressed by simply addressing just one of the 12 factors but all twelve.  When we consider that each of these 12 factors interact with one another in unpredictable ways and all of these 12 factors exist within larger community, state, national, and global contexts, we begin to realize it isn’t just a complicated problem but a complex problem in which no single intervention and no formula is going to be effective in all communities.

Add to this that teen pregnancy, as a sub-field of adolescent sexuality, is an emotionally charged topic for many Americans because we tend to view it not just through a public health lens but through values, morality, and religious lenses as well.  Thus, engaging communities in order to move them toward effectively addressing the issue can be a very challenging process fraught with many perils.  I have personally experienced many of those.  They range from being shouted down in public meetings to being the subject of talk radio for several days on end to being stalked to being physically accosted.  I’ve learned some good lessons through these less than stellar attempts at community engagement on the issue of teen pregnancy.

  • First, the more sensitive the issue, the more important it is to deeply and broadly engage the community.  I believe this is because community engagement that is deep and broad enough to include the whole community (Grasstops, Grassroots, and Residents with Lived Experience) creates deep ownership thereby reducing the likelihood of controversy and conflict.  On a really touchy issue like teen pregnancy people in many communities will rally against proposed solutions, particularly those they view as morally dubious (e.g., condom distribution, morning after pill, etc.) or ethically questionable (e.g., abstinence-only until marriage), when they feel the solutions are being pushed upon them by others who don’t really “get” their community.
  • Second, patience is more than a virtue, it is a survival strategy for community change on touchy issues.    When communities are addressing issues like teen pregnancy that are very sensitive and emotionally charged, the change will not occur quickly or easily.  It will most likely be incremental and the more it is pushed on people, the more likely resistance will grow – even if the resistance is not obvious.  Here’s a quick story about unseen resistance:  A few years ago I was contracted to provide six half-day training programs in a single week to 1,000 state employees who worked regularly with clients on public assistance.  The topic was on how to make an effective client referral for family planning services.  The employees were mandated to attend, the head of the agency was mandated to provide the training, and, because he disagreed with the order and feared backlash, another order quietly came from his office to all of the supervisors that basically instructed them to attend but disregard everything they learned and to tell their staffs to do the same.  Of course I didn’t know this until AFTER all six training events were completed.  However, at the time I was doing the training you’d have thought all was great.  People were friendly, smiled, laughed at the right times, and attendance was actually quite strong.  I left at the end of week feeling pretty confident all was good.  To engage communities, even the “community” of welfare workers in that state, in a way that brings lasting change it is going to take deep and broad engagement over time that slowly builds authentic, lasting support.
  • Third, community engagement is the group equivalent of the one-on-one strategy of “meeting people where they’re at.”  One of the first lessons I learned in my first career (youth work) was that I would be more effective if I would meet young people “where they’re at” rather than pre-judge them and assume too much about them, including that they are all alike.  Most people who go into social services as I did also learn this lesson.  I’ve noticed though that we tend to forget it when we are working with communities.   To meet communities where they are we need to know not just about the community but about what the community values, how the community sees the issue we have decided is a problem, and how, even whether, the community is willing to address it.  There are more things we need to understand than these, but these are basic, especially when the issue we’ve identified is a touchy one like teen pregnancy.

There are some really scary things about patiently engaging the whole community and meeting it where it’s at on really touchy issues.  What if people in the community have not progressed in their understanding of the issue as far as we have?  What if they are wanting to take “the path of least resistance” in order to minimize the possibility of conflict even though that path may take them to less effective solutions?  What if the community’s approach is more conservative, or more progressive, than ours?  I’d like to suggest we shouldn’t be scared of these things but to expect them.  All of these are likely because most people aren’t very fond of change and change is really very messy when the issue is touchiest.  However, when it comes to community engagement on touchy issues, you have to start somewhere and the best place to start is “where they’re at.”

Once we meet them there, how do we move forward?  Here’s five quick tips on moving forward to facilitate change that I’ve learned the hard way:

  1. Patiently invest in building trusting relationships with people and with the community.
  2. Patiently listen to their ideas.
  3. Patiently present our ideas as options, not as mandates or pre-packaged solutions.
  4. Patiently work together on a plan forward toward a stretch goal owned by the community that uses stretch strategies and tactics that are supported and implemented by the community.  (By stretch I mean goals, strategies, and tactics that push everyone just a little bit out of their comfort zone and yet aren’t so extreme that most people can’t live with them.)
  5. Patiently practice faith in the desire, will, and capacity of communities to self-organize for good and to do good things when we simply support them and resist taking over or imposing our will.

One last thought…what makes an issue touchy for a community?  Defining “touchy” is a lot like how I heard “major surgery” differentiated from “minor surgery” a while back.  “Major surgery” is any surgery I have.  “Minor surgery” is any surgery you have.  So, the correct answer to the question is “It depends” on the how the community views the issue.

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

Mike, Jeff and Other Imagineers

How do you get to be an imagineer?  Imagineering is most closely associated with the Walt Disney Company though, according to the Source of All Wisdom and Knowledge (Wikipedia), the term was first used by aluminum giant Alcoa in the 1940s.  I was first introduced to the term and concept by a guy who had been a Disney Imagineer through a creativity workshop he led for professional speakers and trainers.  Imagineering is the blending of imagination and engineering to create new ideas or expand on existing ones.  The usage has expanded a little bit beyond traditional engineering to include other fields as well.

Since then I’ve gotten to know two other imagineers that I think you should know as well.  Though neither ever worked for Disney or Alcoa, both are imagineers in that they have become expert in tapping, developing, and sharing their creativity for development of ideas that serve greater good.

Mike Wagner is a friend from my home state of Iowa.  His company, White Rabbit Group, helps organizations and companies develop a “Strategic Brand Compass” that aligns and guides decision-making.  Mike has become an imagineer by being strange.  That’s a self description, by the way, because I don’t really see anything strange about Mike.  (Uh oh.  Does this mean I’m blind to Mike’s strangeness because I’m strange as well?  Probably, but that’s not such a bad thing.)  Recently Mike sent me a link to his TEDx talk, “The Positive Power of Being Strange.”  It is well worth the 17+ minutes of your time it will take to watch it on YouTube or from the link on Mike’s website.

Jeff Logan is another friend whom I first got to know in 2009 when we worked together in the first of many team projects to be thrust upon us in a PhD program at Eastern University.  Jeff is a guy that just oozes creativity, even when he isn’t trying.  I knew Jeff and I had connected on a deep level when he showed up at one of our residencies with a gift for me – a pop-up book featuring the cartooning of MAD magazine on the subject of American politics.  Jeff is linguist, researcher, teacher, and a former political cartoonist.  We are both working on our dissertations and his, not surprisingly to anyone who knows him, is on the role of humor in leadership.  Jeff has been featuring a number of his cartoons and commentaries on his blog, Leadership of Fools.  It is well worth checking out and following.

So, what can Mike and Jeff teach us about becoming an imagineer?

  • First, you don’t need a contract or title from Disney to be an imagineer.
  • Second, you don’t have to be the brightest bulb in the pack – see Mike’s TEDx talk for more on this.
  • Third, don’t take yourself so seriously – in his other life, Jeff is a Baptist minister and it would be oh-so-easy to take everything very seriously.

One last thought I’d like to throw in about being an imagineer.  For me it begins with taking the risk to do something different from the routine.  I’m a person who really likes routines.  But I also know that routine can be lethal for a person like me who works in the world of ideas.  I’ve found simply doing something different from the way I usually do it can often fuel my own creativity by tapping into my own strangeness and shaking me out of the routine.

Here’s to the imagineers among us and the imagineer within each of us!

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

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…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk: A Thought Provoking 19 Minutes

Several times over the past few days Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk “The Way We Think about Charity is Dead Wrong” has repeatedly popped up and I finally took a look.  It is well worth the nearly 19 minutes it takes to watch it. Dan makes a strong argument for freeing non-profits from some of the restrictions that differentiate non-profits from for-profits.  I like many of his ideas as they are intuitive and just make sense.  Not long ago I posted on the issue of sustainability and the role of community engagement.  Dan seems to be kicking the ball into the philanthropist’s court with this talk.  Sustainability is not an “either” raise a lot of funds “or” deeply engage the community proposition.  Both fundraising and community engagement are needed and, in fact, tend to go hand in hand.  Effective fundraising allows a non-profit to invest in broader and deeper community engagement and effective community engagement increases the likelihood of successful fundraising efforts.  While I continue to work on Part 2 of “When Collective Impact Isn’t,” take a look at Dan’s TED Talk and see what you think.

More later…

T.W.K.

When Collective Impact Isn’t – Part 1

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?”  This was a hot topic at the Champions for Change meeting of backbone organization leaders in Cincinnati on March 6-8 and appropriately so given the growing attention of funders.  Even in the field that I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years (teen pregnancy prevention and adolescent sexual health) there have been increasing rumors of key funders looking closely at Collective Impact as a model framework for creating social change at the community and state level.  The faculty at Champions for Change (John Kania and Fay Hanleybrown of FSG, Paul Born and Liz Weaver of Tamarack, and various members of the Strive Partnership) and participants wrestled with this question.

A general consensus seemed to emerge around three ideas in relationship to the question.

  1. There was wide-spread agreement among participants that FSG had successfully named the approach to community work the participants had in common.  By giving it the name “Collective Impact” it offered the first words of a new language that everyone in the room could begin to speak in order to communicate with one another.
  2. Explaining what Collective Impact is to others and how it is different is not easy.
  3. It may be easiest to differentiate between what is and is not Collective Impact by identifying what it is not.

I agree with my colleagues at Champions for Change that FSG seems to have given us new language to describe a different approach.  I also do agree that it isn’t easy to explain Collective Impact.  I’ve been trying to do so with colleagues for more than a year and I’ve made only incremental progress.  Only recently did the lights begin to go on for some of my closest colleagues as they read and re-read the FSG articles and the concept papers I’ve written for our work.  On the last point, though, I’m not yet sure I agree that it is easiest to explain Collective Impact by focusing on what it is not.

I do think a key to understanding the difference between Collective Impact and business as usual (e.g., coalitions, collaborations driven by a single organization or funder, etc.) 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.

What is missed, though, is how the initiative does its work.  I argue this is really the essence of a Collective Impact initiative and what sets it apart from all others.  The how of Collective Impact might be described in any one of these ideas:  process, organic, emerging, evolutionary, or becoming.  And all of these words are bound to drive the Type A pragmatists among us, who love definitive answers, absolutely nuts!  In a Collective Impact initiative the most frequently heard answer to any question about solutions, next steps, plans, and all those other things the pragmatist desires is simply, “It depends.”  This is because context is critical to how Collective Impact works.  The context, defined by the community setting, the nature of the issue to be addressed, the key stakeholders at the table, the availability of resources, etc., etc., will inform the how and the how will always trump the what in a successful Collective Impact social change initiative.

This may seem a radical idea and yet it is not at all.  Those familiar with complexity theory and organizations or complex adaptive systems know it is just how things really work in the world.  Complexity theory simply says organizations or structures exist within environments that are constantly changing and are terribly uncertain.  Therefore, in order to survive and even thrive, organizations have to be constantly adapting to the environment or context in which it works.  To do this they become self-organizing, learning organizations that can quickly and fluidly change as needed.

If you’ve ever walked through an amusement park “fun house” you know all about a complex adaptive system.  Walking through it while the floors are tipping, tilting, and moving back and forth is not so easy.  The key to navigating a fun house floor is to stay relaxed and to “go with the flow” of the floor and learn to adapt quickly to the wildly moving floors.  If you stay stiff and try to walk straight and inflexibly, you’ll probably end up on your keester cursing the sadist that named the thing a “fun house.”

In my opinion, the how of Collective Impact is what distinguishes it from business as usual.  In Part 2 I’ll suggest several tell-tale signs that a “Collective Impact” initiative really isn’t.

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

How to Sustain Good Work without Fundraising

“I’ve raised over $100 million without asking for money.”  When Paul Born dropped that little gem, it really refocused my wandering attention.  Paul is Co-Founder and President of Tamarack-An Institute for Community Engagement in Canada.  As I listened more closely, I would hear Paul confirm in his stories what my research over the past couple of years has been leading me to understand about the relationship between fundraising and project, even organizational, sustainability.

For the past three days I’ve been part of an extraordinary experience in Cincinnati, Ohio.  John Kania and Fay Hanleybrown of FSG and Paul Born and Liz Weaver of Tamarack, in collaboration with The Aspen Institute and the Strive Partnership, convened the first ever gathering of leaders of Collective Impact “backbone” organizations.  It was an invitation-only event and only about 70 people were expected.  Due to an East Coast snowstorm that snarled air travel fewer were actually able to attend.  I was surprised to find I was the only person in the room that did not actually lead a backbone organization.  Over the past several months, however, I’ve gotten acquainted with Fay Hanleybrown via phone and email and had discussed with her the work I’ve been doing on creating a sustainability framework anchored in the principles of Collective Impact.  These conversations, I believe, led to my invitation and I was honored to have been included.

The framework that I had been discussing with Fay over the past several months proposed that sustainability was achieved through a four-stage process that began with community engagement.  The process is quite simple and intuitive.  An organization or group engages a community on an important issue it is trying to address through information sharing and ongoing discussion, both personally and publicly in various media.  Through continuous, broad, and effective engagement, the organization or group becomes legitimized as the “go to” authority on the issue in the community as it becomes increasingly, positively associated with it.  As the engagement process continues to permeate the whole community and the group’s status as the “go to” authority increases, even those who were reluctant supporters, late adopters, or even resistors of change, become transformed into supporters, or at least, they don’t resist any longer.  This is the point at which the resources of a community, including funding, begin to open up to the initiative and a critical mass is achieved.  As this “tipping point” is reached, the desired change becomes the new norm for the community.  This ELTN (Engagement, Legitimization, Transformation, & Normalization) process achieves sustainability that fundraising alone cannot.  (For more information about the ELTN process email info@nonprofitgp.com.)

There are at least two reasons this is true.  First, it creates community buy-in and, if the process also includes community participation in decision-making, it also creates community ownership.  In Cincinnati I learned a new expression that I like for how it so respectfully describes the community members that are closest to the issue being addressed:  “residents with lived experience.”  Rather than referring to the people most closely related to an important community issue as the “target population” or “victims” or “people at greatest risk” or some such, “residents with lived experience” evokes a sense of membership in the community and respect for the deep knowledge of the issue they bring to the discussion.  An effective ELTN process will include not just the powerful and influential stakeholders in a community but the whole community including “residents with lived experience” of the issue.  The powerful and influential, who often control the funding, may buy in as long as it seems a good investment.  However, once the whole community, including those residents with the lived experience, own the issue and the initiative that is addressing it, even lack of funding won’t take it away.

The second reason the ELTN process creates sustainability is because it creates a perception of value whether it is warranted or not.  I’m sure you’ve noticed how some things that aren’t effective, and may even be harmful, seem to never go away.  Let me give you a couple of examples in case you are coming up short at the moment.

Why are banks too big to fail even when they have some responsibility for a financial disaster?  Why does a prevention program that some feel may actually do more harm than good to children and youth continue to thrive?  Because they have a perception of value in the community that allows them to exist.

If banks that played a role in the financial meltdown can be sustained and youth prevention programs that don’t prevent anything can themselves become addictive to communities, surely organizations and initiatives that are genuinely doing good in a community should have no trouble, right?  Not exactly.  Many genuinely good organizations and causes continue to struggle for survival and seem to be light-years from actually thriving.  Why?  Because they’ve not really built the case for the value of their work in their community, that is, they’ve not achieved the perception of value.  They spend their time chasing money when if they spent their time creating and sharing value, the money would follow.

Community resources (including funding) follow community engagement.  This was the lesson that Paul Born taught this week in Cincinnati.  I’ve described it here with the ELTN process (which, by the way, can be measured and monitored for progress) but Paul explained how community engagement happens through community conversations.  I couldn’t do justice in this space to everything Paul taught us about the “how to’s” of community conversations.  However, you can get Paul Born’s book that explains it more fully – Community Conversations: Mobilizing Ideas, Skills, and Passion of Community Organizations, Governments, Businesses, and People.  The book is like Paul – insightful, relaxed, funny, approachable, and easy to understand.

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

The Underpinnings of Collective Impact

Collective Impact is an evidence-based framework for creating and sustaining social change in a community.  It is not a formula.  It is not a program.  It is not even a plan.  This is one of the most important things to understand about Collective Impact: it is a framework or, in the words of Merriam-Webster, it is a “basic conceptional structure.”  To make it be anything more or anything less does injustice to it.

However, it wasn’t just concocted.  It is based upon research which found that successful initiatives have five elements “that together produce true alignment and lead to powerful results.”  For nearly a year I have been researching and studying Collective Impact for myself.  I’m happily finding it aligns very closely with what I’ve learned through my experience in leading and consulting with social change nonprofit organizations for many years.  With all the attention Collective Impact is getting, though, I worry there are many in nonprofit organizations who don’t fully understand and appreciate it is not a quick fix plan or simple solution program.  One of Collective Impacts recent critics even recognizes this when he writes, “Collective impact envisions an even higher standard of collaboration that requires long-term commitment and consensus from all.

A framework can look deceptively simple and easy to implement…until you try to do it.  A framework, or theory, provides the destination but how you get there has to be figured out based upon local conditions.  Working with a framework is like working with a car GPS.  You have to tell the GPS your destination (theory or framework) and then it will give you the turn-by-turn directions (the practical steps).  What is essential is that you know where you want to go.  Without that little bit of information, the GPS can’t tell you where to go and neither can that little voice that berates you when you don’t obey the instructions.  My favorite quote about the function of frameworks is from Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology and a pioneer in organizational development, who said: “There is nothing so practicable as a good theory.”  Lewin understood what the folks behind Collective Impact understand – all the quick fix solutions people want, such as “making plans,” “taking steps,” and “implementing programs” is meaningless and fruitless unless you know where you want to go.  Collective Impact provides a direction, but each of us that attempt to use it will have to define the steps we take in order to replicate its five conditions or elements.  Without the framework, though, we wouldn’t really know where we needed to be heading or how we’d know when we arrived.

In my exploration of Collective Impact and my attempts to support nonprofit organizations in using it, I’ve observed there are three other things that it is really important for organizations to understand about the framework.  In this article, I’m going to simply mention them briefly and in future articles I’ll unpack each a little more.

First, it is critical to also understand adaptive leadership theory in order to know how to lead a Collective Impact initiative.

Second, Collective Impact isn’t accomplished with a coalition but through a multi-sector, community-wide partnership that engages others through cooperation, coordination, and, at its highest level, collaboration.

Third, broad community participation, generally created by intensive and continuous community engagement, is vital if community ownership of the social change effort is to emerge.  Broad community participation is also necessary if the initiative is to avoid becoming just another program being done to a community rather than with a community.

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas W. Klaus