Tom’s Blog – The Daily Drivel

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…


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…


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

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…


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…


Copyright 2012 by Thomas W. Klaus

Collective Impact and Teen Pregnancy Prevention

The Collective Impact framework (first introduced in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in January has certainly captured the attention of the nonprofit world.  On September 25, a webinar was hosted by FSG, the drivers of the Collective Impact (CI) framework movement.  The webinar focused on introducing funders to CI and over 300 people attended.  Among the folks that have been attempting to utilize the CI framework are those working in teen pregnancy prevention and adolescent sexual health.  Recently, however Emmett Carson, writing in The Huffington Post challenged readers and nonprofit leaders to “rethink” CI, especially in relationship to teen pregnancy. (Be sure to also check out FSG’s response.)  If you are a professional working in teen pregnancy prevention or adolescent sexual health AND you’ve been attempting to use the CI framework to engage your constituents and sustain your work, I’d like to hear from you.  Take a couple of minutes to review the Carson article and FSG response.  Then, I’d love to hear from you on the following questions:  First, briefly, how have you been attempting to use the CI framework?  Second, have you encountered challenges, like those mentioned by Carson, related to setting a common agenda?  Third, if so, how have you addressed it?  Finally, in light of your experience in teen pregnancy prevention/adolescent sexual health, how do you evaluate Carson’s criticism?

More later,


Copyright 2012 by Thomas W. Klaus

Welcome to the NP Clinic!

Welcome to the Non-Profit GP!

My entire career has been spent in leadership of small non-profit organizations.  By small, I mean less than (way less than) 50 staff members.

This blog has been started to be a first stop for help, a primary care clinic if you will, for leaders of small non-profit and third sector organizations.  These leaders know better than others that time and resources are not always available for them to hire consultants or other specialists when they are needed.  Even more, the consultants and other specialists that are available often have most of their experience in business and corporate settings or have worked with large – sometimes very large – non-profit organizations.  Unfortunately, this experience and knowledge doesn’t always transfer well for use in small non-profit organizations.

I’m all about small non-profits.  That’s where my experience is drawn from.  However, I’ve also studied non-profit organizations so that my experienced is backed up with the best available science.  After years of experience in non-profit leadership I returned to school about three years ago to earn a PhD in non-profit organizational leadership.  Even now I’m working with my dissertation chair to define my research topic and refine my research questions.  If you don’t mind, I’ll also use this blog to keep you posted on my progress.

For now, thanks for stopping in.  See you again soon!


Copyright 2011 by Thomas W. Klaus