I have written in the past about what I call the pendulum swing or the bandwagon effect. I think this is what has happened with respect to collective impact over the past 10 years. I suggest it also occurred in the late 1980s when outcome measurement rode into town on its stallion named Logic Model. And it is also happening with the word, “movement.” Today, just about everything is a movement. Also see Collective Impact: Watch out for the Pendulum Swing (click image below for the paper), a piece I wrote for Tamarack in 2015 while I was the CEO of Bissell Centre.
I am simultaneously a proponent and opponent of collective impact. I do not think large-scale change efforts have to embrace the CI framework but also think CI can help create large-scale change. It all depends on how committed folks are to truly changing themselves and their organizations and how well they design and execute their collective efforts.
The idea of collective impact is easy to appreciate. Who will stand up and decry common agendas or continuous communication or sharing resources in a collaborative way? Models and frameworks always look good. Acting on them is quite another matter.
One of the biggest barriers to effective significant change work is vanity. When I speak before an audience, I send in a bio of all the great things I have done. I don’t list all the innovations I created or co-designed that failed to launch. I don’t wax eloquent about all the fundraising goals I failed to meet. I share my expertise but do not mention how little I know about this or that. After all who wants to spend all that scarce money non profits have on a bumbler?
We want to look good. When we see a good-looking “hero” walk on stage, we want to be a part of the heroism being offered and promised. Heroes solve problems no one else can solve and often very quickly. They say noble things. They have super powers. We quote them in our collateral materials because we want to be associated with such brilliance. Even if we do not appreciate their perspectives or find ourselves scribbling “bullshit” in the margins of our copious notes, we admire them. We admire those who are able to stand before us and challenge and enlighten us.
When collective impact began to get legs, I observed how some organizations quickly identified themselves as a “backbone organization.” You might not agree with me, but my sense was these organizations more often than not simply repackaged their current ideologies and practices into a CI wrapper and then carried on pretty much as they had before.
As an organizational change consultant I came across a client now and again whose idea of significant change involved fresh coats of paint, new job titles, and new language to describe the same old, same old. Harsh criticism, perhaps, but I eventually stopped doing evaluative work because it was difficult to tell the truth when the truth wasn’t attractive. Organizational leaders were wary of reactions from funders or donors, and I couldn’t blame them. Back then, evaluation was not typically a learning journey; it was not about fostering adaptation or alternative actions; it was mostly about “passing judgement.” Affirmations were of course desired and frankly often were deserved, but a loyal executive leader of an organization being evaluated did not want shortcomings and failures identified, even if they were far fewer than the successes lauded.
We do talk about failure as an unavoidable partner in our quest for innovation or transformation. I love the term, fail-forward, because it aptly captures the possibilities we can glean and craft from failing. But here’s the thing. To fail forward, one has to fully recognize one has failed. We don’t like doing that. People lose jobs and status for failing. Funders frown, or worse.
Our sector has come a long way in terms of evaluation, thanks to the work of thought leaders like Michael Quinn Patton and Mark Cabaj. The buzz today is not about summative or even formative evaluations but rather about development evaluation and principle-focused evaluation. Learning is now emphasized as a key purpose of evaluation. There is good stuff happening, but I do not know enough yet to ascertain if these better approaches to evaluation are helping us with our quest for transformational change.
I think we struggle with strategy as well. Questioning the goals we are striving for as a group is hard to do once they are enshrined in a our strategic, operational, evaluation, and other plans, not to mention policies and our systems of delivery. Even harder to challenge our practice of delivering on such goals. Our commitments to our modus operandi are carried with us to collaborative tables, where real change and progress can happen or so we tell ourselves.
Are there organizations and collaboratives that do awesome work? Do they change in order to make change? Do they take strategy and evaluation seriously? Of course, there are many who do, but these kinds of organizations likely understand how much farther they need to go, how much deeper the change within must become, and how their considerable efforts still are having small impact on intractable problems.
One early criticism about collective impact, which I shared, was its failure to identify community engagement as a fundamental component of creating a CI effort. The architects of the model, John Kania and Mark Kramer, wrote about the importance of institutions from all sectors coming together to identify a common agenda about attacking an intractable problem in their communities: poverty, low high school graduation rates, illiteracy, and on. The people living with these problems and challenges were not emphasized as necessary players and leaders in CI efforts.
This omission has been addressed and well expressed by Mark Cabaj and Liz Weaver in their 2016 paper, Collective Impact 3.0, An Evolving Framework for Community Change.
Among the good ideas they put forward was the importance of community aspiration being the driver of forming a common agenda.
Common agendas formed by cross sector institutions are hard enough to craft. It’s even harder to invest the time, energy, and honesty required to identify and act on the aspirations of community. Such aspirations cannot be identified by having an Indigenous woman, an African man, and a young person in a wheel chair sitting at a table with the rest of us. We need those voices at the table to help identify ways to engage marginalized people in building a common understanding of the problems we face collectively and then how we can aspire for solutions. Representatives at such tables must be conduits to others who share similar experiences and challenges, albeit uniquely.
I imagine this is why Cabaj and Weaver also identified community engagement as a key condition inside of which continuous communication is required. It takes time, costs money, and frankly I am not sure just how many of us are good at facilitating such efforts. Authentic engagement can yield unpredictable results. Professionals may find out the solutions they believe are needed for those living in poverty are not the solutions identified by the targets of their good intentions.
I was part of a discussion recently about how difficult it is to involve people with lived experience of poverty in the work of ending poverty. Folks like us are paid to attack poverty and we have the time to do so. When one is constantly in survival mode, it is difficult to join a group, a task force, attend meetings, and do all the things professionals believe are necessary to do. I do not disagree that it is difficult, but I do wonder if part of the problem is that we want people with lived experience to join us, be a part of our designs and structures. We want the few of them we allow at the table to speak for those living as they do, as if those living in poverty or those who are Indigenous or those who are African represent a homogenous group.
This is where movements fit into the picture. Movements exist when a mass of people are acting to remedy what’s wrong. While the catalysts for a movement are often privileged people, the power and impact of movements are in the numbers of people working on the same problem and a good number of them, if not the majority, are disadvantaged. Witness the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, the labour movement, the LGTBQ movement.
Movements cannot be (or should I say, should not be) pronounced by a government or a collection of institutions. Movements are sourced in people and their actions, which may vary. Martin Luther King Jr. did not create the civil rights movement, though he influenced millions of people who took up the cause.
Movements cannot be controlled by professionals. They take on a life of their own. As much as we want a movement to end poverty, I suggest naming our good efforts as a movement is actually more of a marketing exercise than a reality. Calling our work “a movement” makes what we are doing look powerful, productive, and hopeful, but hardly as impactful as an authentic movement can be. I do think we have a movement of non-profit organizations and cross sector collaborations of institutions and governments working to end or reduce poverty, but I do not see a movement of the people rising up to put an end of poverty. Perhaps you do. If so, correct me. I have no stake in being right about this.
Scott Goodson, author of Uprising, suggests that a movement is a type of uprising. His book is for marketers and I won’t comment on the context behind his thoughts. But I do think that a movement is an uprising. It occurs when people come together to address a problem and replace it with a new or better cultural norm. That’s what Mother’s Against Drunk Driving did. Non-smoking legislation is the result of non-smokers and health advocates speaking out, influencing friends and colleagues, and rising up against the tobacco industry who made trillions selling a product that kills people. Martin Luther King Junior influenced the emergence of an uprising. The labour movement was an uprising. Women’s suffrage was an uprising.
My greatest passion as a community change practitioner is to end poverty and homelessness. At Bissell Centre where I was CEO for nearly five years, we dramatically increased the number of homeless people we housed – from 80 per year to nearly 500 annually over that period of time, but sadly we still turned away as many homeless people each year. We were attacking the problem with the obvious solution: housing the homeless. It made sense to do that of course, but we did not create a movement to end homelessness, perhaps because who out there is going to fund an uprising?
Bissell Centre was involved in an uprising when it organized Tent City in Edmonton some years back. Many say that effort, led by one of my predecessors, was the motivation for the city’s ten-year plan to end homelessness. Tent city motivated some systems change and increased funding from governments and donors. Gains have been made, but homelessness persists. How come? I believe it is because service delivery reforms and systems change are reformative practices. But I am not sure they are revolutionary. Now before you go too far thinking I am even more radical than you imagined, let me add that transformational change – which we all talk about as a type of holy grail – is revolutionary change. How could it not be?
We create our own environment, and all of us have created poverty and homelessness. People like me decide who will get housed and who will be turned away and how much money will be spent on housing someone and for how long. We determine income security rates and despite knowing that what is provided is woefully inadequate, we maintain that system and others like it.
Decisions made by governments, businesses, and non profits do help people, but not nearly enough of them and what we do provide is inadequate. It’s as if we share a common value that not doing too much to help the disadvantaged is the right thing to do. We worry about food bank cheaters; we cite examples of how the poor have manipulated the system. We believe someone in need of free day care should not have a cell phone or wear nice clothes.
Who among us is going to organize an uprising against what we have created and sustain? Charities are limited by law about the extent to which they can lobby governments for change. Corporations can lobby government, but not charities. How come? Somehow, we have come to accept that changing things for the better should protect the powerful from changing themselves. We want to avoid the chaos of rebellion. By rebellion I do not mean violent conflicts or that harming others should be tolerated. Rather I am talking about people refusing to tolerate injustice and the denial of their human rights by others who have their rights well in hand and then rising up to do something about it.
Is there not a compelling reason to rise up against the environment we have created in order to be a society where poverty does not exist? Is there not common benefit in the elimination of homelessness? Yeh, I know. Not all of us will benefit in the same way. It is also true, and you know this as well as I do, that often to achieve a desired benefit, we have to give up something, we have to compromise our own personal ambitions, change our values and habits. If I want to lose weight, I have to give up potato chips and overcome my addiction to pancakes, ice cream, and all the processed crap I eat. If I want to end poverty, I need to accept I may have to change my views on personal success and largesse. I may have to be the one to sacrifice.
Collective impact efforts should consider how to mobilize human beings to create a necessary uprising. If you believe in the eco cycle of change (below), can you see how “release” and “exploration” connect to the idea of an “uprising” for change?
Large scale change must be about ending pain and suffering, not just framing everything in positive language. I have heard leaders say things like, “We don’t focus on problems, we focus on asset building.” I do not deny the power of asset-building in community change efforts, but let’s get real. Our job is to be a catalyst for change that ends human suffering, ends racism and hatred, ends complacency about incarcerating the poor and under educated. Our job is to help solve what is wrong and unacceptable.
Change-agents must be prepared to recognize the roles we play in perpetuating the very problems we want to resolve. Subsidies do not end poverty; they provide the impoverished with relief and as good as that may be, we will never end poverty by offering public transportation subsidies or housing subsidies to those who cannot afford market rents, much less see a future where they might own a home. Taking away grocery carts from the homeless does not resolve homelessness; it makes it look neater for the rest of us. The Child Tax Benefit will lift hundreds of thousands of families above the poverty line, but does that mean they are no longer impoverished? And when that benefit results in communities lowering the living wage in their community, could it be that the Child Tax Benefit becomes an economic opportunity to keep wages low?
Large scale change requires agreement that the current state of affairs is wrong. That poverty exists is wrong. Children going to school hungry is so much more than a problem. It is a reality we have created. School lunch programs help, but child poverty persists in spite of our amelioration efforts.
If a corporation justifies increased shareholder value as more important than resolving child poverty, they will at best be minor players in solving the problem. A major corporation informed me they would not be funding a Bissell Centre program because their grant was too small a part of the overall funding we required to have impact. We needed their money because funders have created an environment where we have to assemble funding from many sources in order to do our work. The biggest grant available from that corporation at the time was $10,000. What they wanted was to see their money being responsible for big impact, not just be a small contributor towards positive change.
If we believe that we should not have to experience any financial impact on our largesse in order to end poverty, are we also saying that it is the poor who must sacrifice their lives and hopes for our continued prosperity in order to preserve ours? I saw a posting recently on Facebook from a trusted source who said that the top 1% of earners in Canada pay more than one-third of the nation’s income tax. But that’s not the only piece of data that we should reference, is it? What about the growing divide as evidenced in data about Income Inequality? What does it mean when a dozen of so Canadians have more wealth that the province of New Brunswick? What does it mean when those who are experiencing growth in their income year over year are the 1% while most everyone else has seen little if any increase in their financial condition?
Community engagement should not just be one of the five conditions of Collective Impact. It should be at the core of all of the other conditions. But more than that, community engagement should be about fostering an uprising against everything that is causing people to suffer, lose hope.
During my two years as a senior director at Tamarack Institute I was blessed to provide consulting services to the Mohawk Tribal Nation in Kahnawake, Quebec. Their collective impact goals were expansive and seen as requiring a long-term community effort to address them. What impressed me about the Kahnawake Collective Impact effort was their unrelenting commitment to community engagement. The organizers knew its community members were not happy with the status quo. They wanted better jobs, a stronger economy, better education for their children, less substance abuse, and better, more relevant child protection services.
The institutional leaders were courageous enough to recognize they could not resolve these challenges with programs and services alone. They knew that the community deserved to take charge of their own problems and futures, and they knew the achievement of a more informed and active community would cause them discomfort because they would have to change as well.
I worked with the Kahnawake CI team for a year and during that entire time, we focused on community engagement of residents, teachers, helping professionals, business owners, elders, youth and on. When I left Tamarack they were just beginning the formation of their Collective Impact Roundtable, but that did not mean they were done with community engagement. Rather, community engagement was seen as a necessary, ongoing activity.
Although I did not recognize it at the time, I do wonder now if the good people in Kahnawake are involved in an uprising aimed at changing whatever needed to change to create a future of love, spirituality, cultural pride and meaning, and economic security for people, in particular for their children. I wonder if this uprising is not just about impacting external factors that harm Indigenous people. I wonder if the people themselves understand that they also create their own environment and are also barriers to change.
The design of collective impact is relatively easy. Lots has been written about how to do it. But the how of collective impact must be contextual to the why and include the recognition that we must change ourselves to get to where we want to be.
The resolution of intractable problems requires an uprising that is designed to raise all of us up from what we created that is harming us now. Collective impact is not about incremental change. It should be a rebellion against what stands in the way of transformational change. It should be a revolution that focuses on human rights and treating one another with kindness and accommodation (as per Nelson Mandela). It should be an effort that changes conditions that cause and perpetuate suffering and that changes who we are as individuals and as a community of people.
If collective impact is something less, good things will still happen, but the problems we want to address will remain intractable. If we label our actions as collective impact, but fail to execute its conditions and then work honestly to resolve what people want resolved, we may feel good about what we are doing, but I fear we will miss out on effecting the level and depth of community change that we aspire to achieve.
If we need to be recognized for our good work to the point of proclaiming our work as a movement when it is not, will such vanity ever allow us to embrace the importance of mustering up an uprising?
Is it possible to lead an uprising that is simultaneously against and for us? Against what we have created and for the new life we desire? It’s a tall order and I am not sure if we can pull that off. Sometimes I wonder if our persistent resistance to making transformative change is actually stronger than the forces that make poverty an intractable problem.
Still, that’s where the change we desire can be found or created. And if we can pull that off will we recognize that what we create is imperfect and in need of uprisings down the road to self-correct? Do we really believe in and commit to the eco cycle of change or is it little more than a diagram we ponder at conferences and workshops?