Category Archives: Community Engagement

Collective Impact as Uprising

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.

                                         Click Image for Paper

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?

Cabaj and Weaver

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?

Development as Community Strategy

Posted first on the blog of the Edmonton Community Development Company, where I am the Executive Director

In my first three months as the executive director of the Edmonton Community Development Company, I estimate I have had over 100 meetings, most of them being one to one conversations or small group discussions about the communities in which people live and/or work. We talked about community aspirations, community pain, and the plethora of ideas people and groups have and are working on to strengthen communities, in particular the people who reside in them.

I believe that change begins with conversation and that we must have conversations with others who see possibilities others don’t and who view challenges through a diversity of lenses.  One of my major goals has been – and will continue to be – understanding others, understanding what drives them, why they see the solutions they see, and also understanding our differences, and yes, our disparate perspectives on community change. Understanding one another may not always lead to agreement, but I daresay agreement is nigh impossible if we do not understand one another.
meeting-icon-clean1I also believe, based on my experience, understanding our differences is the only way we can resolve them. It’s not easy, is it? After all, don’t we come across others whose ideas rankle us, who advocate for actions we believe are misguided or just plain wrong? The challenge is how to hold up our difference and then work with them in order to find ways for us to move forward together. Roger Martin, who wrote the Opposable Mind, talks about how effective leaders are able to hold opposing ideas simultaneously in their minds and then work with them to foster new or better ideas and courses of action. His research indicates the importance of Integrative Thinking as a key approach to not settling on decisions that are the result of either-or choices. I infer that either-or choices are what create and sustain divisiveness and cause encampments based on rigid ideology.

I work in an environment steeped in history about, and memories of, community development – or in the context of my work, community economic development – that were driven by narrow self-interest or an inflexible devotion to a particular focus that did not gel with others. In the Boyle-McCauley neighborhood, we see how development has impacted area residents. These neighborhoods are where an inordinate percentage of housing stock is social housing, special needs housing, and shelters. The impacts of a high number of human service institutions also being located in these neighbourhoods are significant. Not only do residents experience the symptoms of homelessness (drugs, needles, drunkenness, human waste, vandalism, etc.), the high incidence of these realities deter others from developing businesses or market housing or from otherwise investing in urban core neighborhoods.


I have met with and talked with many residents of urban core neighbourhoods and I have not heard anyone suggest that services to the homeless or to others who are living in poverty should not exist. What I do hear is that residents want balance. They want Edmonton as a whole to share the responsibility of addressing social problems. They do not feel they should have to take on the lion’s share of hosting solutions to these problems. I think that’s fair. It is not about Nimbyism and frankly it is not about moving residents to a culture of Yimbyism (i.e. Yes in my back yard!). Nimbyism is typically a pejorative term that those wanting to do development assign to their opposition. It becomes  a broad brush stroke used to paint those who disagree with development as unreasonable, self-serving if not selfish. It fosters a stereotype that avoids the underlying issues that I suggest are worthy of address. Is there not rationale at times for those who do not want a development in their back yard?

And Yimbyism. Here is the risk: that this term reflects a movement to persuade residents to say “yes” to development that they do not want. I recall attending a workshop put on by a group with community engagement expertise. They were promoting how to get residents to say “yes” to development. Without going into all the content, it felt to me like the workshop was more about persuasion, if not manipulation, when community engagement should be about seeking common ground. I realize purists will say this is the purpose of Yimbyism; however, my warning is that all of this could become nothing more than two ideas in opposition to each other that focus more on getting to what “I” want than to what “we should do together.”

Development should be a community strategy, not just the strategy of entrepreneurs. In the context of my work, development in a community should not be what I think it should be. I see my role to be one that is centered on understanding what community wants and what community wants is not just about aspirations, it is also about addressing the pains that community residents are experiencing. What I have been hearing from all those I am meeting and talking to has reinforced my belief that communities require and deserve strategic development in their areas of town.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

Many, if not most, urban core neighbourhoods are lacking in anchor institutions or businesses like mainstream grocery stores, financial institutions. child care, and so on. Many of their main streets suffer from boarded up or dilapidated store fronts or empty lots. In areas of town where lower-income people live are where pawn shops, pay-day lending businesses, and other businesses abound that deliver costly services or products (e.g. mini-marts) to people who face daily financial struggles. Sometimes there are bars along the main street in which drugs are sold and other crimes occur. What residents are telling me is that want help in re-developing empty store fronts, help with building on empty lots, and help with getting rid of unwanted gathering places where crimes take place. They want the development we undertake to be strategic, to address problem properties and reinvent those spaces into developments that not only reflect community interests and aspiration but that result in creating more possibilities for future development.

Food security is a common theme I am hearing about. Residents do not want to live in food deserts. They want more choice than the unhealthy foods offered by mini-marts at expensive prices. They want opportunities to grow food and to see in their neighborhoods the social, health, and economic impacts of a farmer’s market or opportunities to create local enterprises that contribute to enhanced food security. They want to see more jobs in their neighborhoods and more housing that attracts new residents to their part of town.

Residents are telling me they want us to be strategic about what properties we purchase and redevelop. They want us to  redevelop boarded up homes or repurpose a dwelling that takes advantage of its tenants. They want development that adds to the possibility of young people or people of modest means to actually be able to own a home.

The Edmonton Community Development Company was not created just to do development. It exists to be a strategic developer that does its best to act on community needs and interests. Residents don’t want us to come into their neighborhood to sell them our solutions. They want us to work with them to foster development that enriches their lives as a community. And that is exactly what we are committed to doing.

Yeah, I know. We won’t please everyone. There will be limits to what we can pull off, but we are going to try. I promise.

35 Voices On Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future

C lick Paper to Download

In July and August, I sought out individuals in my personal and professional network to contribute to a major paper I was writing on Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future. I sought out participation through Facebook, via a survey which I promoted in emails and through Twitter.

The paper was released last week at Tamarack’s Community Change Institute. It’s not a coincidence that it was titled: Cities of the Future: Co-Creating Tomorrow.

I have to say I was so pleased with the participation and the depth and range of responses. The narrative written by participants was so compelling, at least half of the paper is written in their own   words and the remainder is presented in aggregate, through summary commentary. I do admit I might have thrown in my own point of view here and there, but the paper truly is one example of co-creation. Continue reading 35 Voices On Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future

Trickle-Down Community Engagement

Cross posted at

I waspreparing for the community engagement learning event Tamarack was doing in Ottawa last month called Community Engagement: The Next Generation. One of the workshops I wanted to do was on engagement of marginalized populations, in particular those living in poverty. My exploration of this topic led me to some provocative writing by Vu Le, who is a writer, speaker, and executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a capacity building organization with a focus on leveling the playing field for people of colour as well as small, grass roots organizations.

I was particularly drawn to a piece he wrote on his blog about “Trickle-Down Community Engagement,” and his writing became the catalyst for one of the workshops I am doing, aptly called “Avoiding Trickle-Down Community Engagement of the Marginalized.”

With minor paraphrasing here is what Vu Le wrote:

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is when professionals bypass the people who are most affected by issues and instead engage and fund large organizations and systems to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free and on our timelines, within our rules of engagement and end up grateful for our largesse.

aace4It’s hard-hitting criticism but also too often the truth. I encourage you to read his postings on the topic. I did some thinking on the topic and I asked myself what causes trickle-down community engagement; why does it happen? I reflected on my own varied experiences of engaging people who are poor, homeless, and further marginalized by an illness or disability, lack of education, or by racism. Here are some of the reasons I came up with: Continue reading Trickle-Down Community Engagement