Category Archives: Possibility

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?

O Canada and the Mathematics of Change

I just read in the paper Canada is changing its national anthem to make it gender neutral though I prefer “gender inclusive.” Real change means changing our symbols and our icons when necessary to reflect society’s ever changing sensibilities.

I imagine there will be some kafuffle about this. Traditionalists will articulate traditionalist stuff, rationalizing where there is no longer rationale, if there ever was any. The reactions of many others will be something akin to a shrug of the shoulder or a 1-second read on Facebook, a click on Like, and a scroll down to a video of someone’s barking dog.

Some of us will sit before our humongous flat screens and  watch 4-headed debates that are a testimony to the betrayal of the word, “expert.”  I have never really learned anything listening to talking heads, other than the ends to which people will go to not make one whit of positive difference to what is happening in the world.

Still others will say the changes did not go far enough. The song remains “Christian” and therefor unrepresentative of the Canadian reality when it comes to religion. A few might argue any reference to religion should be struck out, end of story. Yes, there is more to figure out, but not changing until the change is complete is not how change works. You don’t lose 10 pounds and criticize the change because you have 40 more pounds to lose. It’s the same thing with transformational, societal change, just more complicated.

And many others, thank goodness, will have a little dance, if not raise a fist into the air. It’s about time. How we see one another must change. I know. There has been progress, but not enough; so, there is work to do.  How we talk to, about, and with one another has to  change. Talking for others has to change as well, perhaps most of all. Once the Canada’s gender-inclusive national anthem is official, the flag will wave its Maple Leaf above the same landscape it did the day before. Gender biases, disdain for the impoverished and the different, hatred of Indigenous people — all of that  and so much more like it will rear their ugly heads like monsters in a bad dream that continues even when we wake up.

We are still just waking up. It’s very early in the morning. Let’s greet the decision to change our national anthem as something more than an editorial statement or, worse, nothing more than the sum of so many markups from what we expect these days in an excellent proof reader.  We are not making this change because it is the right thing to do as much as we are making the change because things are not right and most Canadians are tired of it. Most Canadians want to be better than that. Than this.

So, the morning after the legislation becomes effective, sit on the edge of your bed, have a stretch and let loose your morning sigh or groan and take a look out the window to check the weather like you always do. But regardless of the cold front’s persistence or a clearing sky,  that day will be a new day – another new day.

Change is made one act at a time, one day at a time. New days are generative. They create more new days and the more new days we create, the more there are. Ironic, don’t you think? The human change we need and deserve eventually comes down to mathematics.

(Oh, my data-crazed friends and colleagues are going to love this.)

Why are we here?

Such a simple question, four small words that get at the core of our community change work.

It’s not a question confined to a step in a visioning or planning process. It’s place is within us, no matter where we are going or if we are standing still.

It’s not just a question about purpose or vision. It is also inquiry into who we are and how coming together around something that matters to all of us might change us. After all, change of any size is made by people; the changes they make only occur because of the changes within themselves. Continue reading Why are we here?

Five Elements of Strategic Resource Development

Posting #1 in a series on Resource Development

It’s tough out there for non-profits and social causes when it comes to raising money, especially money for core operations and services. All of the seed grants, innovation grants, or target specific project grants are fine and dandy, but the growth in sustainable funding is not growing, is it? Impact Investing, Social Enterprise, and Crowd Funding are among the more recent methods of financing social good, though the extent of their reach and utility by the sector overall are emerging, not yet clearly understood.

I have read a fair amount over the years on fundraising and other resource development opportunities and one thing I found irritating in most of them was the thesis they presented, which generally was, “if you all do this or that, or follow this methodology, you all will raise more money.” The reality is, as you  know, every organization will not increase their revenues in a given year. Many struggle just to maintain current levels of funding.

Relationships Matter

A colleague of mine recently suggested I write a piece like this, given my “success” in significantly growing two non-profits. For one, I doubled staff and financial resources in about three years; for another agency the growth in revenues was about 70% over 5 years. At both agencies there were significant additions in services, but also large gains in securing sustainable funding and improving operational infrastructure (which is all about capacity). This leads me to my first point about generating resources: Raising revenues significantly takes  a significant amount of time.  Patience is definitely a virtue in this instance. Continue reading Five Elements of Strategic Resource Development

Let’s Take a Break from Doing Good

Earlier this June I had the delightful experience of being a part of a workshop at Tamarack’s Deepening Community gathering in Edmonton. The workshop was with Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack. Al called our session a “beauty jam” and both Al and Vicki wanted an “artist” to be a part of the jam. I was thrilled. And our time together was awesome.

The spoken word piece I did was an update of my first version of Let’s Take a Break from Doing Good. The process of editing and rewriting continued after our beauty jam. This is what I love about writing: it never is done. So here’s the latest version:

Let’s Take a Break from Doing Good

Let’s forget our worries and our doubts and walk together unencumbered by the need for a destination. Let’s close the big books of plans and studies and turn down the volume of all that best practice noise. Let’s prefer to have faith in something less predictable and confining.

Let’s agree to never again meet in board rooms or scrawl logic models on white boards. No more sitting in a circle going around the room saying nice things about evaluation that we really don’t mean. And no more stories about the innovator’s dilemma. They all sound the same, don’t they?

Let’s run outside into the blue and green grinning wildly. And kick off our shoes and dig our toes into the dirt and feel what it is truly like to be grounded in Mother Earth.

Let’s walk along the water’s edge and enjoy the rhymes of the river. Watch the way water prevails no matter what sits in its path. How it can wear away mountain stone and heal and nurture all at once.

dandelionsWhen we reach a clearing, let’s stop for a moment and receive the murmur of the forest and wonder about all the beauty that lives there, whether deep in the brambles or swimming in a raindrop on maple leaf. Stop for a moment and listen to everything all at once envelop us in the chaotic music of balance.

Over there! Let’s sit on those cool stones and pray for sunbeams. Let’s scan the shore across the river and if we see a miracle or joy or peace, let’s not ruin it with our analysis and or remind each other than nature is a system.

Let’s think like wild flowers.

Let’s feel life like insects do.

Let’s shut our mouths and let quiet matter.

Then let’s walk together and climb the hill to discover whatever is there for us, open to the horizon, content in the moment. Let’s watch the lights of city streets move and pulse and how starlight sparks against the glass of skyscrapers.

As is always the case, all paths end into a new one. The dirt path transitions to pebbles on crackled tar and then to the slabs of concrete we call sidewalks. This one has been ignored for too long, and unfolds before us with its slabs akimbo from shifting over time. And in each crack and crevice, life grows.

jackhammersFor once, let’s celebrate tenacity of the dandelion and smile at its golden disruption and banish the word weed from vocabulary. Let’s just keep walking until being alone gives away to manoeuvering through the crowd of shoppers, tattooed teen-agers, slow walking elders, and those misunderstood pet owners who dress up animals in the latest of fashion.

Let’s be happy when a dog wraps his leash around our leg and looks up at us with dark eyes that yearn for recognition. Let’s stand before workers with jackhammers like we often stand before street musicians and nod our affirmations in time with their difficult music. How important they are. Without them nothing would change.

Let’s go buy roses at the farmer’s market and hand them out to strangers and wish them a happy day. Let’s stop and drink Fat Bastard at the Thin Lady Café and pretend sitting there is everything.

We can tell jokes to anyone who will listen and laugh from our bellies.
Let’s risk odd looks from others as we roar our joy, spilling on ourselves the excess of our happiness and not even for a moment think of erasing the stain with a Tide pen.

Let’s make silly faces as we read each other stories from the newspaper that the other would not choose to read. Let’s write down our peculiarities on napkins and then leave them for others to read after we leave.

For a short while, let’s pretend to be shoppers and peer into sun-lit shop windows and gawk at the shoppers inside. Let’s gawk like children and enjoy the wonder of discovery.

Then let’s turn the corner and then another and walk down alley ways and enjoy the gardens of strangers and let the colours and aromas kiss our skin. When we see a can over-turned, let’s set it right.

And as the sun drifts down toward the sanctuary of night, let’s sit in that small park named after a minor hero and refuse to look tired and resigned to the small odds of changing everything that is waiting for us to resolve.

Before our pause threatens us with ending our time together, let’s find the busiest of plazas, and in the middle of the chaos of people and neon and honking horns, let’s dance.

tiny dogs
Let’s dance like tiny dogs do

Let’s dance like tiny dogs do.

Let’s inhale everything that is good and uplifting and exhale all of our broken pieces and watch them float away toward the moon.

Let’s forget that we want to save the world.

Let’s forget for a short time that what we do is important.

Let’s set aside our certainty and our egos. Put away our positions and our failures. Let’s forget how afraid we are and defy our tendency to think professionalism trumps personal relationships.

Let’s embrace on the sidewalk for all to see.

Let’s communicate like dolphins and hold on to one another.

Let’s hold onto one another like couples do at the end of a sappy romance. Like grandmothers do when their grandchildren run to them for love or because they are frightened or for any other reason at all.

And then, let’s get back to work.

There is suffering everywhere and while we may not ever end it, God help us if we ever get to the point where we just give up and accept that suffering is inevitable and something we just have to learn to live with. Let’s never do that.

Let’s never do that.