Collective Impact: Funder, Heal Thyself

Thoughts on recent local and national funder conversations.

As collective impact experienced its third birthday on January 11th, it seemed appropriate to have a conversation about sharing, which developmentally starts to happen at about the age of three—at least in humans, and maybe in social movements too.

Sharing is, of course, at the heart of collective impact, which is a framework for increasing the impact of collaborative actions. And nothing says “sharing” like a good conference.

During the fall of last year, I traveled to many funder and funder-practitioner conferences and meetings that focused on sharing what we’re learning about collective impact efforts—in particular, efforts to increase educational attainment rates (and other positive life outcomes) for students and young adults. These meetings included:

  • Strive Together’s Cradle to Career Network Convening
  • Grantmakers for Education’s Annual Conference
  • The Opportunity Youth Network’s Fall Meeting
  • Youth Transition Funders Group’s Fall Convening
  • Aspen Forum for Community Solutions’ Opportunity Youth Investment Fund Fall Meeting

In addition, I sit on a new advisory group put together by Aspen and the consultancy firm FSG to create a funder-oriented community of practice around collective impact. On a more local level, in my Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Pacific Northwest work, I co-chair the Road Map Project Aligned Funders Workgroup (where a group of local funders get together to talk about how we work collaboratively with each other and with the Road Map Project, a regional collective impact project focused on dramatic improvements in education outcomes for all kids).

I note all these conferences and meetings because I’m hearing some similar things from a variety of people doing collective impact work, and I think they’re worth calling out. My thoughts here focus on whether funders are—or could be—playing roles that help collective impact succeed. I’ll also note some things that I’m not hearing much about but that funders may need to think about as we engage in this work. I won’t attempt to cover the spectrum of helpful or problematic ways in which funders are engaging in collective impact (I’ll stick to how funders interact with each other vs. funder-grantee interactions, which is worthy of its own article), but hopefully this will interest anyone curious about what goes on inside the black box of philanthropy.

“We’re not exactly sure what it is, but we like it!”

It’s a testament to the stickiness of the ideas and concepts behind collective impact that three years in, many people (and in this case, I include funders under the term “people”) remain pretty jazzed about the idea and its possibilities—but also deeply unsure about what exactly it is and what changes it might imply. I think this is as true for funders as anyone else, but despite this interest, my casual observation is that until told otherwise, funders will continue to operate as we always have, which is to say: not very collaboratively. I’m not pointing a finger at anyone, as this is pretty much human/funder behavior 101: We don’t tend to change our behavior until we have to. And although we seem to like collective impact a lot, we’re not marrying it yet.

Whole lotta collective impact going on

A lack of certainty about what collective impact is hasn’t exactly stopped people from starting a lot of collective impact efforts. I think that time will work out some of these definitional problems, but a more serious concern has to do with backbones (the intermediary that coordinates and supports a collective impact project). Backbone organizations are manifesting in many ways, leading to competing backbones, partially attached sub-backbones, and overlapping backbones (all of which sound painful and are no doubt are painful for communities experiencing them).

Funders can play a helpful role here. It’s not that there can be only one backbone, but if you have multiple ones in spaces that overlap (for example, in overlapping sectors/sub-sectors like education, workforce, and out-of-school youth), funders can and should help create clarity about what each backbone is charged with and how they are expected to work together.

To extend my medical metaphor too far entirely, one symptom to watch out for is meeting fatigue, where the same major system player (say, a school district) is expected to sit on multiple backbone advisory boards and subcommittees. Navigating these waters (new metaphor!) will be tricky and probably thankless work, but I think local funders are uniquely suited to: a) not getting into this situation in the first place, or b) doing the careful negotiations that resolve collective impact confusion when it arises (and in this area, national funders should carefully follow the lead of local funders). We could really skewer ourselves and kill collective impact efforts if we don’t clarify roles and purpose. No one wants to go to a bunch of meetings where it’s unclear what the purpose is, who’s driving, and how the parts relate to each other. Collective impact is supposed to resolve that, not make it worse.

Pack your parachute … or go home.

In many of these gatherings, we touched on how local funders could work in new and improved ways with national and state funders on place-based efforts. While it’s probably too much to ask collective impact to heal the historic rift between local and not-local funders, funders are excited that collective impact presents a chance to rework that relationship. If we could just admit that local funders (“from there”) and state or national funders (“not from there”) are trying to leverage each other when we engage mutually in place-based work, then we could talk openly about what exactly we’re trying to get out of each other. It might go something like this:

Local funder to national funder: “You want us around for sustainability? OK, we can do that. In exchange, we need your national reputation, carefully placed startup funds, and enough time to get something going before you ask for data.”

It seems like the key would be to spend some time up front to figure this out, with genuine interest and the ability to be flexible. I’m not seeing this happening yet, but I’m hopeful.

The corollary to this item is good grantmaking practice when co-funding: Try not to torture grantees too much. Collective impact efforts are very data intensive, so for example, can we agree to go with what the backbone has established and not have five funders define high school graduation in five different ways? Again, since collaboration is not exactly our strong suit as funders, this will take some real work. But we owe it the folks out there who are actually doing the work.

Our discussions are program-rich, but systems-poor.

This might just be a natural stage of development, but at nearly all the convenings I attended, discussion of programmatic interventions were abundant and detailed, while discussion of systems change was vague and/or regarded as a given end result that didn’t really need talking about. While high-quality programs (in the broadest sense of the word “programs”) are important to the success of collective impact, they don’t offer ends in themselves. It could be that I went to all the wrong sessions, but I was left with the distinct impression that the field—and funders—are much more comfortable talking about great programs that serve 100 or even 1,000 kids, than they are the very long, tedious slog to improve systems-level performance (or, more ambitiously, alignment between different systems). At best, it seems like people strongly believe that better programs will lead to better systems, but we have not clearly articulated how one leads to the other—generally or specifically. I would call on us all to make this discussion explicit, orient our collective impact convenings toward how we can help support entire systems to change, and frame our program-level discussions in terms of plausible theories of how program development can lead to system-level change. If not, I fear we could wake up one day five years from now wondering why—despite all the backbones and meetings—things are not meaningfully different.

The thin veneer of new dollars (or, funder, heal thyself)

I’ve also noted a heavy concentration of interest and effort around the very small amount of new dollars that collective impact efforts are attracting. Many of the systems we’re talking about are publicly funded—for example, education (though early learning and higher education are a shared private and public investment). Yet, as I see collective impact efforts move into implementation, there is a bit of myopia in thinking only about what can be done with the relatively tiny amount of new dollars coming into these very large systems. I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job here—new dollars can play a very important role in this work (said the funder). But they are not the only way to drive innovation and change, and if all our conversations are only about the pilots or other new bits of work that new dollars fund, we are missing the forest for the trees. It puts us in danger of just repeating the funding paradigms of the past—the same ones that got us where we are. If we’re talking about change at scale, we’re talking about systems. So let’s talk about them when we meet.

Together, I hope these points form a basis for how funders might start thinking about their next collective impact funding decisions and also indicate how the philanthropic sector might behave a bit differently—dare I say, more collaboratively. None of this will be particularly easy; it calls on us to use our time more than our money. Funders have long asked—even mandated—grantees to act more collaboratively. In a final metaphorical flourish, I would ask funders to take some of our own medicine, whether or not it tastes good at first.

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  • BY Chris Thompson

    ON January 15, 2014 05:56 PM

    First off Ken and I share a last name but we are not related. I make that disclaimer before declaring: Amen and Thank You. As someone who works for a philanthropic collaboration that is both a grantee and a grantmaker, I think Ken has offered a valuable glimpse into the black box of philanthropy and has highlighted several key issues that funders must deal with if “collective impact” is going to avoid becoming just another fad that jumps the shark long before change occurs.

    Ken captures the heart of the collective impact challenge when he observes that funders are more comfortable talking about programs than they are systems change. This reflects funders long history in supporting programs (isolated impact). Funders, as Ken notes, are reluctant to change, and the incentives for change are few and far between.

    Change will come more easily when we no longer accept an environment where nearly everyone is declaring programmatic success yet progress is not evident in the communities that we care about.

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON January 16, 2014 09:04 AM

    Great to hear someone talking about systems.  I’ve used my Pinterest board to post graphics that might stimulate thinking around “collective impact”.

    When Ken starts his article saying “collective impact” is 3 years old, I would invite readers to view a graphic showing that it takes 12 years for a youth to go from first grade to 12th grade, then another 4 to 8 years before that youth is beginning to be anchored in a career.  If that youth lives in high poverty and is not surrounded by a strong support system his odds of being in a job/career by age 25 are far lower than youth who have a richer support system.

    Thus, if we’re looking at “collective impact” results in 20 years, and showing the progress of kids entering first grade today, then we may really have something to boast about.

    However, among the hurdles will be

    a) keeping talent involved - the challenge of collective impact will be to keep it going as people keep changing jobs within this sector. The work is based on relationships and shared knowledge and that requires some system to keep more people in their jobs longer than we do now

    b) improving the flow of operating dollars to all the players - while the backbone needs to be consistently funded, so do all of the other organizations in the system.  Corporations have figured out ways to support thousands of branch locations so everyone is paid and each location is well supported. We need to figure this out in the npo sector. 

    This means that funders not only need to collaborate, some need to make long-term commitments to keep providing the dollars to fuel collective efforts in every city where this is taking place. 

    I look forward to finding other places where people are offering ideas about ways to keep these efforts going for as long as they need to be in place.

  • BY Cheryl Gooding

    ON January 16, 2014 01:47 PM

    I very much appreciate Ken’s analysis, his willingness to call out the gaps (habits) in existing thinking and his call for systems thinking.  We also need to acknowledge that people aren’t doing real strategic - including systems - thinking because they don’t know how to.  Not in the philanthropic sector, nor in the nonprofit sector.  In my consulting work with both sectors I have developed a much more explicit focus on teaching those skills, using visual mental modeling, theory of change modeling and making it as graphically simple as possible.  Abstract thought is challenging for most so being able to literally see what we’re trying to change, like a specific system, is a critical step.  Then people are more able to hold the whole in their minds and plot strategy, making their theory of change assumptions explicit along the way.  I also see - as Ken points out - an overwhelming tendency for people to focus their attention and dialogue on tactics (e.g., programs) rather than deeper, long-term strategies (such as systems change) without understanding the difference.  So I think an explicit investment in building capacity for strategic thought and analysis is essential to community and collective impact.

  • BY Anne Miskey

    ON January 16, 2014 01:47 PM

    The article is correct when it talks about the importance of systems change - it is that which will make a difference in ending severe social problems in our society.  While many people - funders included - see Collective Impact as the answer to all that ails us, it is, in fact, nothing more than a tool, although a very powerful tool it is true.  It will not be one which will be effective, however, without a true, data driven, research based goal of changing inefficient and ineffective systems which keep people poor, disenfranchised, homeless, without opportunities, etc. 

    If you look at where truly effective work has been done around social change, look no further than in the area of homelessness.  In one of the most severe economic downturns our country has ever had, where unemployment doubled and foreclosures quadrupeled, homelessness actually went down in America.  The reason for this is that those working in this area:  government, non-profits and yes funders - took a systems change approach.  The end goal was systems change - and one of the tools used in communities across the country was collective impact - the coming together, in true collaboration - of the funding community (public and private) and the non-profit sector.

    So yes as funders we should look to models which help us truly effect solutions to problems - but let’s not forget our true goal - not just to work together, but to create systems that work for people, especially the most vulnerable - this is what true, collective impact, is all about.

  • BY Cynthia Silva Parker

    ON January 16, 2014 02:29 PM

    Thanks Ken. Like others commenting above, I am particularly struck by the section on being “program-rich and systems-poor.” The assumption that better programs will automatically lead to better systems has been repeatedly dis-proven, as has the idea that funding great programs will automatically lead to improvements in population-level outcomes. Better systems will be the result of focusing on finding ways to intervene and shift systems dynamics and the thinking that holds them in place.

  • BY Chris Thompson

    ON January 16, 2014 05:42 PM

    Cheryl Gooding’s observation that people don’t know how to apply systems thinking is particularly important. In my work with civic leaders I make a point of inquiring as to whether they have ever studied, attended a workshop/class or researched complexity. More often than not no one in the room raises their hand. I’ve yet to have more than one raise their hand. As someone who was once had no interest in complexity, I understand completely why this is the case.

    Achieving collective impact requires the capacity to deal with complexity. How can we make the case for creating capacity to deal with something we don’t understand?

    The first job of advocates for collective impact is to help stakeholders develop a shared understanding of complexity.

  • Ken, This is an absolutely brilliant blog post.  You so perfectly capture the key things that we at Living Cities are seeing in our support of collective impact both with the Strive Partnership and our Integration Initiative.  I think two points that you make are absolutely critical to anyone interested in this work: (1) you have to get over the obsession with scaling a single program or organization if you really want to see systems change and needle moving outcomes; and (2) you have to understand complexity and the difference between technical and adaptive solutions.  They are closely related, e.g., the single program or organization has mastered a solution to a technical problem buried in a myriad of adaptive challenges.  The one other thing I’d add is that when you lead with money in these efforts everyone reverts back to a program focus.  When you lead with outcomes and alignment, everyone has the opportunity to focus on how the existing money (and institutions) aren’t aligned towards these desired outcomes and should be the focus of future work.  Strive in Cincinnati actually outlawed new money for more than a year saying they in fact were, as you say, program rich and systems poor.  Well done, Ken

  • BY Cheryl Gooding

    ON January 17, 2014 09:33 AM

    Thank you, Chris, for your response.  I agree with you that we generally have limited capacity to think through complexity.  Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow offers a complex, wonderful analysis of why this is so, given how our brains work.  It is so important to acknowledge that we need to invest in honing our capacity for strategic thought.

  • BY Anthony Allison

    ON February 4, 2014 01:02 PM

    Hi Ken,
    First, thank you for your insights. Very thoughtful and a big help. How can I get more information on you Aligned Funders Workgroup? Thank you.

  • Ken Thompson's avatar

    BY Ken Thompson

    ON February 5, 2014 06:23 PM

    Thank you, everyone, for your insightful comments; they are great additions to this post. Had I had more space, I would definitely have clarified that Collective Impact is not necesssarily the solution for every problelm. In fact, the runaway success of CI has me a bit afraid; both that it will get watered down, and also that it will be dismissed as a fad. As we move forward, it will be important to be clear both when CI is ‘worth it,’ and so, what it really is, and is not.

    Since I’m here, I’d also like to add a point that I cut from my original post, due to space constraints: the fact that we need to do a much better job documenting the early successes of CI. For an approach so based on data, we can not survive long without some real evidence that CI approaches are working, evening contributing to the success of individuals. A few places have such evidence and data; but so far we’re not doing a great job capturing it, and disseminating it.

    And Anthony to your point (and to my point above!) there is not yet anything published on the Road Map Aligned Funders workgroup. If you’d like to contact me, you can reach me through the main phone line at the Gates Foundation, or through my twitter account at @nwyouthupdates.

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