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.