How can funders effectively foster grantee and community ownership in collective impact—the commitment of cross-sector actors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem at scale—when more top-down attempts have failed? How can funders set aside sufficient time for authentic trust- and relationship-building with grassroots organizations and others, while recognizing the urgency to address persistent social problems in their community?
These are two of the tough questions that keep coming up in conversations I have in my work with the Collective Impact Funder Community of Practice, a learning community of more than 40 funders in the United States and Canada. This network of private foundations, community foundations, United Ways, corporations, and public sector funders has grappled with questions about grantee ownership in collective impact over the past two years, and effective engagement emerged as the most common theme during our annual convening in June.
While at the convening, I was reminded of the oft-referenced phrase from Martin Luther King’s “March on Washington” speech at the height of the civil rights movement: “the fierce urgency of now.” You could sense urgency and impatience in the hearts and minds of many funders who have long been grappling with inequities and broken systems in their communities.
Urgency can be a good thing, but funders must balance it with humility, and recognize that authentic engagement and co-ownership is not only necessary, but also takes time. If funders move too quickly in collective impact, they risk leaving their grantees and those with lived experience out of the decision-making process. And funder’s pursuit of quick wins in collective impact efforts without attention to grantee feedback and ownership can erode the trust- and relationship-building needed for collective impact to succeed in the long-term.
We have learned many lessons over the past five years that build on the decades of research and practice into effective community engagement.
As Paul Schmitz and Melody Barnes noted in their recent article on community engagement and in this roundtable discussion moderated by Barnes, community leaders (including funders) must avoid the temptation to act in a top-down manner and must be open to other perspectives who can jointly own the long-term work of cross-sector community change. My FSG colleagues John Kania, Fay Hanleybrown, and Jennifer Juster reiterated this point in describing one of the important mindset shifts needed in collective impact: changing who is at the table.
We are now seeing a convergence of grassroots and grass-tops (more top-down) approaches to community change. This requires incorporating what we have known in community engagement circles for decades (the need to give up power and challenge broken systems, for example) while engaging cross-sector leaders over a sustained period of time. Increasingly, we are seeing examples where grassroots nonprofits and community organizers (who are often closest to those with lived experience and who are often left outside traditional top-down planning efforts) are now becoming central leaders in collective impact.
As bottom-up and top-down approaches come together, funders can play a critical role in bridging the gap by:
Promoting transparency and openness: The best way to navigate a collective impact effort is by promoting transparency and openness on multiple levels—whether funder-to-funder, funder-to-grantee, or otherwise—while recognizing that transparency builds and evolves over time. According to the Fund for Shared Insight, funders can practice openness by sharing their goals, strategies, and progress; listening and engaging in dialogue with others; acting on what they hear; and sharing what they have learned. With support from the Fund for Shared Insight, we will be working this year and next year with a subset of funders involved with our Collective Impact Funder Community of Practice as a "learning lab" for improving foundation openness. We will then disseminate those learnings to a broader audience of funders.
Building feedback loops into your work: For collective impact strategies to succeed, funders must build in feedback loops to ensure that your collective impact process reflects the voices of those with lived experience—as well as their neighbors, families, and friends. By making these feedback loops frequent and rapid, funders can demonstrate that they have heard grantees and are incorporating their feedback. Ideally, funders are not just asking for input or feedback, but also soliciting grantee and community member leadership and partnership. All of this takes time, but recurring feedback loops are necessary to truly achieve population-level change in collective impact, such as improving literacy rates or reducing childhood obesity in a particular community. Funders can themselves, and in their support of grantees, build in multiple opportunities for the community to share feedback and actively engage in the collective impact planning process. We have seen many examples of rapid feedback loops in collective impact, like youth leadership councils who meet regularly to shape a collective impact initiative’s common agenda, or grassroots community organizers and residents themselves who actively serve on a collective impact steering committee.
Practicing burning patience: As mentioned above, funders should bring a sense of urgency and a bias toward action with collective impact, but recognize that collective impact moves at the speed of trust. A data-informed dialogue about who is at the table (and who isn’t but should be) should happen early and often. This type of collective impact initiative requires a long-term view, as funders deepen relationships in their community. Barnes and Schmitz cited an example in their article about the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has invested for several years in a cradle-to-career collaborative in Providence, Rhode Island. While the foundation recognizes that it will take multiple years to see community-level change, they have taken interim steps to share ownership and decision-making with a diverse group of city, state, and neighborhood leaders. This approach has already led to some early wins, including greater buy-in and adoption of evidence-based practices.
Seeking the “two I’s” (invitation and interest): Eric Liu, founder and CEO of Citizenship University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program, challenged funders at our convening in June to lead with humility and vulnerability when in a position of influence with resources. Liu suggested that funders embody “two I’s”—invitation and interest—when fostering authentic grantee ownership; they should extend a sincere invitation to grantees to engage in collective impact, and tell a story of mutual interest with win-win’s to be had by all. Funders should actively listen, learn what matters most to grantees and partners in their community, and then directly incorporate these community priorities with the desired outcomes in a collective impact effort.
I challenge funders to extend an authentic invitation and identify mutual interest with their grantees. Balancing urgency with the time required to build trust among funders and grantees is neither formulaic nor easy, but it is necessary to achieve both short-term and long-term progress in collective impact.