Posted Friday, July 22, 2016 at 7:02 pm

The notion of “neutrality” is sometimes used to describe one of the defining features of backbone leaders in collective impact, with phrases such as “perceived neutrality” or “neutral conveners” often coming up when describing the role. However, as the collective impact approach continues to reach a broader audience, some have astutely pointed out shortcomings of the word “neutrality” in describing the ideal role of backbone leaders.

For example, Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, President and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, in discussing the facilitative leadership role that she and her colleagues play in their community agrees that neutrality isn’t the right term. In fact, she said that her organization plays the role of a “fair and honest broker, not a neutral convener.”

Similarly, Alicia Dicks, President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Herkimer & Oneida Counties in New York state, said that “we used to use the word ‘neutral broker,’ but we don’t use it anymore.” Dicks said she no longer uses “neutral” because she and her colleagues recognized the need to bring an active voice to encourage buy-in and ownership among other cross-sector partners, and so now describe themselves as a “community convener.”

Another to raise the inadequacy of “neutrality” to describe the backbone, Michael McAfee, Vice President for Programs at PolicyLink, notes, “if equity is to be front and center in collective impact efforts, then achieving it requires a point of view, proactive leadership, and honest brokers. If we’re clear that neutrality means we are in authentic service of the population that we’re privileged to be in partnership with, and indifferent about where the data, and best available evidence takes us in terms of strategies… then I’m all for neutrality.” Clearly, if “neutrality” requires such qualification it is probably not the right word to describe a backbone leader.

As part of the ongoing maturation of collective impact it’s important to unpack the language we use to make sure we are precise in how we talk about the approach. Additionally, the act of examining our language leads us to revisit implicit assumptions, slow down, and think through what we really mean when we talk about collective impact. In that spirit, let’s examine some of the ways in which “neutrality” might not be quite right in describing the unique positioning of the backbone:

  • One concern is that neutrality can imply dispassion or ambivalence towards the outcomes a collective impact effort is working toward. This is not an intentional implication; in fact many backbone leaders are among the most passionately committed to achieving impact through the work of the CI initiatives they support as an open process of co-creating solutions. Nevertheless, to people new to the collective impact approach or new to a given initiative, this interpretation could lead to an unintended negative association.
     
  • To some, describing backbones as neutral ignores the fact that many backbones come into being with the financial and political support of institutions of historical power and privilege. Foundations, large nonprofits, and government agencies that often support backbones are themselves rarely seen as neutral by members of the communities in which they work, and so there can be an inextricable association between the backbone and the “power class” that belies their neutrality
    .
  • Thirdly, and related to the above two, is the fact that being neutral can mean to favor the status quo, and by extension, the conditions that have created the problem that a collective impact initiative seeks to address. We are not the first to take notice of the association of neutrality and the status quo. Perhaps most notably, Desmond Tutu observed that, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Despite these important shortcomings of the word neutrality to adequately describe the posture of a backbone, many of the intentions behind using this word still ring true. Some of the aspects of neutrality that are still relevant to the role of the backbone include:

  • Maintaining a focus on achieving outcomes and impact identified collaboratively by the effort, not serving the specific interests of individual funders or organizations.
     
  • Favoring the interests of the collaboration and community as a whole, rather than the priorities of individuals or organizations
    .
  • Serving as an honest broker and transparent facilitator that actively guides the collaboration toward outcomes in a way that is open, humble, and fair.
     
  • Being willing to be an advocate who can productively call out and help address problematic dynamics in collaboration.


What do you think?

What are some other ways in which the word neutrality doesn’t accurately capture the positioning of a backbone? What are other aspects of backbone “neutrality” that still resonate with you? What other words might better describe this role?