Ten Lessons from Engaging the Business Community


Below are some lessons learned from private sector leaders and other community leaders who are actively engaged in collective impact. These lessons were drafted by Kori Reed, Vice President of the ConAgra Foods Foundation, in advance of the breakout session that Campbell Soup Company’s Kim Fortunato moderated with Reed and other leaders on the topic of, “When and How to Engage the Private Sector in Collective Impact” during the Collective Impact Convening in May 2015 in New Orleans.

Attendees at this breakout session provided real-time feedback/revisions to this lessons learned document. Their consolidated feedback is incorporated in this post:

1Outside Language is Collective Impact – Inside is Project Management

Inside companies, we are maniacal problem solvers. Every day we come to the office, address gaps in performance and measure results. We have to work together – supply chain, finance, marketing, etc – to drive large scale effectiveness, efficiency and change. We often have project management professionals who are experts in process mapping, project goals, meeting accountability and more. We have the skills, but no experience applying those toward community issues.

Seek advice from inside experts on process and systems change. (For an example of project management resources, see ConAgra Food’s Community Collaboration Playbook and Toolkit).

2- Collaboration is not natural for any of us, and it’s even more challenging in the community

Large scale systems change requires collaboration, working together toward the same end goal. It is easier said than done and requires systems leadership.

Inside corporations, we often hire consultants who build toolkits and templates for stakeholder alignment, check-in meetings and more. The difference is that in the community, there is no CEO telling people something has to be done or the job depends on it. In the community, alignment can take more vision and people skills to get people moving in the same direction. Stakeholder alignment tools can be very helpful to get on the same page.

It’s critical to be explicit upfront on the importance of community ownership and co-design.

3- Year 1 of a collective impact initiative is like Year 1 of an entrepreneurial business venture:

The vision for success may be there in year one, but there are still a lot of kinks in the machine to work through. Even if you apply the right evidence-based research, and have the best plan on paper, year 1 in a startup business can be a financial loss from an investment standpoint.

The key is to have a longer-term view, be agile as possible and adjust from “failing forward” moments. Expect a little chaos in the project and build in fixes and manage expectations. For a funder, it may require recording more outputs or unintended consequences as the measured outcome won’t be there yet.

Inviting business to the table from the beginning is key, but it’s important to find the right people from business and the community and explain the messiness of the collective impact process. Business people are used to more linear processes, thus the need to over-communicate and the need to find people in the business so that their needs and interests match the collective impact approach. Also, look for quick wins for companies to keep them engaged, and explain the reason for a longer view.

4- Getting the right people on the right bus is not a simple task

Being part of a team goal can take some adjustment and leaders may need to flex their style even more. Part of the process is learning what dynamics are most effective and then being willing to move people when the style or ambition is impeding the success of the project. This is true in a company where performance is governed by an HR process. In the community, it is about keeping a keen ear to the ground, listening, observing and making decisions when necessary – not waiting too long to manage change.

Be mindful of having frank conversations about different values of those who are contributing to a collective impact effort. Also, remember the importance of building relationships. It’s important to get to know each other on a personal level to understand each other’s motivations and added-value. True partnerships are based on shared values and mutual interests that help people get through turbulent moments.

5- People who need people CAN be the luckiest people but not always

Collective impact is process work that is highly dependent on people, and people dynamics can get in the way.

Assuming positive intent, we all have agendas that sometimes don’t align. This is why it is key to ensure the project manager or “backbone” is housed in a neutral place and not a vested partner in the process. This also is why, from the start, the project plan should build in an escalation process even before the first conflict hits – because it will.

It’s important that the backbone plays a non-biased project management role. Selection is really important, and people don’t always remember that backbones need to be neutral.

6- People and the power dynamic of the funder can require a buffer

Whether we like it or not, we recognize the funder bias. A wise mentor said that if a grantee says a funder looks nice and the funder believes it, the funder is in trouble. It’s a bit like the Emperor’s new clothes; both are in trouble if a grantee says the funder is always right and the funder believes it.

In this case the backbone or another third party consultant can offer a neutral, safe place for all to confide concerns, even if it is the funder that is causing the problem. A non-biased party who is willing to keep a funder in check is a valuable part of neutralizing the power dynamic.

Collective impact only works if all are equal partners at the table.

7- Re-up is part of the Analyze-Plan-Do-Check plan:

Especially when partners work together for more than one year, build in a regular check in process on a regular – quarterly, at least – basis and a chance for a partner to re-up or recommit or back out of the process. Things can change over the course of a year. Any corporate project manager knows that there are factors outside and inside their control that can change the trajectory of a plan, from a change in leadership to a natural disaster. Have people commit to at least a year, but then at the year point, check in to see if this is still part of the organization’s overall plan.

8- Over communicate, even though there is no such thing as over communicating

Once a funder shifts from a traditional grant to a collective impact investment, the communication is ongoing, not just a mid-year and a year-end grant report. It is vital to make sure all partners are clear what they signed up for, before even accepting the first grant.

If indeed things change, go back to point 7 and check in with the team. Inside company walls, we also can equate collective impact to change management. It is a shift in the way we work together and the basis of change management is communication, role clarity, managing expectations, etc. Recognize that everyone is coming in from different places.

You need to be intentional about onboarding processes to get everyone to a level playing field.

9- Be intentional about equity and diversity that spans income, race, thought process and more

While economic, health, and education issues impact all races, unfortunately people of color – African American and Latino– are disproportionately represented in marginalized/vulnerable populations. All people deserve dignity which means we are all part of the process and have a seat at the table when it comes to finding solutions. It is in our collective interest to make every effort to ensure we include diverse views. At minimum, we can make an effort to do focus groups in communities to find out what works and how to expand those ideas.

10- Leadership is not always easy, and sometimes lonely

Leadership doesn’t mean doing it all by yourself, but because you are out in front of an initiative, setting a vision, building the infrastructure, and taking risks, it can be a lonely one.

From a funder lens, the goal is to get an initiative from a funded project to a sustainable initiative. In order to do this, the community will need to take ownership and engagement for continued success. A winning initiative is one that keeps going, long after the funding you initially invested. With that end-state in mind, that takes priority setting, ownership, decisiveness and risk.

Other notable takeaways from meeting attendees who reacted to these lessons learned included:

  • Set some common goals upfront with the collaborative and be clear on the ROI for different partners (ROI will be different for different sectors). Inside corporations, we often speak “top and bottom line” and “efficiency and effectiveness.” If you can show that a staff or capacity grant will have a more efficient pay off over time than a program investment, you might be able to secure those overhead funds.
  • Recognize that systems outside of collective impact could undermine or work against the initiative (e.g., grant overhead requirements) or timing. Most corporations work on a quarterly or annual basis. A 12-year trajectory for change/outcome, or longer, is VERY different for a corporation. How can you break down a longer term goal into bite size pieces so that the company feels welcome to join vs. overwhelmed?
  • Need a glossary of terms: we have a different language across the sectors.
  • Be thoughtful about how to engage businesses. For example, you need to make a business case. Approach corporations with the facts, for example the statistics around how diverse the workforce will be in 20 years. Also, looking at corporations as cash cows is not enough. Community leaders need to approach corporations with an open mind to the other assets that corporations may have (e.g., skills-based volunteering, lending corporate consultants, changing job descriptions and requirements to enable equitable job access, etc.). Moreover, companies have a role in helping community members understand all these assets and how to access them. Lastly, there can be dissonance if the company’s products contribute to the problem. Partners at the collective impact table need to recognize that head on.

What do you think? What lessons have you learned from working with the private sector that helped forward your collective impact work? Share with us your recommendations in the comments!


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