Is Collective Impact Incompatible with Equity?


In the winter of 2015, two East Coast Millennials joined the FSG team in San Francisco (just in time to miss the cold tundra of the Northeast Corridor).

As a two-generation, Haitian-American, I came from Jersey City with a background in public policy and philanthropy. My colleague Miya left Massachusetts with a range of experiences in community organizing, public policy and global health; her mother is originally from Harlem, her father from Miami. We both happened to share the experience of growing up in Miami, a city known for its beautiful beaches and vibrant culture. On the other hand, Miami is increasingly known for its deep poverty, high crime, and lack of access to opportunity for communities of color and low-income communities.

During our first months, we shared our vision to create social impact; we often had coffee breaks discussing the need for systems and policy change to address racial equity in low-income communities. We believed that public-private partnerships, colloboratives, and systems of care held promise in addressing complex issues related to intergenerational poverty; however, they often seem to lack any meaningful community voice. We found the same in collective impact. Recent discussions have spotlighted the vital importance of embedding equity into collective impact, including resources from PolicyLink, SSIR, Nonprofit with Balls, and here on the Collective Impact Forum, yet the topic around equity and full engaging communities, especially communities of color, remained a top challenge for many collective impact initiatives.

We often wondered: What works? Where are there shining stars for us to look to? We then decided to pull Anthony Jewett, Jennifer Splansky Juster, and Admas Kanyagia into a discussion on how we actually understand what works for communities of color as a consulting firm. We saw the need to connect to others in the social sector that are connected to the Black community and other marginalized groups, and also sought to advance a racial equity lens through innovative practice and funding strategies. Together, we decided that FSG and its African Diaspora affinity group should join the Association for Black Foundation Executives (ABFE). Since 1971, ABFE has been an important intermediary for Black funders, donors, and consultants to advocate for responsive investments in Black communities across the nation.

Given the field’s discussion around collective impact and equity, Miya and I, with the help of the outgoing Board Chair for ABFE and President/ CEO of MEDA, Gary Cunningham, submitted a proposal for ABFE’s annual conference in Baltimore to ask Black funders how collective impact as a tool can help Black communities.

We got to Baltimore for the conference in April, ready with our minute-by-minute plan to use technology and an interactive activity for a productive discussion. Plans go awry, but in a good way. We open the floor and decide to have a large group discussion. Our session can be summed up in one question from the audience: Is collective impact compatible with equity?

A room of 60 funders fell silent. Program officers from community, family, private, and national foundations were questioning the ability for collective impact to address racial equity and spur social change in Black communities given its current structure. The answer to the question above is rooted in challenges related to power and privilege within the social sector. How can philanthropy proactively redistribute power in collective impact efforts or other colloboratives to accelerate progress in communities of color and low-income communities? Without adopting an equity framework, funders and intermediaries often reinforce institutional privilege and the root causes of systemic inequities in communities. Privilege and power can show up in steering committees and working groups that do not actively partner with grassroots leaders and community members to co-create and co-own solutions for the future. True stakeholder engagement must offer opportunities for co-creation and co-ownership by all stakeholders despite barriers to participation.

We left the session in Baltimore with more questions than answers. Some reflections rang true in what FSG and the field has been hearing across the country. As FSG and the field reflect on infusing equity in collective impact efforts, Black funders highlighted four questions every program officer, backbone leader, and working group chair needs to ask themselves now:

  1. How were the steering committee and working group members chosen? Are there community members and grassroots organizers who have decision-making power?
  2. How do you offer opportunities for co-creation and co-ownership by all stakeholders despite barriers to participation? How do you actively engage with grassroots and community leaders as equal partners?
  3. How would you shift your staffing structure, steering committee, and/or working groups to incorporate community voices?
  4. How would you engage cultural anchors, community elders, and trusted advisors moving forward?

These questions are not new, but we must keep asking ourselves these questions – because we haven’t found the answers yet. How do we attach the same intentional, innovative spirit we have with other practices to building community voice and ownership. FSG has begun to reflect on its own power and privilege as an intermediary; we are asking ourselves the same questions as we think about the future of our work.

We would encourage funders to join affinity groups such as ABFE to understand more about tools and frameworks to push forward your thinking. Our discussion at the recent ABFE conference has shed more light on how initiatives can better approach their efforts by leading with equity and community inclusion. This has to be about changing our hearts and minds and intentionally choosing to adopt an equity lens inside and out. We’ve started the process and can’t wait to reimagine how we can share more power to uplift the voices of communities in our practice.

Please share any reactions below. We also invite you to leave a comment below on how you have seen collective impact or other colloboratives efforts address power and privilege to support community co-ownership and co-authorship.


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