Vu Le is Right* About Equity and Collective Impact


* Well, mostly right. I’m writing this while flying from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. The person in front of me reclined all the way right after takeoff so I must contort myself to type, I can’t reach my coffee thermos, and I’m listening to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. I will try to not let this all affect my mostly positive feelings toward Vu and his essay.

** I felt it necessary to respond to Vu in “Vu style” (I do really like his writing), although I do not have a science fiction or food analogy handy which makes me feel slightly ashamed (agitation toward the recliner may be blocking creativity).

Vu Le is an important voice in the nonprofit sector. He speaks truth to power and calls out the elephants in our collective room. Many critics approach their fields with righteousness; Vu approaches with refreshing humility as one struggling with these questions and willing to be wrong. On November 30th, he posted “Why Communities of Color Are Getting Frustrated with Collective Impact.” He may find it surprising that The Collective Impact Forum not only welcomes his critique, but is broadcasting it as an important contribution to our field. I am writing to share some thoughts about why his essay is so important. I hope others will also join this discussion.

Vu begins his essay with an anecdote acknowledging the faddish nature of collective impact. Collective impact has indeed become a buzz phrase, and people are using the term to attract partners and funding without a commitment to the rigor and best practices that have achieved the most change. There is also more collective than impact in many cases.

Throughout my nonprofit career, I was involved in many collaborations or collective efforts that were well intentioned but did not achieve intended results. Collective impact’s innovations, I believe, corrected what was missing. Rather than start with our programs and determine what we could do together, collective impact begins with the population level result we aim to achieve and then works backward to determine who all we need around the table and how our work must be aligned, measured, and coordinated to achieve that result. Collective impact also recognized the importance of managing the collaborative process itself with the notion of backbone functions that advance the collective work and hold groups accountable. I see too many efforts still that use the language of collective impact but appear more like those I’ve been part of in the past.

While I love the term “Columbusing” that Vu used to describe leaders or groups who discover or colonize a space that already exists, I take issue with his accusation that collective impact is guilty of this. In their article five years ago that coined the term, John Kania and Mark Kramer did not claim to invent collective impact but described what they found others were doing and created a framework for it. In 2012, The White House Council on Community Solutions (on which I sat) likewise found around 100 such efforts, and identified 20 that had evolved a similar framework that achieved population-level change. Collective impact grew from the realization of diverse leaders in many communities who recognized that problems are complex and systemic and it will take complex data-informed systems of work, not individual programs, to solve them. The framework emerged from practice in the field, not from an invented model.

The meat of Vu’s critique is incredibly important and should be read and wrestled with by all participants in collective impact efforts. The arguments about why people of color are frustrated with collective impact are issues many of us have seen in the field and are too widespread: the lack of authentic inclusion, racial equity, community engagement, transparent communication, and mitigation of power relations. The Collective Impact Forum believes that equity, and especially racial equity, needs to be at the core of collective impact approaches.

Vu’s critique operates at two levels. The first is about equity and community engagement. He is right that equity was not included in the original framework of collective impact. This is true and many efforts that have been underway for several years hit walls around equity issues later in their lifecycles. Vu describes what many of these groups have had to do as “Retquity” or retro-fitted equity, which is more difficult to do on the back end than up front. We see this often, and encourage groups to address equity at the beginning of their efforts both downstream – disaggregating data and differentiating strategies to reduce disparities – and upstream – addressing disparities in terms of who is at the tables setting goals, interpreting data, deciding solutions, and implementing programs.

I especially love his catchy frames of the “Illusion of Inclusion” and “Trickle Down Community Engagement” which speak to the token engagement where people of color and grassroots community leaders are invited to the table, asked to organize community voice, and engaged to rally the community in support of the effort, but receive no funding or leadership roles for their efforts. He writes about how feedback and solutions from the community are often ignored because they don’t have the right data, while their experience and knowledge of community is data that should not be ignored.

The second level of his critique is about backbones and power relations. He compares collective impact to banks during the financial crisis – too big to fail. The funders and civic leaders behind CI efforts would rather ignore criticism and continue to marginalize rather than learn from critical community members and groups because they have so much invested in their effort. I’ve seen this and it is scary. I know of one effort where most of the groups I interviewed in the community were critical but they did not want to criticize the funder for fear of losing grants from funders of the initiative. If there is not transparent and authentic feedback, the effort may create glossy reports but will ultimately fail.

These power relations are tied to the equity and community engagement issues. Because collective impact is an adaptive emergent process to solve complex problems, transparent conversations and a culture of continuous learning are essential to success. The intended beneficiaries and those closest to them are an important voice, and they are often ignored because groups don’t want to know if things really aren’t working or they just disrespect the people they serve.

The backbone organizations must be trust builders. They must build relationships both with the city’s top philanthropic, public, and civic leadership, but also with grassroots leaders and those with the deepest community relationships. They must earn the trust of both. Vu expresses concern that dollars are diverted from direct service to the process. I have less a problem with that if the process is done well. Collaborations without backbones, clear agendas, processes, and accountability often don’t accomplish needle-moving impact. We must invest in the process, but we must also invest in the direct service that accomplishes our intended impact.

Vu makes the case that backbones become funding gatekeepers and often play that role in ways that don’t support grassroots organizations. I agree. Beyond the data-driven or evidence-based direct service we may invest in to achieve goals, we must also invest in the grassroots organizations that create an enabling environment for such services to succeed. For example, a neighborhood center might not have an evidence-based program for children’s education success, but it may have deep relationships with parents and supports that connect and sustain them. If their funding is cut because they don’t specifically deliver on the collective impact strategies, parents may be de-stabilized and disconnected which would impede the success of their children, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the collective impact initiative. Collective impact efforts must understand how community works and invest both in services and the enabling environment. They can’t do that without community at the table.

Vu closes with advice to backbone organizations, funders, and grassroots organizations that should be taken to heart. And I am glad this conversation is continuing and growing. The field needs to listen to voices like Vu in every community, welcome their critiques, and then figure out how we can create authentically inclusive and equitable collectives. Otherwise, we will not achieve sustainable social change.

Below are links to some recent essays by The Collective Impact Forum, the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, Living Cities and PolicyLink on equity and collective impact. I encourage groups to read and discuss these and apply the lessons to your work. I welcome you to also share in the comments the resources on equity that you have found most valuable.

Applying an Equity Mirror to Collective Impact, Paul Schmitz, The Collective Impact Forum

Recent blog series in Stanford Social Innovation Review on equity and collective impact

Advancing Racial Equity through Community Engagement in Collective Impact, Living Cities

Bringing an Equity Lens to Collective Impact, The Urban Strategies Council

Collaborating to See All Constituents Reach Their Full Potential: Memorandum on Research and Resources on Equity and Collective Impact, The Collective Impact Forum

Dodging Equity Bombs and Avoiding Fakequity, Southeast Seattle Education Coalition

Equity Matters in Collective Impact, The Collective Impact Forum

Equity: The Soul of Collective Impact, Policy Link


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