Why Communities of Color are Getting Frustrated with Collective Impact


This post was originally published on the blog Nonprofit with Balls on November 29, 2015.

A while ago I wrote “Collective Impact: Resistance is Futile,” detailing the frustrations of CI and comparing it to The Borg on Star Trek. “Controlled by a hive mind that neutralizes any sort of individualism, and comprising billions of annexed individuals, [The Borg is] strong and terrifying, like an army of zombie robots, each with one eye that has a laser beam.” That was my first impression of collective impact, at least the way it’s being playing out in Seattle.

Years later, collective impact continues to spread, with mixed results and reactions. I talked to a funder on the East Coast last week, and she said her state is getting sick of the constant mention of collective impact. Meanwhile, in a Seattle, a colleague of mine said, “Collective impact is like The Governor in The Walking Dead—seems nice, until you’re locked in a room with it.”

Talking to other nonprofit leaders, I’ve started noticing some patterns. There is definitely a sense of frustration of how CI has been manifesting in Seattle, and among leaders of color, that sense of frustration is even more palpable. We need to have an open discussion about how collective impact has been affecting diverse communities, and work toward some concrete actions that would make it more effective.

But before we get into the discussion, a couple of disclaimers. First, I am not against collective impact. I think it has done a lot of good, with Strive Together and Harlem Children’s Zone being two examples. And heck, I am involved with efforts that would arguably be labeled as collective impact: Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), which is developing nonprofit leaders of color and organizations led by communities of color with the ultimate goal of getting diverse communities to work together to effect change; and the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), a communities-of-color-led coalition rallying people together to help school and kids succeed in the most diverse quadrant of Seattle. (Also, to a lesser degree, ED Happy Hour, a backbone organization encouraging EDs to get together monthly to engage in mutually-reinforcing therapy involving alcohol).

Second, I am only speaking from my experience in Washington State, and from what I learn by talking to people in other cities (shout out to my new friends in Oshkosh Wisconsin, yeah!). And I don’t claim to speak for all communities of color or leaders of color. Depending on where your city is in the evolution of collective impact, this post may be somewhat or not at all relevant. For those who are just starting to be involved with collective impact, this may serve as a good map of pitfalls to avoid. For everyone else, I hope it’s a starting point for a hearty discussion.

Third, I am hungry, yet I am too lazy to cook something, and I’m all out of soy ice cream, which means that the tone of this post may be harsher than normal. And there will likely be food analogies.

So, back to why the leaders of color I’ve talked to are so frustrated by collective impact. Like The Governor on The Walking Dead, collective impact seems really nice and reassuring, and also ruggedly handsome (damn you, David Morrissey, you sexy son of a gun). But after several years trying to work with various CI efforts, it’s clear there are a lot of challenges, ranging from irritating to terrifying and destructive:

It is another example of Columbusing: This is a term I just learned about. It refers to Columbus “discovering” America, a land that was already there. “Collective Impact” has been annoying a lot of marginalized communities because it is yet another example of the mainstream community “discovering” something that has been around for a long time, slapping some academic labels and concepts on it, positioning it as new, and then getting all the attention and resources. Long before CI came out as a formal concept, diverse communities were already working together, sharing information, creating coordinating mechanisms. We have been doing collective impact way before it was called that, and we continue to. But like other things that have been Columbused—coconut water, for example—we’re just not yet as good at marketing, or we don’t have the trust and connections to elevate these ideas and get them funded.

It perpetuates Trickle-Down Community Engagement: I wrote earlier about TDCE, which is where “we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.” Without meaning to, CI backbone organizations have become some of the biggest perpetrators of this terrible and destructive practice. Some backbone organizations’ gravity is so strong that it sucks in all the funding in the region, spewing out tiny amounts back to the organizations and communities most affected by the challenges the CI efforts are trying to address. Grassroots organizations that used to be able to solicit significant funding directly from foundations, at least in Seattle, are blatantly told to apply for tiny grants from whatever juggernaut CI effort is ruling the landscape.

Backbone organizations become gatekeepers of resources: Many backbone organizations suddenly and disturbingly become gatekeepers for funding. If you now want resources for your mission, you will have to learn to play nice and build relationships with them. Not that I am against playing nice and building relationship, when it makes sense, but frankly, constantly having to suck up to a backbone organization is draining, time-consuming, another hoop to jump through. We don’t need this. We have enough power dynamics challenges between nonprofits and funders to deal with.

Organizations are forced to align with CI agendas: The “we’re all in this together” philosophy of collective impact has sometimes manifested in a “you better be in this with us or you’re screwed” reality. It is terrifying. We nonprofits know that we should not chase funds, but instead come up with strong programs that work for our communities and then find the foundations and donors who align with our work. Yet I have been told four or five times in the past few years that my organizations would not receive funding unless it aligns with certain CI efforts. One time I got a clandestine phone call from a program officer strongly advising me to resubmit my application to be more explicit in stating the alignment.

It creates and maintains the Illusion of Inclusion: Due to all the gatekeeping, inequitable funding allocation process, TDCE, and other factors, communities of color are oftentimes left behind by CI efforts. We are not funded on the same level, and yet are asked to provide input, do outreach, mobilize our communities, etc., and because we believe in the goals of the CI efforts, and sometimes because we are backed into corners, we’ll be involved. This leads to the CI effort being seen as inclusive, when in reality, it is tokenizing. My colleague Sharonne Navas of the Equity in Education Coalition (which is also arguably a collective impact organization) calls this phenomenon the “Illusion of Inclusion.” This deserves its own blog post later, but suffice to say, the Illusion of Inclusion is usually more dangerous than the lack of inclusion, because it makes the CI effort complacent and gives a false sense of security.

It diverts funding away from direct service: Because of collective impact, some funders have moved away from direct service, thinking of it as “band-aid solutions,” even when our communities are in desperate need for services. Many CI efforts pick and choose the things they think will work, and oftentimes, those things are more data and shiny reports and convenings to share and discuss the shiny reports with all the data and metrics. I was listening to this awesome keynote by PolicyLink’s Angela Glover Blackwell called “Equity Matters in Collective Impact,” which I recommend you check out. Here she’s talking what kids need to do well in school: “They need to have some summer enrichment program. They need to have afterschool programs. They need to be healthy. They need to have support at home. And so if that’s what’s needed, why do we leave that only for families that can afford to do it? At the Harlem Children’s Zone, they say if that’s what children need, we’re going to make sure that this effort provides it.” So many education-focused CI efforts and funders who back them have aspired to achieve what HCZ has achieved, and yet refuse to follow the formula, honing in only on the elements that they find attractive—“More data!” “More Reports!” “More convenings!” “More metrics!”—and ignoring the rest, like they’re at the salad bar of justice.

It often doesn’t work, but people are afraid to say so: As CI efforts become bigger and more well-known, it becomes riskier and riskier to criticize them. I know that this is not the intention, but it is often the reality. I have seen at least CI effort become an unstoppable machine. Once it builds momentum, consolidating funders and annexing organizations, you feel like you can’t criticize the machine without it running you over. On occasion, the momentum is so great, and so many resources have been put into the CI effort, that it cannot be stopped, even when signs point to it not working. One of my colleagues says that some CI efforts are “like a bank in the early 2000’s: Too big to fail.” That’s pretty dangerous, as the backbone org and those supporting it will be less inclined to admit to failures. And anyone who dares to suggest it is less than perfect risks being ostracized.

Our feedback and solutions get ignored: The leaders who do dare to speak up generally receive a response of “Uh, that’s a great point, but it doesn’t really align with our strategic priorities, sorry.” This happens repeatedly, and not just with CI efforts. So many of the leaders of color I talk to are irritated most by being told that they need to propose solutions and not just complain about stuff that’s not working, and yet the solutions they propose just “don’t align,” or “don’t have enough supporting data,” or are “not innovative enough,” or whatever, even though it may be obvious that the current strategy is not working.

Equity gets shoehorned in as an afterthought: Collective impact has been spreading around the country like creamy natural peanut butter on warm toast. Meanwhile, Equity has been spreading like organic artisanal jelly. And now it seems that the two are converging into a delicious PB&J sandwich of social justice. But to so many leaders of color I interact with, so much of it is just more blah blah, Fakequity, and Askholism. Equity was not built into the original model for collective impact, and this may explain why we see so many of the pitfalls described above. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be trying to add it to the model, because even Retrofit Equity—I’m going to call this “Retquity”— is still better than none. However, to many communities, it seems too little too late. Budgets have been approved. Funding has been allocated. Agendas have been set without all the people who should have been there. The ship has sailed. It is not completely hopeless or irreversible, but it is another example of communities most affected by injustice being left behind by the efforts meant to help them.

By now, you’re probably depressed. I want to reaffirm that I don’t think collective impact itself is bad. Like fire, or tequila shots at ED Happy Hour, or Netflix, it can be used for good or for not-so-good. I don’t think any of the leaders of color I talked to are questioning anyone’s motivations or intentions. We believe that people mean well. However, good intentions do not guarantee policies and programs and backbone organizations that will be effective in addressing the challenges facing our communities. We must be vigilant, and we must be willing to make changes. Here are some suggestions, to start:

Backbone organizations: Go through each of the points above and see if you are guilty of them. Are you perpetuating Trickle-Down Community Engagement? Are you gatekeeping? Are you tokenizing communities and leaders of color in your CI effort? Do you have the right people at the table, and are you listening to their feedback? Are you hogging all the funding in the region and then rationalizing that the effort is actually benefitting everyone somehow? Are people afraid to give you their honest opinions because you have become a terrifying Borg-like entity? Ensure the right people, the people from communities most affected by whatever problems you’re addressing, are at the table by advocating for and sharing resources with organizations involved with your CI effort. Recognize the role you play and the power and influence you wield, and use it to lift up other orgs so they can be effective in working together collectively.

Funders: Practically all the pitfalls above are affected directly by funding. Equity has been a buzzword, but anytime we talk about Equity and don’t mention how funding is allocated, then we are not talking about Equity. If you want communities of color to be genuinely involved with collective impact, then fund them. Not token “here’s 10K for you to attend a few meetings coordinated by this backbone organization and provide input” funding, but actual, significant funding, the amount you would fund a mainstream backbone organization. There are plenty of organic CI efforts led by communities of color. Fund them to do their work, and stop forcing them to conform to the mainstream CI effort. And don’t just fund backbone organizations. You need to support the rib organizations simultaneously. A backbone is worthless if the ribs are broken and the pancreas and liver are not functioning. Take some more risks.

Grassroots organizations: We need to be way more ambitious, but also more assertive, and more strategic. If a CI effort you’re involved in is not working, provide feedback and help it grow. But if after a while you don’t find it to be effective or responsive to the needs of your communities, leave. I know it is exhausting, constantly being asked to do stuff for free or for little funding. And then to give feedback and get ignored because your proposals “don’t align” with whatever agenda the backbone org or funders have. So we have to learn to navigate this system better, and that includes pushing back on funders and backbone organizations when we know their strategies are going to be useless. During one site visit for a small grant, ten review committee members came to my office and asked several times how my org would align with so-and-so backbone org. Irritated and deciding that 20K was not enough for my organization to lose its soul, I said, “We will align where we align, and we have spelled out what those areas are in the application. In areas where we don’t align, we will ALWAYS choose what members of our own coalition prioritize over whatever agenda [the backbone org] has.” They were rather taken aback (though, to their credit, they gave us the grant).

Let me know your thoughts.

Read the Follow-Up Piece Vu Le is Right* About Equity and Collective Impact by Paul Schmitz


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