Building System Leadership Skills with Advance Together

What kinds of dedicated skill-building can help prepare system leaders for the monumental job of coordinating complex collaborations?

In this episode, we learn about Advance Together, a cohort of collective impact initiatives in Texas that focus on education and workforce development. Organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, with support from funders including the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Advance Together cohort members participated in a capacity-building program dedicated to expanding their system leadership skills.

Listen in as we explore how the program got started, the impact of the program, and the specific system leadership skills that surfaced as most critical for backbone leaders.

Sharing their experiences in this podcast discussion are:

  • Rumeli Banik, Senior Program Officer, Child Wellbeing Program, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
  • Kseniya Benderskaya, Director of Community Development Programs and Outreach, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
  • Chris Thompson, President, Civic Collaboration Consultants, LLC.
  • Adrian Vega, Executive Director, Education Partnership for the Permian Basin

A transcript of this conversation is available lower down this page.

Resources and Footnotes

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The Intro music, entitled “Running,” was composed by Rafael Krux, and can be found here and is licensed under CC: By 4.0.

The outro music, entitled “Deliberate Thought,” was composed by Kevin Macleod. Licensed under CC: By.

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Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social change makers working on cross-sector collaboration.

The Collective Impact Forum is a nonprofit field-building initiative that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.

In this episode, we’re doing a deep dive discussion to learn about the work of Advance Together, a cohort of collective impact initiatives in Texas that focus on education and workforce development. One of the ways Advance Together’s work is so interesting for those doing collective impact is that part of their partnership together included participating in a capacity-building program dedicated to expanding their system leadership skills. In today’s discussion, we’re going to learn how that systems leadership program got started, the impact of the program, and the specific system leadership skills that surfaced as most critical for backbone leaders.

Joining us today to share their experiences as part of Advance Together are Rumeli Banik of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Kseniya Benderskaya of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Chris Thompson of Civic Collaboration Consultants, LLC, and Adrian Vega of Education Partnership for the Permian Basin. Moderating this discussion is Collective Impact Forum executive director Jennifer Splansky Juster. Let’s listen in.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s podcast of the Collective Impact Forum. I’m Jennifer Juster, executive director of the Collective Impact Forum, and today I am being joined by four wonderful guests.

Today’s discussion is going to focus on a really essential element of collective impact, system leadership, and sharing example of how a cohort of communities in Texas are incorporating system leadership into their work through an effort called Advance Together.

For our conversation I’m joined by Kseniya Benderskaya, Adrian Vega, Chris Thompson, and Rumeli Banik. Before we go any further, I would love to have the four of you introduce yourselves to our listeners and let us know a little bit about what brought you to this work. Maybe I will ask you to start, Kseniya.

Kseniya Benderskaya: Hi, and thanks for having me here. Excited for this conversation. I’m Kseniya Benderskaya, director of community development programs and outreach at the Dallas Fed. We have been playing a backbone role for an initiative called Advance Together that supports a cohort of collective impact teams in Texas working on improving educational attainment and workforce development outcomes in lower income and historically underserved communities.

What brings me to this work is a curiosity about what it really takes to power cross-sector coalitions for the long haul and their big, audacious goals. Specifically, what are the ways that we can equip individuals to be effective changemakers beyond their own institutions.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Wonderful. Thanks, Kseniya. So that the Dallas Fed is almost playing a backbone for a backbone, that umbrella intermediary. 

Kseniya Benderskaya: Exactly.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: How about you, Adrian?

Adrian Vega: Sure. Good afternoon, everybody. Jennifer, thank you. I serve as the executive director for the Education Partnership for the Permian Basin. I’m actually coming to this work through being recruited, if you will, so I’m a former public school educator of 20-plus years and my last formal position before coming back out to the Permian Basin, I was a school superintendent in South Texas. Some key community leaders in our community were looking at bringing a collective impact model or organization to lead the work out here, to address the challenges that we face out here in the Permian Basin, and so one of the key community leaders reached out to me and asked if I’d be willing to move back to the Permian Basin to be part of this effort. Just real quick, I think what sold me on it is that as a leader of an institution or one of the boxes in a community I thought the opportunity to come out and help coordinate multiple boxes in a community was too big of an opportunity to pass on. That’s why I moved out to the Permian Basin.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Wonderful. Thanks for joining us today. Chris?

Chris Thompson: Hi, Jennifer. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak with the group today, participate in this conversation. I am a collaboration consultant. I’ve been an independent consultant for about six years and before that I worked for a collaborative of funders that funded collaboratives and that’s how I got introduced to the collective impact framework and when I first read about it in Stanford Social Innovation Review, I was like, “Whoa, these guys are describing my life better than I describe my life. I’d better learn from them.” So I’ve been on that journey really ever since and even before that article. I’ve had the good fortune of being one of the service providers, the technical consultants, helping the Advance Together Leadership Academy cohort get comfortable in the uncomfortable world of collective impact.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Awesome. Thanks for joining. And Rumeli, over to you.

Rumeli Banik: Hi, everyone. Thanks for having me here and also very excited for this conversation. I’m Rumeli Banik, senior program officer in the child wellbeing program at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. As part of our grantmaking we support both collective impact efforts through place-based approaches and so really supporting the backbone organizations of collective impact efforts as well as we support an array of leadership development programs recognizing that in order to get to the systems change that we’re looking for and to support healthy and thriving children, families, and communities, that we really need to support the leaders that are bringing diverse perspectives, that are bringing the energy, that are bringing their expertise from their sectors and from their fields to drive the systems change.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you. As I knew, we have an amazing group with us today. In today’s discussion we’re talking about system leadership and how systems leadership skills inform the Advance Together program and the Advance Together Leadership Academy. Can you tell us a little bit about the program and how it got started? A little bit about its goals and how are each of you affiliated with the initiative.

Kseniya Benderskaya: Sure. I can jump in and start. Advance Together was developed in 2019 by the Fed and our set of key partners from the private sector, state government, local-national philanthropy, and as you mentioned, we’re sort of a backbone for a cohort of local collective impact efforts across Texas. The idea was that this state-level partnership would provide both a flexible grant fund for four years, technical assistance, and also policy-level support to guide the work of these local partnership over the course of the four years.

In the pilot cohort we have four regional partnerships and even though it’s only four, they actually cover over 25 counties in Texas. It’s serving a significant geographic scale in the state and the focus for each of the partnerships is on advancing education and workforce outcomes for low- and moderate-income people and historically marginalized populations.

I would say the objective of Advance Together is twofold, focused on both the how and what of collective work. The first goal is to strengthen each team’s capacity in areas like collaborative leadership, data-driven decision making, and learning orientation, authentic community engagement, and systems thinking and systems change. Of course, racial equity principles are built into each one of these elements.

The second objective which is kind of an attendant byproduct of the first is that the teams make substantial progress toward their long-term shared results in education and workforce development. The Advance Together Leadership Academy, or ATLA, this is frankly an unplanned outgrowth of Advance Together at the very outset of the initiative. It was our response to an early lead articulated by the individuals who are playing this cat herder type role within their local collaborations and were managing the day-to-day implementation of the shared work.

In a nutshell, the general feedback from leaders within these teams is that folks felt extremely unprepared to function effectively in this coordinating steward-type role and one of the insights that really stuck with me was an almost direct quote from one of the participants who said, “It’s hard enough to lead from the middle within your own organization where at least you know the operating culture and the context of internal politics, but leading from the middle to have influence across a constellation of multiple organizations with very different missions, interests, or levels of buy-in, makes the job that much harder.” Then, this person laughed and said, “I wish I had gotten my MBA in something like systems leadership or value creation in collective impact work because then I would at least know what to do in my job.”

That was really the thought that sparked the leadership academy which is an 18-month professional development opportunity for leaders playing coordinating roles in their collaborations. They get both training as a group on the five leadership skills that we’ll talk about later, and executive coaching support to be able to troubleshoot pain points in their work in real time.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: I know that everyone introduced themselves at the top, but can you remind listeners how each of you connect to the Advance Together work? Adrian?

Adrian Vega: Actually I want to echo what Kseniya said. Once again, I’m the executive director for the Education Partnership of the Permian Basin. I come to the work via, we are one of the communities, one of the four communities that were very, very fortunate to receive the support from the Dallas Federal Reserve, but to Kseniya’s point, as I said, you know, my background is in public education and had the opportunity to lead school districts and things of that nature.

One thing that’s very different, I remember early in my career when I was an aspiring principal and I was an assistant principal and I met with the assistant supe and he was asking me what my career goals were and I said, “Well, I’m an elementary school assistant principal so I imagine my next step is to be an elementary principal.” He questioned that and he said, “Well, isn’t leadership leadership?” So to a certain degree I would say yes. If you’re working within a very bureaucratic institutionalized kind of organizational chart reality, what I have since discovered is moving from that very structured kind of existence into the broader community, I’ve come to realize the broader community doesn’t have an org chart, right? So then it becomes a matter of how does then one leading this type of effort and more interface with all of the other leaders in the community?

So it’s exactly like Kseniya said and I often thought about that because I’m formerly trained in the world of an education and you take ed leadership classes and you do your principal practicum and you do these things that are very concrete. To her point, I often wondered, I guess now maybe universities offer a degree or certification in this type of leadership but it’s very nuanced, it’s very different than any other leadership that I’ve been a part of. Being able to participate in this cohort specifically has given myself as well as the others who are participating some tangible, you know, examples and support to kind of help us guide us through this work.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you, Adrian. I know we’ll hear a lot more about your work as we go through our conversation. Rumeli and Chris, could you tell us a little bit about your roles with this?

Rumeli Banik: Sure. We’re investing in both Advance Together and the Advance Together Leadership Academy because we’re looking to strengthen cross-sector partnerships and as part of our approach to grantmaking, we also want to replicate, support the replication and scale of effective cross-sector partnerships and effective collective impact models. We have been investing in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Cities Challenge and had worked with Kseniya there and when she transitioned to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas to do an adapted version of the model that was happening in New England, that really aligned with our goals to support this replication scale to context. We wanted to expand our portfolio in the South and in Texas and looking at the diversity in Texas with large cities but also rural areas that really gets to some of our goals in having and investing in an array of programs and models for collective impact.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Wonderful. And Chris.

Chris Thompson: Thanks, Jennifer. I want to go back to something Adrian said. I think it might end up being a tagline that all of us refer to. The broader community doesn’t have an org chart, right? How do we exercise leadership in those kinds of environments? I mentioned earlier I previously worked for a collaborative of funders, 50 different public, mostly philanthropic but also private and other types of funders. We funded a lot of collaboratives, a collaborative that funded collaboratives, and I got a chance to explore how we got things done in the absence of an org chart and began to believe that as Adrian kind of expressed, a lot of his leadership development did not prepare him for this kind of leadership. And so in my practice, I’ve been focusing on helping build these leadership skills to exercise leadership effectively in the absence of an org chart. Kseniya reached out to me through a mutual connection at the Boston Fed and said, “This is what we’re interested in doing. Would you like to do it?” I believe my words to her were something like, “You just designed my dream job, so where do I sign up?”

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Before we come back to you, Chris, to learn a little bit more about the system leadership skills, I just want to ask Kseniya if there’s anything else you’d like to add of context about Advance Together.

Kseniya Benderskaya: Yes, and not so much about Advance Together but more so about the prelude to the leadership academy, which in looking at the leadership of collective impact efforts in our portfolio, we observed that there were three main levels of types of leadership. There is the influential leaders who are your CEOs, superintendents, elected officials, essentially folks who have the gravitas and the trust to unite leaders around a greater cause. Those are not the folks who are managing the day-to-day implementation of the shared work. Who are the folks who are managing the day-to-day stuff? Those are typically either emerging or middle-level leaders in backbone organizations who are then tasked with being a coordinator of the shared work. They’re usually called even, you know, initiative director or initiative coordinator, and so their responsibility is to create the value for diverse and independent stakeholders and to hold people accountable without any formal authority. Those are the layer people that we’re talking about in this conversation.

The third big type is, of course, the resident leaders. Those are like community members not affiliated with institutions, represent the voices, and experience of people directly affected by the problems, by the problems that the effort is trying to solve.

Our hypothesis was that investing in the professional development of this middle layers of coordinating leaders would sort of do two things. It would help the work move faster because these folks are, they are the cat herders, and that they will also be more effective at creating a welcoming environment for the resident leaders to continue at engaging in kind of increasingly meaningful ways and same with managing up to the influential leaders. We really saw the investment in this particular layer of leaders as an important way to test what investing in systems leadership skills would do to the overall effectiveness of collective impact efforts.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: That’s really helpful to understand a little more about who these folks are that were participating. I’ve heard so many good analogies for the role of the backbone, cat herders, guides, bridges, network weavers but coming back to cat herders always makes sense.

So, Chris, we would love to hear you talk a little bit about the skills that were core in designing the system leadership curriculum. I think you mentioned that there are five core skills.

Chris Thompson: We’re focusing on five different resources out there. I’ve seen as many as 12 different skills but the five that we focus on at ATLA emerged over time from interviews with many serial collaborators, people who have been involved in more than one collaborative as well as the clients that I’ve been coaching for the last six years. Originally, I started out focusing on three and I added two new ones as I got deeper into this work.

The first skill is facilitation which really addresses how we help diverse stakeholders move forward together. It’s a little bit of cat herding and group decision making. Evaluation is the second skill. This allows us to understand how well the members of the collaborative are working together. The third skill is understanding context. How do we understand the constraints and the opportunities faced by members of the collaborative, and all of the factors going around on the edge of the collaborative? Inquiry, which is how do we ask compelling new questions and listen deeply to the answers that emerge so that members of the collaborative can think and act differently together. The fifth one while it’s last, it’s definitely not least, it’s building trust. Because collaboration moves at the speed of trust—by the way, I think I first heard that line at the first collective impact forum in Aspen many years ago. Collaborations move at the speed of trust. We need to behave in ways that build trust with and among the members of the collaborative.

These skills really help people navigate through the collaboration cycle and advance the common agenda of a collective impact effort. I think as Adrian kind of hinted at, we don’t have a lot of authority when we’re trying to support a collaborative so in the absence of power, we still have to have influence, and using influence requires skills, and I think these five skills help us exercise more influence than if we’re making it up as we go along.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: For sure, Chris. And Adrian, you began to tell us a little bit about your work already but I’d love for you to tell us a little bit more about the work that you’re doing in the Permian Basin, and then we can dig into it a little bit more.

Adrian Vega: Sure, so the Education Partnership of the Permian Basin was established in 2018 and once again it was literally established by some key community leaders recognizing the need for this type of support or guidance or leadership in the community to try to solve some of the biggest challenges we face out here in the Permian Basin. If you’re not familiar with West Texas, the oil patch, or the Permian Basin, we’re kind of out here in the middle of nowhere. There are two major cities in the Petroplex, if you will, and even when I say major, I mean they’re mid-sized. We have Midland and we have Odessa, and they’re about 15 miles part but historically they might as well have been 150 miles apart, and that’s part of the challenge that we face in the Permian Basin. The region, Permian Basin, Texas, because technically the Permian Basin feeds up into southeastern New Mexico. There’s about 17 counties, and the surrounding counties in our community are exclusively rural so whereas the two largest school districts in our community of Midland ISD and Ector County ISD comprise 60,000-plus students. The other surrounding school districts are probably 5,000, 3,000 students apiece, and even smaller.

So some of the big challenges that we face out here, there are really big five macro challenges so infrastructure, education, workforce, health care, and housing. Out here where we live historically kind of on a boom-bust kind of economy or reality, historically during downtimes I think communities have been reticent to really come together or really plan ahead, and so when there’s a boom, then obviously there’s an impact or a taxing on all the systems, just a stress on all the systems. A few years ago some of the key community members realized, hey, we’ve got to do something, and so the Education Partnership of the Permian Basin was founded.

Our main goal is to improve educational outcomes in our region, in our community cradle to career obviously, and so we have focused on two big action networks, one on the front end which is our birth-to-five action network or Early Childhood Action Network that’s focused on improving kindergarten readiness rates in our community, and then on the opposite end, more the career side, the postsecondary side, which is our Grow Our Own Action Network which is focusing on increasing educational pipelines and pathways to improve or increase workforce development. So that’s the primary focus of the Education Partnership of the Permian Basin.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you for that context. So pretty big geographic footprint and lots of, I’m sure, really diverse perspectives and experiences coming together into the partnership. Tell me a little bit more about how your time with Advance Together and the Leadership Academy has helped the partnership move forward and tackle challenges.

Adrian Vega; First and foremost I would say that their support has truly been catalytic in helping us move forward so just the fact that we were accepted to be one of the four or actually the process, I think there were multiple communities that applied and then that planning grant year, I think it was whittled down to nine, and then of those nine, four were selected. So for them to have selected us was seismic. I don’t want overstate that. I mean that literally.

So for instance as Kseniya was saying earlier, the financial funding that they provided us has helped us do the work. They provided us technical support as well so as a new organization we are right now smack dab in the middle of creating our five-year strategic plan, and part of their support has led to that. So those are the very concrete, tangible, practical support levers that they provided us. As far as participating in the leadership cohort and working with Chris, obviously being part of a network or a broader group that is also trying to do this work, so to kind of walk through these five skills if you will but do it in concert with others and to be able to have these conversations and really pick each other’s brains and serve as a sounding board to one another has been invaluable.

I’ll say of the five, I think going back to—if we were to go down into where we’re located, the ones that have been so—I guess most pertinent right now for us would be the understanding our context, building trust, and then also inquiry.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Give me a little bit more, Adrian. I’m so interested on each of those three. What has it meant for you to understand context? Let’s take that one.

Adrian Vega: As I stated, it’s real fascinating because we’re trying to bridge together two broader communities that historically have been rival communities, and so in order to really kind of move forward it’s important to really understand the context in a much more nuanced way.

One of the things that just in my own personal experience, as just a sidenote, is when you’re working in small communities, family trees matter, and what I mean by that specifically, if you don’t know who’s part of that family tree and you’re having conversations, you might accidentally say the wrong thing even unintentionally and that could have dire consequences because everybody’s related.

So that’s what I mean specifically about really understanding context, and so when you think about rival communities, like I said, we’re only 15 miles apart but historically might as well have been 150 miles apart, and so really trying to bring them together. If an individual or an organization doesn’t understand how to balance the two or how to kind of remain neutral and recognize the strengths that everyone brings to the table, it could be a nonstarter or a very tricky situation to move the work forward.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: That’s super helpful to understand.

Chris Thompson: Jennifer?

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Yeah, Chris, please.

Chris Thompson: I loved Adrian’s observation that you need to know who’s related to whom in a community context. I wanted to just make a point about the distinction between organizational leadership and how it gets exercised and systems leadership.

In an organization you don’t really need to worry about whether your employee—all of the contextual issues that affect them because you have power over that employee, right? If they’re a member of your staff, they’re working towards your goal, your organization’s goal. I know it’s not quite that literal and not quite that simple but you’ve got authority over them. You don’t have to be as concerned about context.

But when you’re a cat herder as Kseniya called them, you don’t really—you can’t tell the cat where to go. In some ways the work Adrian is doing and the work the ATLA cohort are doing is they’re answering the question how do we move forward as a community when no one has the power to order anyone else around? To do that you have to understand the context of the community that you’re working in. In Adrian’s case he’s working in two big communities with a bunch of other outlying communities engaged as well so it’s something resembling three-dimensional chess with cats. I don’t know what that ends up looking like but it’s not simple.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Absolutely, and the specifics there are really helpful. Adrian, the second one you mentioned was inquiry and then the third was building trust. I’d love to hear a quick specific example on each of those, and then we’re going to bring you in, Rumeli.

Adrian Vega: I think inquiry obviously when we were trying to bring players to the table and really kind of focus on this big goal let’s say of kindergarten readiness, and we brought a number of people to the table in this birth-to-five space, what we really discovered and was very fascinating, and this actually once again came as a direct result of the support received through the Dallas Fed through a consultant that they provided to help us work with some of these key leaders, is that as we dug deeper to inquire, OK, how are we going to connect all these dots. It was fascinating because depending on one’s perspective, so whether you’re a school district or whether you’re a child care provider or whether you’re a nonprofit or whether you’re a social service agency, kindergarten readiness might mean something completely different.

So we were kind of—what we discovered was I don’t even know if we were on the same page of even the definition, the working definition of what kindergarten readiness was, and so if we’re over here trying to move the needle and try to connect all these dots, and I know you all talked about cat herders and this and that but going back to that, I don’t know if it was the collective impact article, we like to refer to aligning arrows. Every community has arrows pointing and so we’re I guess an arrow collector or aligner, you know. So, it was fascinating. It was through that inquiry process and working through a logic model that I think we came to a good working definition of, OK, what does it mean? What does kindergarten readiness mean for us if that’s the metric we’re going to use, and then really say, OK, how does each of those entities relate to that?

Going back to also building trust, we had a conversation just yesterday with another community is when what we discovered is people who are already doing the work, they already have a mission. They already have a vision, and so they’re kind of looking at it from their perspective, and so then they’re trying to figure out, OK, now you’re coming to us and saying you want to align the arrows and align us with others. Are we going to get lost or what does that mean, and so part of these conversations we’re saying we’re not trying to supplant what you’re doing or we’re not trying to usurp what you’re doing. We’re trying to just come to an understanding of how what you’re doing fits in what we’re trying to do as a community which is improve kindergarten readiness. So a lot of that has to do with these skills that we’ve been talking about.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you for that. Let’s turn to you, Rumeli. Understanding racial equity and the impact of systemic racism is critical to supporting systems leadership and change, and not all leadership development programs do include a focus on racial equity, and I know that this is something that all of the participants including you have really brought into this work.

So could you tell us—it might seem like a basic question to many listening but why you think about it as a critical component, and what challenges you see for leaders of color stewarding cross-sector partnerships.

Rumeli Banik: Just taking a step back, we know that there’s a troubling number of children and families who are struggling to live happy and healthy lives, and this is primarily due to factors related to systemic racism including intergenerational poverty, persistent inequality, inequity, and a history of racial and ethnic discriminatory practices. So our investments are really to support—we recognize that there was a need for leaders who could engage in collaboration, who could promote collaboration across systems, across sectors to influence systems-level solutions as we try to tackle and address these big challenges so that—and as we work to align our goals and to work towards achieving those aligned goals to address some of these big issues that are impacting children and families. There really is an importance to bring in that diversity of perspectives, to bring in the diversity of experiences.

We also recognize that many of the people that were in the top levels of leadership in organizations didn’t necessarily reflect the communities that they were partnering with, the communities that they were aiming to serve, and those that did come from racial and ethnic backgrounds that better reflected communities, they tended to get stuck in these mid-level positions without necessarily getting to these decision-making levels.

So that was the hypothesis for really wanting to support and invest in leaders of color to ensure that their experiences and the solutions that they’re bringing in, the solutions that the communities are developing are really getting implemented, and these leaders of color are the ones that are going to be—that have been championing those solutions.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: You mentioned—alluded to this a little bit already but tell us a little bit about the potential that the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation sees in work like Adrian’s and these collaborative programs that are participating in Advance Together and the Leadership Academy.

Rumeli Banik: What’s interesting being a national funder is that we have kind of this bird’s eye view or we have an understanding of what’s happening across the nation but also really rely on and look to the expertise of our grantees of the communities that we’re serving. We’re looking to leaders like Adrian and the work of Advance Together to develop models that are adapted to their local context and have been developed for their local context but can be adapted to other areas. What are the lessons learned? What are the things that are working and approaches that are working, and also what are the things that you tried that you learned from, that they didn’t necessarily work out and in failing forward, what did you learn from, and how can we take those key takeaways and apply them to other collective impact efforts or other work in cross-sector partnerships that are happening across the country?

So there’s really this interest in supporting work that’s happening at the local level where there’s an understanding of the local context, there’s local leadership and wanting to invest in and build the capacity of those local leaders and organizations as well as being able to lift up what some of these best practices are and what some of the lessons learned are.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Is there anything more that you would like to share as a call to action for why other funders should invest in this kind of work?

Rumeli Banik: Sure. For the other funders—for those funders that are listening, collective impact work, what we found is that sometimes it’s challenging for funders to see their place in it and where they might plug into collective impact efforts because backbone organizations and collective impact efforts are doing a lot of things. They’re working across sectors in housing, in food security, in early childhood education, workforce development and sometimes it may be difficult for funders to see where their strategies fit into this.

But where we can all really align is in supporting the—building the capacity of organizations and of leaders. We know that these leaders that are leading the backbone organizations, they are ensuring and driving these collective impact efforts to meet those aligned goals. My call to action would be use—find where you can plug into collective impact efforts but also use your other quote-unquote powers, your ability to convene and bring people from across sectors and across systems together, your ability to—the thought partnership that you bring and the lessons that you’re learning, lifting up successful efforts, and lifting up what’s working and what’s effective, and communicating that, and allowing the communities that we’re serving to also talk about their experiences and talk about the work using their own words.

I think that’s an area where funders can really help to lift up voices and to elevate voices that aren’t—that may not typically be part of the conversation, and then really to help to share learnings. We make long-term, multi-year investments in these organizations, in this work because we know that in order to achieve the impacts that we’re looking to achieve, we’re going to have to be in it for the long run so really thinking longer term about how to develop and how to support leadership development and how to support leadership in communities is going to help us get to where we would like to go.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Rumeli, thank you for that. I know it’s hard for a lot of folks playing that backbone role. It’s hard to get funding from that work and for the collaborative infrastructure so I hope that some of the funders listening feel inspired by that on behalf of the community where folks are doing this work, and very grateful for how you talk about your approach to the work, it is dollars but also the convening and the creating connections, elevating voices from community all while letting the community lead, right? Not imposing on the community so I just want to really underscore and appreciate that.

Kseniya, I think you wanted to chime in too.

Kseniya Benderskaya: Yes, and even though the Dallas Fed is not a funder, I do think we think of support in two different buckets. There’s supporting the people and ideas and then programs and operations, and of course the collective impact infrastructure.

I once heard Vu Le say people are the batteries that power the systems change machine, and when you make the investments in the people, they are bringing that mindset to whatever new work they touch. Most people don’t stay in the same organization for 10 years. They now hop around more, right? And that means that they’re also bringing that mindset to all the other social impact work they’re going to be touching in the future. So we also see it as an investment in the civic infrastructure of the community over the long haul, and that there’s this cross-pollination of ideas and now we’re seeing that really accelerate because the turnover is much higher.

We have had leadership transitions at every single one of our teams, and these are key players but what we’re seeing is that they’re going to other organizations within the system that they’ve been working to move or improve, and so they’re bringing that same mindset, those same leadership practices, that same finesse of being able to facilitate great meetings, to be able to build and repair trust, being able to understand context, and it’s making the entire system healthier over the long term.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: That’s a great point. Really appreciate that. Well, if someone wanted to do something similar in their own community, what would you recommend to them? And I’m just going to open that up to whoever would like to jump in.

Chris Thompson: This is Chris. I’ll jump in and say other than calling your local Federal Reserve Bank, the best solution I think is just to look around in your community and see what are the collaboratives that you have going on. I don’t know a single community that doesn’t have multiple collaboratives going on, right? So there’s multiple people like Adrian and his peers at ATLA who might feel like they’re all alone in the community, that they’re the only ones doing this work. It’s a lot of work. It can be overwhelming but there’s probably someone like you out there. If you’re doing this work, find a few peers and even form an informal network via Zoom or if you’re fortunate enough to meet in person over coffee. Most funders of this work fund more than one collaborative.

While not everyone takes the enlightened long-term view that Rumeli and the Doris Duke Charitable Trust does, some funders—funders of individual collaboratives should think long and hard about how do they create a cohort so you get some of that synergistic effect that Kseniya just referenced where, yeah, people change jobs and they move to different opportunities in the community but if these skills spread, the community is better off.

Rumeli Banik: Just building on what Chris said, and thank you for that shout out to the way that we approach our work, is as you’re looking at your community for existing collaboratives or as you’re looking to build collaboratives, I just want to underscore, bring the funders into that. We have a learning orientation. We want to learn alongside you, and we want to learn about what’s working, what’s not. Again, as we’re looking to replicate and scale models, as we’re looking to take lessons learned about what’s working in one community and help another community apply it to their context, we want to be part of these collaboratives as well, not only for the dollars but for thought partnership and learning too.

Kseniya Benderskaya: I’ll just say that even though each of the five skills sounds really simple when you hear about it, they’re each complicated by a set of practices and questions that are pretty specific. So we are really excited to be able to publish our curriculum and our guide soon, and make it public so once it is, I would love to make it sharable so that folks listening to this podcast are able to dig in on their own time and take what’s useful to them. We’ll try to pepper it with as many practical examples as possible because I know that a lot of times the stuff is very wonky but there is both an art and a science to each one of these skills, and I think that it does take a while to appreciate the nuance in each one of the skillsets that we described.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: That’s great and I think lots of folks listening will be eager to download that curriculum so that’s a great service to folks doing this work.

Well, thank you all for joining today. It has been a true pleasure and privilege to be able to spend time with you and learn from all of you, Chris, Rumeli, Adrian, and Kseniya. Thank you for the work you do and for the families across Texas, thank you. With that, we will wish everyone a good afternoon.

(Outro) And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, you can find links to resources in the footnotes of this podcast.

We would like to acknowledge that this episode was produced and edited on the unceded, traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. We honor with gratitude the land itself and the pasts, present, and futures of these tribes.

The Intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Krux and our outro music is composed by Kevin Macleod.

This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast host. I want to say thank you so much for listening, and we look forward to connecting with you more in our next episode. Until next time, we hope you are safe and well.


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