In this episode, we feature an unabridged roundtable discussion amongst a group of leaders who are part of United Way organizations from across the United States. In this talk, we get to hear what they have learned using the collective impact approach for collaborative, place-based change, and how they have seen their roles transition from a traditional funder role to that of a connected and collaborative community partner.
Leading this discussion is Ayeola Fortune who serves as interim senior vice president for impact at United Way Worldwide. Joining Ayeola Fortune is Bill Crim, who is president and CEO of United Way of Salt Lake, Regina Greer, who is chief impact officer at United Way of Greater St. Louis, and Jill Pereira, who is vice president of education and impact at United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley. This discussion is an unabridged version of an article shared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled Embracing Collective Impact at United Way.
Please find a transcript of this podcast lower down this page
Resources and Footnotes
- Series: Collective Impact: 10 Years Later
- Article: Embracing Collective Impact at United Way.
- United Way Worldwide
- United Way of Salt Lake
- United Way of Greater St. Louis
- United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley
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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(Intro) 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 and online community that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.
In this episode, we feature an unabridged roundtable discussion amongst a group of leaders who are part of United Way organizations from across the United States. In this talk, we get to hear what they have learned using the collective impact approach for collaborative, place-based change, and how they have seen their roles transition from a traditional funder role to that of a connected and collaborative community partner. This roundtable was conducted as part of an online series published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which explores the collective impact movement 10 years after the original article was published in SSIR. Leading this discussion is Ayeola Fortune who serves as interim senior vice president for impact at United Way Worldwide. Joining Ayeola Fortune is Bill Crim, who is president and CEO of United Way of Salt Lake, Regina Greer, who is chief impact officer at United Way of Greater St. Louis, and Jill Pereira, who is vice president of education and impact at United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley. Let’s listen in.
Ayeola Fortune: Hello everybody. Thanks for joining us today. My name is Ayeola Fortune. I am the interim senior VP for impact at United Way Worldwide. I’m really glad to be here and especially to hear more about how some of our United Ways are using a collective impact framework to improve conditions in their communities. United Ways are leading and supporting collective impact efforts globally and we have so much to share especially at this point, 10 years on from when the first article was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. As you know, collective impact is an approach to addressing specific community issues and generally speaking, some of our most challenging issues. The approach focuses on bringing people together across sectors, sharing and setting a common agenda to define and solve problems, using shared measurement, focusing on ongoing communication between stakeholders, and ensuring mutually reinforcing activities focused all on the end goal. As you know, there’s a strong backbone usually enabling all of this work. These are the core elements of a collective impact approach. In essence, it provides a framework for community collaboration to achieve their goals.
Today, we’ll be hearing from colleagues leading these efforts at United Ways in St. Louis, Missouri; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, all of whom have used the framework in different ways. Some of their efforts indeed started well before the article was published and they continue to evolve. I also want to highlight that United Ways are present in every community across the United States and in over 40 countries globally. We’ve been working to advance positive community change for decades now and as we have increasingly focused our network on impact, namely, how we deliver tangible results to improve lives and address underlying community conditions. Our focus areas are childhood and youth success, economic mobility, and access to health. Although our impact work in many communities predated the collective impact framework, the framework enables United Ways to advance a common approach and shared language with community partners. It also enhances the ability for United Ways to clearly articulate our roles and to work across multiple sectors to tackle challenging and complex social issues. Before we dive in, I want to offer our deepest thanks to the Collective Impact Forum, a program of FSG and the Aspen Institute for Community Solutions. We appreciate your leadership and guidance. I also want to thank the Stanford Social Innovation Review for giving us this opportunity to share our network’s insights and experiences.
I’m also pleased to introduce our esteemed panel of United Way leaders. Today we are joined by Bill
Crim, president and CEO of the United Way of Salt Lake, Regina Greer, chief impact officer at the United Way of Greater St. Louis, and Jill Pereira, vice president of education and impact at the United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley. So let’s dive right in and learn how you’ve been using the collective impact framework in your respective communities. We’ll start with Bill. Bill, how has collective impact and the framework in particular enabled you to improve community conditions in Salt Lake?
Bill Crim: I would say it’s important to know that we were working collaboratively in our community to try to improve conditions prior to the collective impact framework becoming visible to us and known to us. In many ways we’re using similar or had similar features. We were trying to use data. We were trying to align efforts. Our partnerships were trying to share accountability for results but we were not seeing the needle move on the core outcomes that we were focused on for entire neighborhoods and entire communities. You could see improvements for programs but we were not seeing the needle move. The collective impact framework helped us see why, I think.
What I took away and what we took away from our first exposure to it was we were not being rigorous about the elements of the framework and we couldn’t be rigorous without backbone infrastructure. Once we understood that, that we needed backbone infrastructure, that we needed to be rigorous about data sharing and alignment and shared accountability, we set out to build a tiered partnership infrastructure using a community school model at the neighborhood level, linking community schools into Promise Neighborhoods or cradle-to-career partnerships in place-based communities and then layering on top of that a StriveTogether kind of regional approach. We built this tiered infrastructure and then focused on rigor, really, really trying to improve the underlying practices and capabilities that inform the collective impact framework.
In doing that, now looking back 10 years later, we can see clear progress on a core set of outcomes, cradle-to-career outcomes. We see improvement. To use the StriveTogether kind of measurement rubric, we see 60% of our regional outcomes trending in the right direction. In specific communities, in specific neighborhoods we see really incredible things like at one particular community the graduation rate between White kids and refugee students has completely closed. We were seeing equity gaps shrink. In some cases, we’re seeing improvements that we didn’t expect to see by having this really rigorous comprehensive approach. In some communities we’re actually seeing things like crime rates decrease and youth engaged or involved with the criminal justice system decreasing community wide for the entire community. We’re big. I guess we’ve drunk the collective impact Kool-Aid because we feel like collaboration by itself didn’t move the needle. Rigorous focus on collective impact, the framework and the underlying capabilities and practices really does make a difference.
Ayeola Fortune: That’s great and it’s really helpful in terms of just the rigor and ensuring that you were really adhering to the model as it was intended. Jill, how about you in Lehigh Valley?
Jill Pereira: Thanks, Ayeola. In Greater Lehigh Valley, we’ve improved conditions in a number of ways with collective impact. First, kind of in our mindset about what we are in community and how long change actually takes when you’re thinking about root cause. The collective impact framework allowed us to really think about this organic way of organizing and accelerating community-driven solutions to address complex social needs, but also gave us the framework to talk that through with community and our board around understanding that it’s going to take a commitment because the change that we’re seeking through this effort isn’t going to come to us overnight. After this article emerged in 2011, we did a lot of research and we followed along and it wasn’t until about 2014 that we felt we were really positioned to start embedding the approach in kind of two prongs into our community.
First, through setting for the first time population-level goals through our newest investment cycle. We’ve been able to mobilize not only our dollars but also other resources, people, entities, cross sector, to address those issues around education, healthy aging, and food access. But the second prong was really through because of the respected role we had in community we were able to advance deeper learning and skill-set building of collective impact leadership and knowledge throughout the nonprofit ecosystem in our region. We leaned in and offered some additional support then in issue areas that we are not particularly addressing like human trafficking, recidivism, suicide prevention, to just help other efforts kind of lift the infrastructure that they would need to address those.
We really kind of looked at two key ingredients we needed internally to help move this. One was an internal champion. Our current executive vice president, Marci Lesko, just really dove into collective impact and was our internal leader for taking on, chewing on, and then giving back to our team and our community, anybody who would listen, all of the new information that was coming out around collective impact. That has been really, really helpful. Then getting our board and other volunteers involved has also been really critical to the success.
In 2015, we were able to have our board agree to a $500,000 drawdown of our reserves over three years specifically to advance this collective impact agenda and there were a couple of key features around broad-based education and awareness of collective impact across our region, specific leadership development especially related to collaborative leadership. We went deeper in our work in diversity, equity, and inclusion. We started a focus more specifically on authentic community engagement and showing up differently in community. We supported new and different work around data sharing across systems and then really leaning into building capacity with emerging backbone organizations and coalitions.
Ayeola Fortune: Thanks, Jill. You said something that was really critically important there in terms of the leadership position that your board took so I have an appreciation for them setting that strategic direction for you all which enabled you to really lean heavily into taking on that role. With that, let’s hear from Regina who will talk about how this work has evolved and the results they’re seeing in St. Louis.
Regina Greer: Here in St. Louis, we’ve been very fortunate to witness and demonstrate collective impact at the agency and community levels, which bring improvements for individuals and population outcomes. We’ve had great success with place-based initiatives in one of the lowest income and underserved areas where we’ve seen a renaissance of sorts for youth and out-of-school time engagement. Some of those outcomes include increasing access to high-quality early childhood and out-of-school time programs that’s resulted in an impact for over 2,000 children and youth served. We have been driving statewide policy change resulting in 1,800 additional students receiving safe transportation to and from school. Even amongst COVID, we’ve generated nearly $2,000,000 to be able to meet increased needs and provide a platform for 80 entities around our collective impact table to coordinate, communicate, and collaborate.
Having these initiatives already in place helps. When something new emerges we’re already ready to mobilize. That has also led to the establishment of other collaborations in the community like community organizations, active in disaster regional response tables and more. We are in the midst of a rapidly growing collective impact effort across our entire region but it’s changing the way nonprofits deliver services and redefining the landscape. While this was already in motion, it’s even more important as we emerge from a COVID-impacted state. So, net net, we attribute our success to applying a collective impact approach with a systems-change lens and the unwavering commitment of stakeholders as game changers.
Ayeola Fortune: Thanks, Regina. That also underscores the capacity we have to drive that systems change and leaning into the state policy focus. I think that’s important to call out there, that really, when you build on that kind of foundation and you leverage policy and advocacy and lean into that as United Ways, you can drive systemic change, which is really the purpose and the focus of collective impact. Now, let’s talk about the challenges in terms of it’s required you to make some shifts internally in relationship perhaps to your partners, funded and not funded, out in the community. Let’s spend some time talking about along this journey, what has been some of the challenging shifts you’ve had to make in order to embrace this approach in your work. This time, let’s start with you, Jill.
Jill Pereira: Thanks, Ayeola. There are many and this will probably be common among most of us. The number one challenging shift that we’ve had to make has been to move from pure funder of allocations to a collaborative community partner really aimed at shared accountability for successful outcomes and a different way of resource distribution. We find this shift for us is in constant motion and some of that is due to the variety of stakeholders that we’re aiming to please through this careful balance we have with decisions and our work. There’s a lot we could unpack there. We know that our journey is not over but being able to really see ourselves and have our community see us as an organization that’s open to change and willing to operate differently has been really critical to this collective impact evolution for us.
As an organization, we’ve really been grounded in a particular way of doing business for a really long time with practices and protocols dominated by historically White mindsets about what it means to do things kind of the right way as a funder. What we’ve learned in the know better, do better mindset is that collective impact at its core has called for meaningful engagement and inclusion of the diversity that we have in community to bring about solutions that are equitable for everybody. As we continue to advance our collective impact framework and shift as a partner from a funder, we continue to go deeper into kind of breaking and modifying and reshaping the structures that we have put in place to make decisions and to do our work. We want to keep donors delighted on the return that they’re getting on their investment and we know that we need the community to be more and feel more connected to the ways in which their voice is shaping the definition of the problem, the definition of what success looks like, the solutions and the strategies that are right to invest in regardless of their connection to traditional norms.
I just want to share one example of what this has looked like surfacing. In 2018, we put out an RFP and we were looking for grassroots organizations to support leadership development for residents in community. One of the questions we asked in the application was, “Describe the strategies that will be used to link program participants with opportunities to share their voice through active coalitions working to further positive youth outcomes.” We were basically saying we want you to develop folks in community that are diverse and we want you to give them to us to put on our coalitions to advance the youth outcomes that we think are important. The response that we received was really amazing and powerful. The response was, “This question is not grounded in equity and the recognition of the value and work that has been occurring within neighborhoods for generations. Our leadership program is designed to develop liberated and critical thinkers and encourage the linking of emerging and seasoned leaders of color in nontraditional communities with historically White institutions throughout the Lehigh Valley from a place of equity versus submission.” That response came to us from Dr. Hasshan Batts, the executive director of a small Black-led liberation-based grassroots organization in the Lehigh Valley, Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, and was really shocking at the time on both in its honesty of content and the brave delivery in an RFP like that to a historically White-led organization. So after doing a Google search of every theory that he put out around the pedagogy and the curriculum of the program, I reached out to him and said, “Can we just sit down and talk?” That has really—it’s been such a profound exchange both in our organization and our relationship and in community because we both kind of share the story as a way to demonstrate that when people speak truth to power and it’s recognized as a gift and that you’re leaning in and listening as a partner, really positive and lasting change is possible.
Ayeola Fortune: That’s a great example, Jill, and what it underscores, which is probably implied in your remarks but we could make explicit here is that really embracing this work means giving up and ceding some of your power and the centering of United Ways as the center. That’s what I heard in that response as well. With that, let’s hear from our other panelist. Regina, why don’t you talk about the challenges you’ve faced in St. Louis.
Regina Greer: I would definitely agree with Jill on the move from being simply a funder to shared ownership and an accountability partner. That too has forced us out of our traditional comfort zone and United Way mindset, I have to say. But in the middle of a challenging shift, I would reframe this question in my own mind about an opportunity to holistically and wholeheartedly support the work of collective impact as the soul of our work. At United Way of Greater St. Louis we have aligned our internal strategy, priorities, assets, and even funding to support collective impact and to see collective impact as a daily goal for our internal and external stakeholders. Dedicated backbone support for both issue-specific and collaborative groups have helped us to achieve more than we would if we were disparate functions within our United Way. And then having those dedicated staff has helped to provide facilitative and administrative support to other collaborations and helping them to move their visions forward into action.
So we look at this as supporting the work of collective impact for the issues that we choose as United Way but also using that muscle to help move other collaboratives along across our region. If we didn’t do this, otherwise the challenge would be we’d be relying on external partners and initiatives only and not be true to lasting and transformative change at every turn. We needed to apply these tenets and all that we do as a part of our United Way to get greater impacts, break down silos, and to further demonstrate outcomes.
Ayeola Fortune: It sounds like you addressed the possible challenges through Be. Do. Say. That if you were going to lead this kind of effort out in the community, you needed to manifest it closer to home within your United Way itself in terms of how you have aligned yourself, how you prepared yourself to lead, that you could be an example for the very kind of ways that exemplify the kind of practices you wanted to see amongst coalitions. Bill, how about Salt Lake? What have been the challenges there?
Bill Crim: I would say we relate to the challenges that Jill and Regina just described or we’ve experienced those. Those sound familiar. Maybe I’ll take a different path and talk about I think there are some mindset shifts that are challenging that go beyond a single organization like the United Way. At least in our community what seems to be true is it’s unusual to think about whole population, whole community change or to believe that it’s possible. We might talk about it sometimes but to have a large cross-sector group of folks actually believe that we can change systems to provide opportunity for every child, that’s a mindset shift that doesn’t happen automatically, and I think embedded in that mindset shift is a shift from programmatic accountability where I would say most nonprofits and most government programs are very used to being accountable for specific programs, specific sets of young people for example in the case of a cradle-to-career partnership but it’s unusual to think about and to be willing to take the risk to be accountable for an entire population of young people in a community.
When funding is delivered based on grant reports, it’s risky to say, “No, I’m accountable for every child in the Salt Lake region,” and so shifting that mindset not only among ourselves and our team but among our partners and the folks that work in institutions, I think that’s been something that continues to be a challenge. I think it’s always been and continues to be something that we have to talk about. We have to find ways to minimize the actual risk and to truly share accountability for the entire population of our community.
One of the folks that we’ve learned a lot from in our work is Michael McAfee from PolicyLink, and he talks powerfully about how it’s OK to be accountable for a program but if you are doing collective impact work, you better know your number, and that number is the number of all kids in your community. I think that’s something we have to keep working on.
Ayeola Fortune: I love that, and it really is to imagine what so few of us have actually seen in terms of that tangible community change that brings everybody along so you’re asking people to have a vision that you might not be able to have seen or witnessed, and then also that idea of being responsible, that collective responsibility for collective outcomes in a community is really powerful, Bill. Would you say you’ve had success in getting that paradigmal mindset shift?
Bill Crim: I would say yes and no. I would not say that even on our team, like we have to constantly sort of reinforce the notion of knowing our number. We recruit really talented, smart people and we still have to reorient our mindsets about—like we wake up every day and we’re responsible for the opportunity and the results for 480,000 young people, zero to 24-year-olds in our region, and within that each of our team members who facilitates a partnership or a network needs to know their number, and our partners need to know their number. We have to find ways to reinforce that all the time.
Ayeola Fortune: And that your number doesn’t just boil down to those who you are currently serving. Your number is the broader community of who you could serve, who’s in need, and also how you serve them and how you improve conditions even for those that may not ever walk into a program funded by United Way of Salt Lake.
Bill Crim: Exactly.
Ayeola Fortune: Really appreciate that vision. Go ahead, Jill.
Jill Pereira: This is Jill. I was just going to say I think in addition to the team, we also have that challenge. Just to kind of blow that out a little bit, thinking about how you keep donors engaged and learning in the conversation around what it means to be responsible for a population is really tricky in the world right now where folks want instant gratification, and I give my money to A and then I want to see B. Collective impact mindset like that is a real stretch, and so I’m glad that you brought it up, Bill, because I think it’s something to put on the mix of variables to take into consideration when you’re entering into the framework.
Ayeola Fortune: Jill, I’ll ask you the same question in terms of how you feel in terms of bringing donors along in that mindset shift.
Jill Pereira: I think the donors, particularly higher-end donors who know us well, who we get to spend time with and are really invested in understanding what we do in community, we’re doing a really good job. For the average kind of everyday donor or everyday person in community, they have no idea what we’re—they maybe know the tagline or the indicator maybe or the focus area but really aren’t cued into what all of that means and that we’re really talking about population-level change.
Ayeola Fortune: Let’s talk about your roles and positioning a little bit more. We’ve love to hear more about sort of a from/to. How were you positioned in the community and thought of, your work thought of in the community before explicitly taking on a collective impact approach, and how has that changed particularly through the lens of how the community and the stakeholders view you today versus maybe 10-15 years ago. Why don’t we start off with Regina?
Regina Greer: That’s a great question. We have always been looked at as one of the largest if not the largest funder and convener in our region but that shift to becoming more of a thought leader, partner, and solutions builder for the community’s most complex issues has shifted in everything that we do. So when we think about our stakeholders, we look at this on an individual agency and community level, and we were just talking about from a donor lens, it’s completely around we have a greater responsibility in providing education and awareness, being a barometer of community need, pointing individuals and donors and other stakeholders to where we need to all set our sights and set our sails. How do we put the need out there in such a way to get folks to align whether you’re at a collective impact table or whether you’re looking at your next funding option, or also where the next table will be set so we’ve really made a shift to being a thought leader and a partner. We’re still seen as a funder. We are still the largest funder in the area but that’s also creating us to be more of a partner at a deeper level, and also, I would say a boots-on-the-ground contributor and implementer as well.
Ayeola Fortune: I love that notion of being the barometer of community need which has to be premised on having deep understanding of what those issues are so it’s a plus/and or both/and I should say. You’re always a funder but what you’ve added are some of those other ways that you show up as a partner, as a convener, as someone that’s really in touch with community needs. Why don’t we go to you, Bill, and talk about how your perception in the community has changed, your United Way’s perception.
Bill Crim: Similarly we were, I think, seen as a fundraiser and a funder, and I remember very clearly right after the collective impact article was published, we shared that with a group of community partners and we asked them to make commitments to specific places. We said, “Let’s do this, this work that we’ve been trying to do but without rigor. Let’s do this with rigor in specific communities,” and one of the leaders in the room who I respected a lot, I would consider her a mentor, she had spent her entire life doing antipoverty work, she called me out in the group meeting, and she said, “You’re asking us to make a long-term commitment to work together to actually reduce poverty and inequity in these communities.” And she said, “We like you but we don’t trust you. Your grant process changes every couple of years. Your priorities change every couple of years or at least the way you frame RFPs and grant requirements. You evaluate our grant proposals in isolation from each other. You have volunteers with little or no experience evaluating those grant proposals and with little or no connection to the specific communities where you’re suggesting we do this work.” She just laid it all out there and said, “You’re asking us to do this but you have to change first. We might come along with you but you’re going to have to change first. If you want us to make a long-term commitment, you’ve got to make that commitment.”
For us, that was the last grant process we’ve ever had. We’ve never had another RFP or grant process. We made a commitment in the room to that group of folks to stay focused in those communities, cradle to career until the problems are solved. We had to change sort of everything about who we were and how we use resources that we can grant out, and how we work with folks. So now people—I think we haven’t had a grant process or an RFP for a decade. People don’t see us as a funder primarily. They see us as a collective impact backbone organization that builds partnerships.
Ayeola Fortune: That’s great. So just staying with you for a moment, help me understand that in real terms, in concrete terms. If I’m that same individual today, has my perception changed? How do I experience you if I’m still funded by you? Am I still funded by you? I’m just curious like what does it mean in concrete terms?
Bill Crim: In many cases, yes, still but what you experience is a frequent, I wouldn’t say daily but frequent partnership meetings where knowing our number is the central theme like how are we doing on this outcome, what is our contribution to that outcome? If we don’t see progress, how do we adapt? We’re engaged in something called a collaborative improvement process, continuous improvement done collaboratively so as a funded partner, you experience collaborative improvement constantly. In some cases those are the folks that still are engaged in this. Some folks didn’t want to do that. They said, “We don’t need your resources or United Way resources that badly. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing,” and then in other cases over time people would say, “We don’t want to share data, and so we don’t do that,” and we parted ways, and we brought on many new partners, some with funding, some without but it’s always around a result and a place.
Ayeola Fortune: I appreciate that. Jill, how have perceptions changed in Lehigh Valley?
Jill Pereira: It’s always great to be on a call with other United Ways or other organizations that are leading collective impact in any way because it reminds me that there’s no one blueprint for how to kind of—yes, there’s a framework but there’s not a step-by-step blueprint on how to do it right, and hearing both Regina and Bill talk about some of the shifts in their roles just reminds me of places that we still have work to do.
But some of the ways that we have seen our role shift, we were an allocator, a collector of funds is how we were seen in community, and I think a lot more folks see us as a driver of impact. We were purely a funder and we’re a convener in lots of spaces, spaces where we lead and spaces where we simply support. We were gatherers of research before other people’s research, and we have by necessity had to evolve into content experts on our team to be able to really kind of be in the game with folks as we’re trying to solution some of this out, and as strategic thought partners. So we started as a really traditional United Way, funding a mix of programs, and a little bit of systems change, and doing a little bit of community-building work, and with the embedding of collective impact we’ve shifted that fully to we’re really about community building and we happen to have a grantmaking machine that we enact to resource communities.
One example, our third-grade reading goal. Nobody was talking about grade-level reading in 2014 in the Greater Lehigh Valley. We had been researching both the collective impact framework and then also like data trends in our community on where the needs are. I think for us part of the shift in role has been we’ve become a lot about influencing. What does the data say, and then how are we helping to influence other partners to want to play and align their energies and their efforts and their resources to make an impact on that particular goal. So we’ve seen that successfully happen not only in our grade-level reading work but also in our trauma-informed practices work with Resilient LV, both of which were the backbone for our Lehigh Valley work but also in the housing space.
There’s a collective impact effort with housing that we are not the backbone for, and so we are a cheerleader, we are a funder to some degree. We keep our radar up for political or for policy levers that we would want to make sure that this housing effort knows about. When we have infrastructure bills that we can offer like an AmeriCorps VISTA support, we’re always kind of keeping open. So directly we’re leading as a backbone, and our role has merged into that or emerged into that, and then we’re supporting other collective impact efforts through some of these other avenues as well.
Ayeola Fortune: That’s a critical point in terms of you’re not always out front. You’re not always leading or visible in the work but you can be a champion and a supporter of the work and provide backbone behind-the-scenes support to capacitate other collective impact efforts that relate to the—I know you all have community goals so absolutely are aligned with where you’re trying to go as United Way within a broader community so absolutely aligned so how do we get on board and support them, and we don’t have to take the space in the room. We can actually let someone else drive that and be in support.
It also strikes me when I think about the role that you all have just articulated so well, the convening power, the thought leadership you all talked about, the data collection and analysis, the sort of so-what, bringing that back to people to sort of put it back into some meaningful analysis and understanding about who we are as a community, a driver of impact that I see it so aligned within the equity work that I know you are also leading because in every space that you talked about and all of those roles, there’s a way to lead with equity. So when you talk about the data, it’s sharing the disaggregated data to build that understanding of what are the gaps we have and the disparities we have right here at home. When you talk about the convening, I’m hearing knowing you’re bringing in people whose voices aren’t heard.
You both talked about examples of really listening to people and being open even when you were being challenged in some of what you were putting out in the community and sort of centering voices that are not usually part of—not usually heard. Then I also think about bringing in who you’re building the capacity in your partnerships, in your strategic resource investment, and making sure that you are resourcing the right efforts, and that you’re bringing BIPOC leaders into that.
I know, Jill, that you all have just started down that path with some of the work that you’re doing with the racial equity funds there, and so I see the work as so complementary and aligned, and I also see—it’s so clear to me why United Way would sit at the intersection and bring this together because collective impact without that could still be very hierarchical, could still be sort of the usual suspects at a table unless you’re leaning in to the convening, the community engagement, kind of the things that are our bread and butter as a network so I have such appreciation for your thoughts and reflections there. Let’s start to round out the conversation. Would love to hear what inspires you. You have all been at this work for a long time, and we’ve been pointing to your efforts as exemplars within our network for many, many years on a variety of fronts, on a variety of fronts in terms of highlighting your efforts. So what inspires you to keep at it as leaders in your community and in our network? Would love, Bill, if you would kick us off.
Bill Crim: Well, I’d maybe start with the easy answer say like results inspire. Every result represents a person, a child, a family, a community member, and when you see results, needles moving at scale, that’s inspiring but what I really want to focus on—that’s maybe too obvious. What I want to focus on is we—our team celebrates the change in system behavior, the behaviors of those of us in systems to just work differently. So when we see, for example, organizations, early childhood organizations, that have spent years competing with each other working together around a shared goal of every child in a community starting school ready to learn, that’s inspiring even before we get to the result. Just people across the table holding accountability and working differently. That’s powerful.
When we see that among organizations that have ignored each other forever like schools and afterschool programs that have sort of operated in silence forever sitting down and saying, “OK, where are the kids who are missing because of COVID, and how do we find them together? How do we change our practices to make sure that every child has opportunity?” That stuff I think is incredibly inspiring even though we might still be decades from the ultimate result of working ourselves out of a job. If we can see systems changing and the people within those systems working differently, that keeps us going.
Ayeola Fortune: I love that, Bill, because you’ve linked—we often think of systems as this monolithic thing. There are people making decisions every day that is driving a system forward, and so I love that connection that you made that we actually do need to get to that level of behavioral change to see the systems change, and also pitching a big tent.
I know full well the afterschool community and how oppositional for so many years between afterschool and in school, and everybody thinking we do it better, we do what you can’t do, and so that’s a big haul to get people to understand we all have a role to play and how can we all sit at this table and see ourselves as contributors to this ultimate goal, and stop the infighting and the turf wars so love that vision around how you get there in terms of systems change. Jill, what’s been inspiring for you?
Jill Pereira: Lots of things have been inspiring. I mean Bill leading by saying results, I would say, yes, the ones that we are getting and the ones that we haven’t yet gotten is inspiring and motivating to keep us moving. As an organization I think we see ourselves as the organization that has power in our community that we have to use for good, and so if we’re going to own the power that we have regardless of how we got it, we are required to then use it for something to advance the common good, and that keeps our minds moving, right? We keep opening ourselves up to be challenged by the status quo of how do we need to adapt and change to remain relevant and also to remain meaningful in communities.
So in addition to all of the kind of engagement we’ve been doing in community, we also are part of a funder openness project nationally that was eye opening. It was painful a little bit to have a survey go out to your partners and receive feedback on how folks receive you as a partner and a funder in the community but we are now—our armor is off. We’re open and we’re really wanting to be in and with community, and so that desire that is just really a core part of our team and our organization and our volunteers and our donors is real. We want to be able to leverage every ounce of that passion and drive for a thriving community where every person belongs and every person thrives.
So personally as a leader in our organization, when I see in myself recognition or somebody on my team kind of recognize that a new possibility or an idea has emerged because we were brave enough, we were brave enough to change a process and center it more in equity, and because of that a new idea or something that hadn’t been on the table before has emerged is really also just an inspiring kind of regular occurrence right now.
Ayeola Fortune: Being open to what the possibilities are, and I love the idea of being vulnerable as well, and recognizing your power and leveraging your power for good and also seeing where is it possible to cede power and share power as well as part of it which you spoke to earlier. So, Regina, you will round us out. What’s been inspiring for you in this journey?
Regina Greer: I’d have to say that everything about our journey inspires us on a daily basis. Most importantly, community need inspires and compels us to be and become expert innovators, candle lighters, and mobilizers. We can’t settle for the status quo in the areas of equity and engagement. Collaboration and results, they have to keep us motivated so as Bill and Jill talked about, there are the results and there are the things that are not yet accomplished but as long as we have community need, I feel like our work is not done. So we know that change can be accomplished.
For example, when we look at some results like our ability to train over a thousand people in trauma-informed practices, and that resulted in policy and practice changes within an education housing, law enforcement, juvenile justice, health and social services, again bring all of these components together, that helps us to be able to continue to push in, to prioritize, and to think about the wellbeing of our entire community. So what we know is that without question, collective impact only works when each person or organization does their part. We love being a part of something that is larger than ourselves, and it takes bold leadership to think and act considering both the individual and organizational needs and what’s best for the community, and that gets back to that behavioral change that Bill touched on.
So because we are continuously demonstrating new ways of working and playing and moving shared agendas along to advance the common good, I think we will always stay deeply committed to that power of accomplishing more together, and then knowing that our community has needs but knowing that they deserve the very best expertise, diversity of thought, new ideas and tried-and-true efforts will help all of us make sure that through collective impact we can aid in people living their best possible lives, and we’re here for it. That’s what we’re made for.
Ayeola Fortune: I love that, Regina. I’m going to close us out. I’m actually going to offer each of you the opportunity just to—you know how diverse our network is, and I just want to give you the opportunity for those who are maybe just getting started or trying to figure out their way in how they might play a role like this in their community, what advice would you give them? What thoughts, and I know that’s a little bit of a curve ball here but you all have led the way in our network and so I think there’s a lot that can be learned from your experiences, and just want to give you the opportunity to reflect on that with your colleagues in terms of how would you advise they get started. Anybody can jump in. Anybody can get us started with that last part of our conversation. Jill, you want to go?
Jill Pereira: Sure, I’ll give a stab at it. I think theoretically to say be open and be bold, and be a United Way that is thinking about what your community needs from you today and then listen, and be open to sharing differently and showing up differently in community. Then practically speaking, go do your homework. Go learn about collective impact. Go read and talk with other people, and find out what the barriers might be that you’d want to be aware of for your own community. You can spot check some of this now. It’s been around for a while. It’s been documented for the last 10 years so do your homework and then get to action.
Ayeola Fortune: Well said. Bill?
Bill Crim: I think I’d build on that and just say it’s 10 years since the framework and the term of collective impact became visible and used, and a lot has been learned and a lot has been developed. So in most cases I would think a United Way or any organization wouldn’t have to start something brand new. In most communities we can look around and find some collaborative effort, some collective impact effort with good backbone infrastructure, and around most issues we can look to national partners who have learned a lot and can connect us and can help us build capacity. So I’d say join and align as opposed to start new, and I might also say find the book, Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough, about results accountability, and read that. As you’re learning and reading about collective impact itself, read Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough.
Ayeola Fortune; Great recommendation. Regina, bring us home.
Regina Greer: Jill mentioned the possibility of being open, and I’m going to say be open to the possibilities. As United Ways, we’re large, medium, small, and diversified in our own ways but I think the needs across community are all the same, and so we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. Our communities require more than just our traditional approaches these days, and I know as United Ways we all feel the same push and pull and tug to do more and to look at needs across our communities. Here in St. Louis we know that sometimes we choose issues and other times issues choose us. I cannot imagine that we’re unique in that way but I would encourage all of us to know that real change requires more of us as United Ways, and if not us, then who?
Ayeola Fortune; Well said. That’s going to do it for us. I just want to thank you all for your passion, your commitment, your leadership, Jill, Bill, and Regina. It’s been a great conversation. I knew it would be. I hope that community partners listening, national partners listening, your fellow colleagues out in the network really can take from this conversation all those kernels of knowledge that you’ve shared and think closer to home in terms of what can be leveraged, where they can lean in and start to get engaged in this work in their own communities. So thank you all so much, and thanks again to the Collective Impact Forum, to FSG, to the Aspen Institute for Community Solutions, and to Stanford Social Innovation Review for this opportunity to share our work. Thanks everybody.
(Closing) 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, including a links to the SSIR series Collective Impact: 10 Years Later where this roundtable is featured.
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 past, 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.