Trusting the Messiness in Collective Impact


In this podcast episode, we talk about “trusting the messiness,” and how one can balance navigating partnerships and managing expectations while participating in a long-term complex collaboration.

To explore those questions and more, we learn about the collective impact work supported by Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society which is based in Calgary, Canada.

Joining us from Sagesse are Carrie McManus and Andrea Silverstone who share how organizational values help them navigate through complex work, conversations, and decision-making. They also explore what to consider when expectations and experiences may differ between partners, and how to work through these situations.

Ways to listen: You can listen below or on your preferred podcast streaming service, including Itunes, Spotify, Simplecast, Sticher, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.

Please find a transcript of this talk further down this page.

References and Footnotes

More on Collective Impact


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.

Listen to Past Episodes: You can listen and subscribe via Itunes, Spotify, Simplecast, Sticher, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.

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 are talking about how one can balance navigating partnerships and managing expectations while participating in a long-term complex collaboration. To explore those questions and more, we learn about the collective impact work based in Alberta, Canada that focuses on defining a common understanding of the issue of domestic and sexual violence and then working to eradicate it. Serving as the backbone for this collective impact work is Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society that is based in Calgary. Joining us from Sagesse is Carrie McManus who serves as director of innovation and programs, and Andrea Silverstone, who serves as CEO. Interviewing Carrie and Andrea is my Collective Impact Forum colleague Cindy Santos, who serves as Senior Associate of Strategic Partnerships at the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. Let’s listen in.

Cindy Santos: Hi, everyone. I’m Cindy Santos and I’m the senior associate for strategic partnerships at the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, a partner organization in the Collective Impact Forum.

Today we have two special guests joining us from Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society in Calgary, Canada, Carrie McManus, director of innovation and programs, and Andrea Silverstone, who is the CEO. It’s such a pleasure to have you with us here today. One thing we know is when talking with practitioners and those working in community, that it’s such a crucial opportunity to engage in peer learning and idea generation. Our hope is that through this conversation folks might potentially have an aha moment, really feel confirmed and affirmed that they’re on the right track. Here’s some insights on how to approach challenges from everything that you’ve learned in your time doing the work and we know that you have these incredible nuggets that you can share with everyone.

Before we get started, let’s share with our listeners a little bit about each of you, just inviting you to please share a little bit about yourself and the focus of your work.

Andrea Silverstone: Thanks so much, Cindy. I hope that we live up to all of the things that we’re hoping to get out of today’s podcast, and I also hope that we’re entertaining. One of the things that Carrie and I work very hard to do is make sure that we at least amuse ourselves, because if we do we hope we amuse other people as well. I am the CEO of Sagesse.

I think that maybe just to share a little bit about myself and why I do this work, I really believe that we can solve and address irretractable social issues in society, and that the only way that we can do it is if we do it with what I call a humble reflective inquiry. Carrie’s going to roll her eyes when I say this because I use these words all the time. But I think it’s about approaching this work with humility and being reflective and adaptive and organic in it and making sure that we’re always really curious about the work.

Maybe when Carrie introduces herself, she can talk a little bit about some of the guiding principles of how we do this work as an agency. But that’s a little bit about why I do this work, and in terms of who I am professionally, I’m a social worker and I’ve been working in the social work field in the abuse and high-violence field for over 20-plus years, and I’m also right now in the midst of doing my Ph.D. in applied psychology with a focus on coercive control, which I believe in many ways is the underpinnings of abuse in society and we’re going to talk more later on about how important actually coercive control is to the work that we do. I’ll give it over to Carrie now.

Carrie McManus: Yeah, I’m Carrie. I’m the director of innovation and programs at Sagesse, and so what I like to say about my role and my position and why I do this is because I believe that when you think about it and as Andrea said, she has a passion for working through these large social issues. I also have that and I believe that we do can that better than what we’re currently doing that. I believe that we should take the history that we have and that we have learned in the growth of our sectors and then the growth of the social movements that we engage with, and then we can take all of the things that are happening in the world around us that we can learn from business innovation tactics, etc., and we take all of those ideas and think about how do we actually make social change that is impactful for the world that we currently live in today, and not based off of the history of the world that we lived in when we as a sector began our work.

And so within my work, what’s often when I’m looking at and thinking about and doing is thinking about how do we learn from the whole of society around us, be able to take in the pieces that are really working and use those to be able to move towards a world where ideally at some point my position wouldn’t need to exist because we would have dealt with issues like domestic and sexual violence and I wouldn’t be necessary in the work that I’m doing.

Cindy Santos: I love that you describe your approach as humbled and reflective because I think that really helps us to be curious, which is such a crucial part of really engaging the partners that come to the table. As you said, Carrie, really create the world that we want to see.

Our conversation today really does have a distinct focus on what can come up when you’re working with a wide spectrum of stakeholders in your collaborative, and that includes managing expectations, building shared understanding and definitions, balancing comfort with innovation and adaptation, and centering community voice and experiences. To ground us as we begin, and that’s a tall order, right? To cover each of those concepts. So to ground us as we dig in, can you please describe for us the work of Sagesse, what work are you doing and what stakeholders and partners do you work with?

Carrie McManus: Before Andrea talks a little bit about the collective impact work, I’ll talk a little bit about Sagesse in general and some of the values that we have because I think that that will help to sort of understand how we frame collective impact. So we do a series of different kinds of work, both intervention and prevention focused, but our core values as an organization really drive all of the work that we do, how we understand it, how we engage in it, and how we take those through into the partnerships that we have.

And those values are courage, so be willing to say things that maybe are hard, maybe other people don’t want to hear, maybe we’re the only people that are in the room putting their hands up and saying it, but having the courage to say what needs to be said or to see what needs to be seen. Vulnerability. So being willing to be the only person that maybe is doing that or being willing to be at the front of the bus or the front of the movement that is happening. And when we think about that with our client work, obviously, our clients are engaging in vulnerability all of the time and so how do we match within that. Curiosity. So in order to be able to look at how we can do things differently in order to be able to do the humble reflective inquiry as you said, Cindy. Curiosity is at the forefront of everything. I think Andrea and I often will look at things and immediately say, “That’s really interesting why that is that way.” I wonder about, and I feel like I spend so much time on Wikipedia for what it is because I always want to know the background story about anything whether that’s a TV show that I’m watching or sitting at a conference or reading a book, anything like that.

And then the final value at Sagesse is trusting in the messiness, so recognizing that if we’re going to do all of this work, if we’re going to actually try to aim to have a society where domestic abuse is not present, then it’s going to get really messy, and how do we just trust in that and not try to control all of the variables.

Andrea Silverstone: So maybe I’ll talk a little bit about the particular work that we’re doing and try to start to sort of unpack some of those things that you talked about, and maybe I’ll start by talking about why, what prompted us to do this work.

As Carrie talked about we have some underpinnings as an organization that we believe in, and we’re an organization that’s been around for 30-plus years. We were originally founded to actually address women who are coming out of shelters when they left domestic violence situations and didn’t have resources and supports because in those days there was no outreach or support services aside from shelter. Very quickly, the person who founded our organization talked about how ideally we would like to be putting ourselves out of business in 30 years. I think she was a little bit overly optimistic, but that was the goal of what she was thinking about when she founded this organization, that there should be a time when we’re not needed.

I think that as we as an organization matured and went through our journey as being part of a social service sector in Alberta, in Calgary, we recognized that we need to start to think about what it looks like to get upstream of this work. We need to think about how it is that we are going to eradicate and end domestic abuse and even change our mindsets to start thinking about things that way, because I think that so often we get overwhelmed with the journey of the need of the client that’s coming through our door as we should and that’s really important, but we forget, not forget, it’s hard to remember because we are drowning in the work with our clients, that what we actually want to do is make sure that we never have a client walk through our door again, that we’ve actually eradicated the issue in society.

But I think that one of the things that we began to realize is that this is not work that one agency or one organization can do alone. This is work that we have to do collectively, and I think that back in the 1980s and ’90s when this work began it was very much about collaborative wraparound service work, which is very important, and then we eventually evolved to understand that it’s more than just collaborative wraparound service work, that actually what we’re looking at is a collective change to get to these very large issues to change something from a deeper perspective in society. And so that is how we came upon the idea of collective impact and the idea of collective impact to eradicate domestic and sexual violence.

I also need to say I’ve been around for a long time, 20-plus years working in the social service sector, and I feel like it’s really important to say that collective impact seems to be the best method to get to the place that we want to go, but we still don’t know because we’ve never gotten there. So one of the things about being to me that humility and reflexivity that I talked about is to recognize to not get stuck on the vehicle to get to the outcome that we want. Right now, collective impact appears to be the very best vehicle to get there, but tomorrow, I don’t know. Aliens could come from like outer space and have the magic wand that they could wave that could help us to eradicate domestic and sexual violence or solve irretractable social issues and I want to be open to that. That’s probably not going to happen. It might be something else but I think it’s really important that we’re really flexible in our thinking because I think otherwise we’re going to get stuck on the vehicle instead of getting really grounded in the outcome.

And I think it’s about always being grounded in the outcome. I’ve heard people sometimes say it’s being about being grounded in the question. What is the social issue that we are trying to solve? That’s a little bit about why we are where we are and how we got to the journey of being the backbone organization for this collective impact initiative in Alberta.

Carrie McManus: I think that if we think about it from that perspective we also look at things like who are the partners, who are the stakeholders, how does that engagement work, and we recognize that from a different place of purpose of engagement, because we’re not necessarily looking at who are the people that need to feel included, but looking at who are the people right now that are the right people to sit at this table to move the needle this much.

The same way we look at collective impact and say right now collective impact is the thing. If something better comes along where we recognize that there’s a better way to get to that place, we’re going to do that. We do the same thing from a stakeholder and partner engagement perspective. These are the partners right now that are needed. Maybe in three months a new partner will come along and we’ll say yeah, absolutely. You didn’t fit in our model before as who should be included but we totally see why and how you can now.

And that sort of adaptive method, I think, has so much to offer in terms of the foundation of the collective and who our community is within that collective environment.

Andrea Silverstone:I think it’s also important to note that we all have agreement. Everybody who’s sitting around the table at whatever time we’re sitting around the table, about that theory. That at different times we’ve called it different things like the right type of people at the right place at the right time making the right decisions. That’s one of the things we talk about.

The other is we talk about open space technology, and I’m not sure how familiar the listeners are with open space technology but essentially there’s a few different rules of open space technology, but one of them is is whoever is here is supposed to be here, whatever decision is being made is the right decision, and we don’t got back and revisit decisions.

And so that means that it allows us to keep moving, because I think that so often, at least in my career, collective work that we’ve wanted to do gets stymied by the conversation of we have to wait for this person to be around the table to make this decision, or we have to go back and revisit it because so and so wasn’t here, or, and I think that that doesn’t allow us to move at the pace that this work demands that we move at.

So I think it’s really important that we get this agreement as a group behind the organic adaptive nature and agree on rules of engagement for want of a better way to put it. Like things like the right people at the right place at that right time making the right decisions or open space technology.

One of the things that we have avoided like the plague is any terms of reference. So we never have terms of reference for any of our committees. What we always have are frameworks for decision making, because terms of reference, they narrow you down and they tie you into something, whereas frameworks allow you to, I think, fly and move and be adaptive.

Cindy Santos: One of the first things you said, Carrie, when you answered this question was trusting the messiness. I think that’s one of the things that often hard because it really can cause discomfort, but in essence, that messiness is really just a part of doing the work that involves partners with different organizational missions, their own governance structures, and really their own pressures.

I think we have to ask ourselves how do we balance having the courage and the vulnerability to be adaptively in that messiness, the openness to innovate, the flexibility to achieve our outcomes and lose focus, and really purpose, that laser focus to move the work and make those bold decisions that you were just talking about.

One of the terms that you used was terms of reference, so I want to make sure the listeners understand what you mean by that.

Andrea Silverstone: Sure. When we think about terms of reference or we talk about them, so often when you’re on a committee, a committee has a set of terms of reference that are things like committee members have to come to three meetings per year, and if they miss one, they get kicked off the committee. Or, committee members have to vote in such and such a way or they have to read the materials that are sent out ahead of time, or the role of the chair is this, the role of the treasurer, if you have one, is this. They’re very much a set of rules that guide both how the committee operates as well as how the purpose of those on the committee and sometimes also what the purpose of the committee is. The goal of this committee is to make decisions about governance. The role of this committee is to make the policies for the collective or to raise funds for it or whatever that looks like.

And so one of the things that we found about terms of reference is that it stops committees or it stops, we call them working groups, because we like to have our own language about everything, but it stops working groups from being able to be adaptive because what if someone wants to miss a bunch of meetings but they’re a really valuable person to have when they have around and they don’t need to be at some of the meetings. Or, what if the goal of the committee is to make policies around governance, but the committee wanders into a really interesting conversation about research. Are they going to be stopped from being able to do that?

And so, for us, we tried as much as possible to not have terms of reference and instead to have frames around what each of the roles of the working groups are with this understanding that frames are just to like create some I will say guidelines around decision making and how our working groups connect to each other, but not about, not to limit them in the work that they’re going to do.

When we talk about terms of reference it might be sometimes called the charter, sometimes if you’re a registered charity in Canada, you have often bylaws, right? So those sort of things, and so as much as possible we try and be as broad as possible to allow for as much innovation and creativity as possible.

Carrie McManus: I think the thing, Cindy, as we were talking about the trusting the messiness, the thing that that value does for me and the way that we remit to the forefront in all of the work that we do is it doesn’t actually change anything. That messiness exists. It’s always there. But it actually allows us to say this is messy. This is going to be messy. This is going to be hard. We’re going to have to have really hard conversations as we’re going. We’re going to have to trust each other. We’re going to have to be patient, all of those things, and it’s also the path we want to be on.

So I think by talking about trusting in the messiness, we’re just encouraging people to not feel alone in those experiences of messiness. If you are sitting at a table and thinking I don’t understand why we don’t have any group rules or norms or charter or terms of reference. I don’t understand why we’re doing this work around prevention and not around intervention. I don’t understand all of those things. and you feel really alone in it, then you are less likely to keep coming to meetings wanting to engage, wanting to be part of the work that’s happening.

And so if we can say let’s trust in this as we go and people can put up their hand and say I trust in the messiness but I don’t understand what’s going on, it creates these opportunities for engagement and relationship building, and through that, I think that we can move on the social issues we’re looking at much, much faster. I have seen this collective in particular start in a place of this is what we should do, this is what we always do, engage in that so there’s messiness, build up those relationships, and actually come out the other end saying we want to do something totally different that nobody has tried before, and everybody felt like we can do that because we are willing to trust in this.

Cindy Santos: In a lot of ways that can what you’re mentioning, Carrie. It can be about how partners are really accustomed to doing the work, right? How their organizations might be doing the work and what their level of comfort is in what they might think is pretty nebulous, right?

And so that’s another area that might cause discomfort and so what have you discovered through the process of working with a wide variety of partners who come with those different backgrounds and experiences but are really invested in this very complex social issue of domestic and family violence prevention?

Carrie McManus: It’s hard. I’ll let Andrea answer. I just wanted to say it’s really hard.

Andrea Silverstone: There’s a few things that come to mind when you asked that question. The first is is that I think this is Covey who talked about how change happens at the speed of trust. So I think that trust and relationship building is key. That, I would say, would be actually the most important characteristic of being able to do this work.

And I think it’s really important to have the right people on the team of the backbone who can build those relationships and understand the value of it, and also, for me, for example, as the CEO to be able to hold space and understand that I have, there are people on my team who part of their job is just to spend a lot of time chatting with people and having coffee and building relationship, and when I talk about building relationship, we’re relational human beings and relationship isn’t just about like, hey, so tell me what your organization is up to. Relationship is tell me about yourself as a human being. We encourage you to bring your whole self to this work that we’re doing. I think that that, to me, is really foundational.

I think that the other is is to respect and hold space for the fact that almost everyone sitting around the table wants to be making the change. Everybody is aspirational in their desire for the world to be a different place than the one that we’re currently living in in terms of domestic and sexual violence, and, we have these massive pressures when we’re sitting around the table. We have the pressures of boards of directors if we’re a nonprofit organization that might have an idea of how we should be doing things. We have the pressure of funders who have another idea of how we should be doing things. If we’re a big system like we have, like our health system, sit around the table in our children’s services and justice, they have these massive governmental pressures, mandates that come from their ministries. And so I think it’s about inviting those pressures into the room and not pretending that they don’t exist, and actually helping people to talk about the difficulties of them and unpacking them because it does two things when we talk about them.

One is I think it puts the messiness on the table, and I think the other things is it does is it makes us less alone because we’re all experiencing those pressures in different ways. I think that there’s a really aloneness that a lot of us who do this work experience especially those of us who sit in leadership. Because of all of those pressures that often we can’t share them with our staff because we don’t want to burden them with it and it’s not their job to worry about it, but we don’t have a lot of networks or peer support around those things.

And so I think by happenstance when you invite all of those pressures into the rooms and invite vulnerability and talking about those pressures, it builds relationship, it builds trust, and it also makes us feel less alone and more inspired to work together to do the work.

And then I think that the last piece is just to recognize that equity doesn’t mean that everybody has to be doing the same thing all of the time but sometimes equity means my organization is in a great place right now. We’ve got lots of capacity funding, a great board of directors, whatever it looks like. Therefore, I can stand forward. I can do all of this work while you might just be able to sit around the table and contribute only at meetings, not even been able to read the minutes ahead of time because you’re so busy, and that’s OK. That’s what equity looks like.

Sometimes different organizations are going to step forward at different times to do the work but we’re all working together and it’s not—I think that we try and be as low demand as possible and invite people to share resources in ways that make sense to them but don’t feel like it’s overdemanding them and hopefully are inspiring them.

I think that for me it’s so much about making sure that we’re inspiring ourselves around the table and supporting each other around the table, and then that leads us to I think recognizing those competing demands that we all have.

Carrie McManus: The only other thing that I would add to that is that I think that also within that sort of lens for equity, we also recognize that the goal isn’t necessarily that everybody sits at the table and thinks the same thing or believes the same thing or is striving towards the exact same outcome but that we find those moments and opportunities for connection within that and drive towards that with the recognition that as individual players, as individual stakeholders sit at the table, they have different motivations, they have different purposes, they have different outcomes that are required for them, and so one of the things that I think allows for that to happen is our desire to say you need to show up as all of you including all of the things that are coming for you, and I could sit there and say I don’t believe that that is necessarily the outcome that I think we should be striving for but it doesn’t really matter because for this moment, for this particular idea, purpose, context, we can drive towards the same outcome and then we work through that from a more incremental kind of way and not a you’re either fully on with us or you’re not invited at all kind of perspective.

Andrea Silverstone: I think it’s about holding space for both conflict and difference as well as being very pragmatic.

Cindy Santos: So, you know to truly work together there are times when we have to come to that shared understanding that you mentioned, and at times we have to ask ourselves what do we mean, right? Coming to a shared understanding or agreement, there are those challenges and opportunities that are adaptive and that there are those that are technical, and they arrive and we have to really lean into the adaptive and the technical.

One of the things that we talked about in preparing for this chat was that challenge of negotiating and agreeing on definitions that would be shared among your stakeholders. So, can you tell us a little bit about what you experienced in this area coming to a shared definition and how did you get to a place of agreement?

Andrea Silverstone: So I want to start by saying that the process took us about two years, two and a half years, Carrie, I think, something like that, and the definition I’m talking about is the definition of domestic violence and sexual violence. I think that when I think about two and a half years to come to a joint definition is actually not terrible but I think if you look at it from an outside, someone would be like what do you mean it took you two and a half years to get to a definition.

Carrie McManus: Don’t you guys work in this field all the time? Don’t you have built-in definitions for your organization?

Andrea Silverstone: Our process of coming to a joint definition began with—so the first thing that we had to agree on was that we wanted a joint definition. That was a massive piece of work in and of itself. Those are conversations about why do we want a joint definition? What’s the value of a joint definition? What happens if we all have the same definition? How do we impact the world around us both in terms of how the public understands domestic and sexual violence, how funders do, how policymakers do, so there was a lot of really big questions that we first had to answer about a joint definition.

I think it’s important to talk about those questions because I think that the desire usually when you come together as a collaborative, you’re like, OK, what’s your definition. It goes back to that terms of reference conversation we had but if you can’t actually ask why we need the definition in the first place and be open to the fact that the group might say no, we don’t need a joint definition so we didn’t even start with the idea that we needed a joint definition.

We started with the idea of a joint definition might be a good thing but first we have to explore if that’s even a thing that we want so that took us a bunch of time. And then the next—once we decided that there was a value in a joint definition, that it would have good impacts from a policy perspective, from a funding perspective, from a public discourse perspective, from a how we work together perspective, so once we decided that it was a good idea to have a joint definition, well, how do you go about creating a joint definition? Is it a researcher that comes up with it? Is it an on-the-ground definition? Is it do you ask those with lived experience to define it? How do you get there, and all of us had preconceived joint definitions, our own definitions that we had been working from for a very long time.

For us the process was multipronged. It was let’s get as many data points as we possibly can and as much curiosity as we can going into the joint definition and ask ourselves as many questions as we can. So, for us there was the—let’s get research on what definitionally everybody in the world is using for domestic violence. World Health Organization, CDC, all of our governments, Canada, right? We did a fairly exhaustive search.

We also asked ourselves the question of what do our—how do our clients, how do the people who are experiencing this talk about it? We asked ourselves questions about how does the public talk about it. We asked ourselves if we used those definitions, what are the implications of those definitions?

We also asked ourselves a lot of questions about what was the definition that would be able to grow with us, right? Because we want to be able to make change and so how do we make change and hold a definition that does that? And so those were—and also who gets to decide? Is it all—we have 350 member organizations that represent about another 1,500 organizations. Does everybody get a vote in deciding? Is it an appointed group of people? Who has the authority? How do they get the authority?

So we had lots more questions that we needed to answer which took us a bunch of time. And I think that for me, the reason I’m talking about the questions is I actually think the most important thing about creating definitions was the questioning process that we went through, not necessarily like the data points that we used to get to the definition.

I think that all of that, those questions, took us a really long time before we could even get to the place that we started to look at the data points to crunch them, to begin to create a definition. I would suggest that we probably only got to a point where we started flushing out a definition probably somewhere like 18 months into the process, and it was so hard because people wanted to jump right into, well, this is what domestic violence is, this is what sexual violence is, and of course we can define it, and we had to keep putting the brakes on and saying let’s just keep moving in the questions. Let’s just keep asking the questions, and it’s really hard to stay on the questions because sometimes in the questions when the backbone supports everybody holding everyone in that place, sometimes people feel like there’s not momentum because we as human beings, we want an outcome. I want a definition. Or how is it that I can explain to my board of directors that I’m coming to—these were two-hour meetings every two weeks. How can I explain that I am coming to a long—like I’m spending four hours a month on something that still doesn’t even have a definition to it?

So it was all about like sitting in the curiosity and that vulnerability and the trust the messiness of it. We eventually did come to definitions which I think is actually miraculous. They are definitions that the government and our community agree on which means—and funders—which means that we’re all aligned which I think is incredibly unusual in this sort of work, and so we decided to actually come up with two different definitions, one for sexual violence, and one for domestic violence.

In particular, our domestic violence definition is a definition that we don’t know has been used anywhere else in Canada which meant it had to be very brave for us to go in a different direction than other jurisdictions in Canada are going. We’ve actually borrowed a definition from the United Kingdom where we I want to say borrowed—we paid homage to it. We took it but then made it our own, and it’s a definition of domestic abuse focused on coercive, controlling behavior which are patterns of behavior that take away an individual’s personal agency as a result of fear and control.

But it’s not how anyone else is talking about domestic abuse right now from a definitional perspective in Canada. It’s starting to pop up and emerge but I think it’s very brave of a group of people in Alberta which is a traditionally conservative province that usually is not the one who might be leading the way and breaking ground around those things but I think that we were able to be brave because we were brave together, and I think we were able to be brave because we were curious together and trusted the messiness and were able to be vulnerable with each other.

Carrie McManus: And I think that, you know, we spent all of that time building relationships and building alliance and having those conversations but when the time came to make the decision about what the actual definitions were, it actually was pretty easy and was pretty quick because we had worked through all of the things that were going to originally sort of trip us up. If we had started from a place and saying, well, I like this word but I don’t like this word, and so part of that is I think about the role of the backbone to be able to recognize the value in slowing down in order to be able to speed up. If we had just started with definitions, I don’t think we would have definitions we still felt connected to, that other entities were using like government and academics and communities, and we would be probably two years on now in a place where we would say we probably should relook at these again.

But because we slowed down the process, we were able to do all of those foundational pieces that were required to build so that we could speed up to say, OK, now we’re actually ready to build. Let’s build them. Everybody’s on board, and now I look at where we are and we’re infinitely further ahead than we would have been if we had just sat and had one or two meetings where we said here’s how we’re going to define this issue.

Andrea Silverstone: I also think there’s one other important piece which is that we did decide to come up with two different definitions, one for sexual violence and one for domestic violence, and we ended up with different pathways to get to those definitions. I think that that’s really important because I think that’s so often when you create a protocol to do something, you want to apply that protocol to everything, and that is not adaptive. That is not reflective, and so for us a big part of I think our learnings about being a backbone and also our learnings about this work is that you’ve got to do it in the right way at the right time for the right people in the right way, and it doesn’t mean that just because the domestic violence definition was decided on by this pathway that the sexual violence definition should also be decided on by that pathway, that there were two different pathways in order to get to the right definition. I think that we’re learning that and have learned that as a group and as a collective in all of the work that we do, that just because one pathway worked to solve one problem or answer one question, it’s not going to be the same pathway for another one, and we have to—I’m going to go back to what I said, we need to stay in focus not on the vehicle but on the outcome or on the question we’re trying to answer.

Cindy Santos: So, Andrea, you mentioned that we have to decide if there’s value in a joint definition and how that definition might have implications for policy, for public discourse, for how we work together, and just what you mentioned, which is the outcome.

One thing that I do understand is that managing expectations through this process and navigating between what those engaged in the initiative consider success as an issue your team has had to grapple with so can you share that experience? What’s it been like grappling with those expectations and what you’ve learned during that process?

Andrea Silverstone: I think that the expectation piece has been—it’s been really challenging because I think that for some—I think part of the most challenging part of the expectation piece is the speed at which we moved. So for some people around the table, for some organizations around the table, we’re not moving fast enough, and for other organizations we’re moving way too fast, and so managing that expectation around speed has probably been one of our biggest sticking points around the table. And then the second is, of course, production of deliverables because that ties into speed. If you move slowly, your deliverables might be slower but in our opinion they’re often better or more right deliverables or sometimes you really need to move fast because that’s what you need to do.

I think that the managing expectations piece goes back to relationship building and also goes back to trust as well as what we like to call fierce conversations. I don’t know how familiar people are with the book, Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott but she talks about them in terms of—as conversations where you step into the conversation or you step out from behind yourself in order to step into the conversation and say what really needs to be said regardless of the outcome. Sometimes to manage expectations we have tried our very best to invite everyone around the table to engage in those fierce conversations, to really say the things that they’re expecting, and to talk about what’s at stake if those expectations aren’t met because sometimes what’s at stake is I’m going to stop coming, I’m going to stop engaging. Sometimes what’s at stake is I stop trusting you because you haven’t met or managed my expectations or even worse sometimes what’s at stake is I’m going to stand in the way of an outcome because I feel so strongly that you haven’t done the right thing in trying to establish or get to that outcome.

Those are all fine responses to movement within a collective but if we can’t talk about them robustly and we can’t say how we feel about it and we can’t lay all of that out on the table, that’s I think when the problems become because there’s a ripple of agendas that might be running beneath the surface that you haven’t surfaced or unearthed.

The other thing about managing expectations is—I’m also in my other life a mediator. In mediation we often talk about how—people who are in mediation often come in with positions, right? I want this thing to happen and it’s going to happen this way and I want this thing to happen and it’s going to happen this way, right? And really what we want is for people to get to interests, right? I want this outcome so I do family mediation and so in family mediation especially when there’s like, you know, a breakdown in the family, one parent is like I want my kid in soccer and the other parent says I want my kid in hockey, and they fight about soccer and hockey because those are their positions but a mediator’s job is to say to them why do you want soccer and hockey, and the answer is usually I want my kid to be active, I want them to have team sports, I want them to learn how to be on a team, I want them to have discipline, whatever it is, and so once you can get to the interest, then you can have a conversation about is it soccer, is it hockey, or is it something different altogether but unless we can lay that conversation out on the table, the expectation that my interest will be met, we’re not going to be able to make movement around it.

I also think that part of it is is that I would say that we lean heavily on the members of our backbone team to have those expectation conversations, sometimes offline with members around the table, not behind each other’s back conversations but conversations to make sure that people are comfortable. At the beginning of some of our work around COVID, Carrie had to have some really difficult conversations with some of our network members about the speed at which our work was moving and the expectation around the outcomes of that work because we moved very fast, and I know that those were very difficult and maybe I’ll let, Carrie, you talk a little bit about how you managed the expectations around that.

Carrie McManus: Yeah, again, I’ll go back to a thing that I said earlier which is the idea that not everybody has to be in the same place or we don’t all have to be working towards the exact same sort of thing because I think that when we look at that—you know, I move very, very, very quickly and I get in trouble from my staff sometimes because I’m five steps ahead of where they are, and they tell me that I need to slow down.

Part of the balance that we take is the ability to say I actually don’t need to slow down, I need to create opportunities for you to work at the speed that you need to be working at with the recognition that it doesn’t have to be the same speed as I am, and that we can find those opportunities for connection within that but that’s hard because we are humans.

I think the thing that always comes up and the thing that is always the hardest in this work is I think about those moments where I have wanted to tear out all my hair and scream in frustration or cry in defeat. It’s not the system. It’s not the social issue. I understand that. I know that those systems are hard and big and hairy and difficult to change. It’s the way that we as humans engage in this and our ability to put ourselves in it or not put ourselves in it or be reflective of the other people that are around us, and to recognize that we are working in something from this sort of helping professional perspective and so we all have a heart for the work that we’re doing but we all are humans and we all have egos and we all have things that we like and we don’t like, and that ability to practice self-awareness I think is so important.

We often talk in our intervention work and the work that we do directly with people who are impacted by domestic abuse, we talk about the necessity have self-awareness to understand what is for you and what is for them. When we talk about the work of collective impact or large-scale systems change, I think we sometimes lose that. We don’t think that we need—that we as humans are as impacted or motivated by those personal components when we get into the large-scale systems work, and that’s just not true.

So if I think about those conversations that I had at the beginning of COVID, most of it was about that, was about practicing self-awareness, was about practicing my own self-awareness and encouraging other people to be able to do that also and encouraging other people to be able to focus in that place. You know, Andrea started by talking about a more reflective inquiry, and I think that I roll my eyes because of the terminology of it, not because of the context of it, and part of our—part of what I think is so important for us as a backbone and for us as sort of the stewards of this work is not only to practice that for ourselves but to encourage our partners and our stakeholders to practice from that place also because it doesn’t work if we sit in the room from that perspective and other people don’t, and so that building that trust of not only those relationships and having those conversations but doing that for the purpose of self-awareness, that I can sit in the room and say I find this very slow, I feel bored, what is going on for me that I need to do to manage myself so that I can show up in this the way that I want in the same way that somebody else can sit in the room and say I find this very, very fast and I don’t understand what is going on for me, and then how do I get the things that I need.

Andrea Silverstone: I think sort of I just want to build for one second. I think so much of it is transparency, right? To be able to show up as individuals transparently, and I think as the backbone transparently because the other issue that we’ve had around managing expectations or that we—I’m not going to call an issue, I’m going to say the struggle or what we wrestle with is we have funding but we don’t have an infinite amount of funding which means that we have to make very hard decisions about where our administrative resources go.

Sometimes there is frustration of how we make those decisions around where those administrative resources go on behalf of the collective or the collective doesn’t understand why we do that, and so as much as possible we are as transparent as possible about the realities of those things because I think it’s just about making sure that we’re at least letting people know what our decision-making processes are, how we’re thinking about things, and then we can have robust conversations about it but we need to start from that transparency place.

Cindy Santos: Carrie, you mentioned that one of the hardest things in all of this work is not changing systems. It’s often the way that we as humans engage, and I think one thing we can likely agree on is that humans are really complex and that this is very complex work.

I know that juggling that complexity and how that impacts everything can be another challenge when we’re doing collective impact or any long-term collaborative social change work. Our capacity to deal with and lean into that complexity becomes really one of those needed skills when we work together so I’m wondering what your experience has been when working with partners and holding that tension that this is really complex work and that there often isn’t one straight path forward which it seems that you’ve mentioned already and you’re doing well.

Carrie McManus: I think that one of the things that comes up for us, and it’s happened as a matter of circumstance, not a matter of sort of goal or purpose but I think that it actually has a lot of great foundations in it. Many of our backbone staff actually have a clinical or a social work background which means that when they engage in the work that they’re doing, they have the perspective of understanding the stakeholders that they’re working with so understanding both the social issue and understanding those stakeholders and understanding how to have conversations with those stakeholders as if they were a volunteer within our organization that is struggling with something or anything like that.

We often—in our professions we often talk about micro work and macro work and act as if they are totally different experiences and totally different skillsets that are needed, and I actually think that the fact that our team, our backbone team, understands how to sit and have a conversation with a client in front of you makes them better at sitting and having conversations with stakeholders and with partners because they can use all of those same skills, and that’s not to say that we, you know, engage in clinical work with our stakeholders but it’s to say that we all have to show up from a place of empathy and a place of curiosity and a place of reflectiveness, and I think that they’re able to do that.

I think the other thing for us that has really been successful is that we are an organization that is rooted in innovation and rooted in understanding how we can look at the work that we do, how do we do this better while honoring the past and honoring the experiences that we have, and so our staff team, our backbone team are supporting teams that are around the whole structure of the organization at Sagesse is one that really drives towards and supports that work of innovation. So we have the opportunity through that and through our work with stakeholders and our ability to face them, this is really hard to also say can we help you with this path. Are you somebody that is interested and wants to be in this place of engaging in change and challenging the status quo and that sort of thing, and if so, how do you want to engage with that with us?

And we have different initiatives and programs that we offer that are outside of our collective impact work that fall within our innovation work. We have a great project called Innovation Outside the Lab where we work with leaders across the civil societies. We bring them together for a five-day summit to help them to engage in that sort of process of self-awareness and change management and challenging the status quo and all of those types of things.

So we have the opportunity because we’re a backbone that is not just a backbone to also say to people we have these other things that are happening that you might really want to be a part of and really engage in, and then it helps to build the sort of foundation so that of the stakeholders that we’re engaging with in our collective impact, we move from having me as the person that sits there with the innovation lens, and Andrea is the person that sits there with the innovation lens to now having—I think the last Innovation Outside the Lab project that we did, we had four or five stakeholders that are a part of our collective impact, and the next one will aim to have another group of that, and so if all of those people are sitting there, then they’re not only sitting there from that perspective themselves, but the drive forward is what’s driving them but they’re also sitting there from that perspective of understanding what’s happening for other people around them. How are they managing the change that’s happening?

We had a fascinating conversation in Innovation Outside the Lab the other day about the grief and loss process of change management, and being able to understand that if we let go of the past, we have to grieve what that experience is. And so if we can build more and more people who engage in their work not from I think that sort of idea that innovation is a project that you do and it sits on the side of your desk but from a foundational value that innovation is the starting place for where you are, then it’s going to allow those collectives to become more comfortable with that because we’re going to build the skills and build the opportunities for people to say, “this feels really hard and I know that sitting in this room, Carrie, and also feels like this is really hard,” and so I have an ally and I can be in this hardness or I can say to Carrie, “I do not like any of this. This is really uncomfortable and I’m feeling very much in a place of grief and loss and can we change some of that.”

And so I think all of that is—it’s all of those sort of foundational pieces that help to be able to create those opportunities for us to not just do the work of the social issue that we’re addressing differently but also the way that we are addressing it differently. You know, Andrea talks about collective impact as sort of our foundation or our backbone for it, and I think that’s correct, and I don’t think any other collective impact looks the way that ours does because I think that we have taken these things that we know about organization and these things that we know about the clients that we work directly with and we’ve put that together with collective impact and we’ve made this sort of recipe for ourselves to say this is the recipe today and I think that this is right, and in three months’ time I might say you know what? I found another ingredient, let’s add that in, or I realize that this ingredient that’s in there is not actually working or not supporting us, let’s pull that out.

Cindy Santos: So in wrapping up our conversation we recognize that a lot of collectives may be facing similar challenges and really possibly some of the same opportunities that you face so when looking back and thinking about the many balancing acts that you’re holding at once, what would you recommend to others who are in similar situations?

Andrea Silverstone: That’s a really hard question because I think that there’s probably recommendations for backbone that we might have, and then there’s recommendations for collectives that we might have, and recommendations for individuals.

I think that for me if I had to go back to what our recommendations, it would be to be vulnerable in this work. I’m going to go back to the guiding values that Carrie talked about, to be vulnerable in this work, to be curious, to have the courage to interrogate reality, the things that you think to be true that might not be true, to speak truth to power, to make decisions that might feel difficult, and then to trust in the messiness. I think that actually if I had to give someone advice, it would be to live in those values because I think if I say to you do it the way that we did it, it’s going to be wrong for you.

Carrie McManus: The thing that I would add to that is I think find allies, find people who are in this struggle with you, whether that’s the collective, the backbone, that sort of thing. They don’t have to be connected to your topic area. In fact, sometimes I think that it’s nice if they’re not. They don’t have to be close. They don’t have to—you know, we have someone that we met seven years ago at a conference who was doing some collective impact work who I don’t talk to all the time but when something gets really, really, really hairy, I know that I can send them an email and say can we just—can I just talk to you about this because this thing is happening and I don’t know what the path forward is, and so having that ability to have allies, to have other people who are in the same place that you are, who are engaging from that same sort of perspective and can help you to see the things that you don’t see, your blind spot, to fill in some of those gaps I think is really, really powerful and helps to remove—you know, Andrea said earlier that it can often feel really isolating when you’re in this place and when you’re in a place of leadership within this, and so having those allies allows you to actually create those opportunities for removing that isolation for yourself, and having somebody that’s outside of the actual collective work that you do also gives you an open forum and an open place to say all of the things that you maybe would stop yourself from saying to the people who are in the weeds with you around the thing.

So if I think about our collective impact work and the strengths that we have, so much of that comes from the fact that I can call people all over the world and say how are you doing this? This thing just came up and I don’t know what to do with it because we’ve never experienced it before, and I don’t have to be rooted in my experience in Alberta, Canada, because I can actually take some people all over the place.

Cindy Santos: Well, thank you so much for being with us today. What we hope is that this conversation has encouraged our audience to ask themselves am I having the courage to have fierce conversations, the relationships necessary to engage in the messiness, and what could be those divergent opinions, interests, and expectations, and am I staying laser focused on the outcome that we are trying to achieve. Until the next time, friends, and thank you for being with us today.

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 for this episode.

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.

And for those interested in more upcoming learning events, registration is open for our virtual Collective Impact Action Summit that will be held on April 25-27, 2023. The Action Summit is our biggest learning event of the year, featuring over 40 online sessions that will share cutting-edge thinking and lessons learned about how collaboration can help address the complex issues we are facing.

And a big plus for being virtual is that we’re recording all the sessions and sharing those recordings with attendees after, so you’ll be able to plan a schedule that fits best with you, and watch other sessions later.

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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