What Makes an Effective Backbone Leader


To find out what contributes to an effective and sustainable backbone, the EdRedesign Lab at Harvard University interviewed backbone leaders and field-building organizations about their experiences. Earlier this year, they released a report on the most critical skills and competencies required for a backbone leadership team to succeed when doing collective impact work.

We talk with Tauheedah Jackson, Judy Touzin, and Rob Watson from the Harvard EdRedesign Lab to learn more about these essential backbone leadership competencies, and how these abilities can be spread across multiple team members to better support the work.

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

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

Resources and Footnotes

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

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

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Podcast Transcript

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

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

In this episode, we’re discussing the key skills and competencies for leading a backbone team. To explore this topic, we learn about the work of the EdRedesign Lab at Harvard University. They interviewed backbone leaders from across the field to learn what skills and competencies are most useful to lead collective impact work. These critical skills were compiled into a new report that came out earlier this year, titled Building Strong, Sustainable Backbone Leadership.

Joining us for this conversation is Tauheedah Jackson, Judy Touzin, and Rob Watson from the EdRedesign Lab. We dive into what they found in their interviews, and why these skills are so important when managing the complexities of long-term collaboration. Moderating this discussion is Collective Impact Forum executive director Jennifer Splansky Juster. Let’s tune in.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Hello, everybody, and welcome to today’s podcast. I’m Jennifer Juster, executive director of the Collective Impact Forum.

In today’s podcast I am delighted to be connecting with colleagues at the EdRedesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to discuss the essential and very complicated topic of backbone leadership. We will be diving into a report that the EdRedesign Lab published in early 2023 called Building Strong, Sustainable Backbone Leadership: A Field Study of Cross-Sector Collaborative Organizations. Many of you Collective Impact Forum podcast listeners are playing the backbone role in your work, so I anticipate that this conversation will really hit home for you. Others of you are investing in or supporting people playing the backbone role. This conversation is just as essential for you as you think about what it takes to enable effective backbone leadership, and by extension, of course, community impact in this work. Without further ado, I’m pleased to welcome today’s guests.

Joining me for today’s conversation are three leaders from this work. Each will introduce themselves more thoroughly in a moment, but it is my pleasure to welcome Tauheedah Jackson, director, Institute for Success Planning at the EdRedesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Rob Watson, deputy director, EdRedesign Lab and lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Judy Touzin, a 2023 graduate of Harvard’s Ed.L.D. program, and currently working alongside the EdRedesign team supporting their work with local Children’s Cabinets. Welcome, everyone.

I’d love to just start by asking each to tell us a little bit more about yourself and what brought you to your current work. I’ll start by handing over to you, Tauheedah.

Tauheedah Jackson: Thank you so much, Jennifer. I’m Tauheedah Jackson. What brought me to my current work is my personal why. I am a daughter of two parents who grew up in the segregated South and did not have the opportunities that I have been afforded as a young person. I understood inequity at a very early age by being tested, going into a school lottery system, and then being the last six-year-old African American girl to be selected for the last kindergarten seat. At that early age I know something was wrong with that. I grew up in circumstances that people would consider impoverished, which I don’t consider because I had everything, I needed to be able to be the productive person I am today, but just being a first-generation student having those family circumstances, it was important that I had access and opportunity and my parents advocated for that.

I’ve committed my last 24 years to working in education spaces across sectors, which includes school districts’ out-of-school-time programs, philanthropy, local government, community-based organizations at both the local and national levels to be able to make sure that some of the outcomes that I experienced as a young person are change for other generations. I consider this not just a job but my calling and something that I will be doing for years to come.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you so much for being with us, Tauheedah. Let’s go over to you, Rob.

Rob Watson: Thanks, Jennifer, and good afternoon, everyone. Excited to be here. Rob Watson, again. Much like Tauheedah, I come to this work first through the story of my family, a mixed-race family. My mother emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager to New York City from the Dominican Republic. On my other side, African American and roots—both my father came up north to my hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York through the South, through my grandfather and grandmother and part of the story of my African American side of the family is really dealing with some of the stark racial inequities and racism in this country. Both my father and my grandfather are survivors of near-death experiences with the Ku Klux Klan, and so I really inherited that intergenerational struggle for equity and freedom from them. I grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, small city in public housing, kind of at the intersection of a lot of the typical challenges of small cities and low-performing schools, but also with a village that really supported my journey and inspired me to go on to this work. Professionally, I really work at the intersection of education, civic engagement, and community development in the U.S., Latin America, and Africa. I really believe this collective impact work is a major antidote to a lot of the different divides we see in the country, political, ideological, spatial, socioeconomic, racial.

And I also like to say that in addition to the national work I do with Tauheedah and Judy at Harvard, I’m very involved with local work. It keeps me honest. So back in my hometown of Poughkeepsie, I cofounded two collective impact initiatives. One is the Poughkeepsie Children’s Cabinet, which I’m chair of, and the other is the Poughkeepsie Service Accelerator, which is geared towards creating talent pipelines to attract and retain local residents to social impact careers in our region.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Rob, thank you so much. And Judy.

Judy Touzin: Thank you, Jennifer. Again, my name is Judy Touzin, and I will say that I am also a child of emigrants. My mom emigrated to the states from Haiti back in the late 1970s, and in her mind, this is the place of opportunity. I ended up in Rockland County, New York, going to schools in the East Ramapo Central School District. My mom didn’t speak the language. We were living on public assistance, and at the same time, I took a flute home in fourth grade. I started Spanish in seventh grade, traveled to Russia in eleventh grade, and so my conception of what school looked like was independent of where your family came from and your socioeconomic background. It wasn’t until I was a first-year student on scholarship in college that I took sociology of education and read things like Jonathan Kozol and Amazing Grace and Savage Inequalities and felt like scales fell off my eyes. I didn’t go to school to be a teacher, but after reading those works and understanding that it seemed like luck had determined the education experience that I had as opposed to equity and access.

I entered education coming out of college and spent the past 17 years before during Ed.L.D. program as a teacher, as an elementary school principal, essentially trying to create spaces for learning and opportunity, that I felt that I had been blessed to have experience growing up where I grew up. In terms of collective impact in these conversations around cross-sector collaborations, it actually wasn’t until I started the Ed.L.D. program back in the fall of 2020 that I was introduced to the idea of collective impact and it felt very much like a way to operationalize the African proverb, It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, and so I became—I keep saying I was bitten by the collective impact bug and wanted to see what it looked like to explore work on that side of the ecosystem, and honestly, if it had not been for the program, I don’t think I would have even been thinking and talking about an education ecosystem or cross-sector work. I started working and learning from folks over at the EdRedesign Lab and have continued to stay engaged in that conversation because I really do think if we’re looking to create systemic change and community-level transformation, I see collective impact as a promising path to being able to realize those possibilities.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Judy, thank you so much, and thank you to all three of you for sharing both your personal stories and passions as well as your incredible professional experiences and I’m sure our listeners can really appreciate why I’m so excited for today’s conversation.

For a little bit more context, could you tell us a little bit about the EdRedesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education?

Rob Watson: I’m happy to field that one. We’re a center based at Harvard Graduate School of Education, as you said. We’ve been around since 2014. We were founded by Paul Reville who’s our faculty director and former secretary of education for the state of Massachusetts. We see ourselves really as a field catalyst for supporting this emergent field of place-based partnerships, folks who are thinking about how to leverage different place-based strategies whether it’s a Promise Neighborhoods or community schools, setting up backbone organizations to think about population-level change at the regional level, the city level, the neighborhood level. So we really see ourselves as a key amplifier and supporter of that field.

We have a number of catalytic ways we’re doing that. So we have communities of practice that Tauheedah and I run where we support cohorts of communities that want to go deep on big issues. They want to cross pollinate across place. They want to position their work on the national stage, and they help teach us at the university about what it takes to unlock equity in communities and also build with colleagues across the country.

We have our actionable research team led by our colleague Lynne Sacks, that’s really about generating usable knowledge for the field on what’s working, understanding some of the key barriers to entry, and how to develop the proof points and outcomes to move the needle for children, youth, and families.

We do talent development programming, so we bring local leaders from across the U.S. to Harvard every year. We go out to the field and support them. We’re really thinking about supporting leaders in different roles such as superintendents of schools, mayors, executive directors of backbone organizations and their teams, partners in an overall place-based partnership.

We really do all of this work to really advance a national movement around collective impact through this cradle-to-career- and place-based approach. We care a lot about personalized systems of support as well. I know Tauheedah will talk a little bit more about that later. We do all of this work, I think, to drive towards some key ultimate outcomes. One is educational attainment. We know that educational attainment matters. We also care deeply about disrupting the cycle of intergenerational poverty, advancing upward mobility, helping folks achieve that American dream, which has been in decline for quite some time. We care deeply about racial equity, addressing a lot of country’s original sins around race, place, and income, but we also care about collective impact in this work because we believe it’s a key way to transform our civic life, and we think this kind of work helped bolster democracy, helps produce engaged citizens. It helps the democratic life of any nation, and we feel really strongly that this is a key piece of the puzzle of how we create sustained progress over time.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: An amazing body of work, Rob. Thank you for that overview.

Earlier, in 2023, I’m guessing this was through the actionable research pillar, the EdRedesign Lab published a report, Building Strong, Sustainable Backbone Leadership: A Field Study of Cross-Sector Collaborative Organizations. That’s what we’re really going to be diving into more today.

So can you tell us why the Lab conducted this study, really as context for the rest of today’s conversation?

Tauheedah Jackson: Sure, Jennifer. While I’ve served myself as a cross-sector leader for the better part of a decade at both local and national levels. At Redesign, we noticed that there are a lot of place-based collaborative action initiatives that have multiplied across the country over the past 10 years. And it was important to us to really think about how these place-based initiatives not only bring people together and organizations in sectors for needed improvements on and the lived experience and outcomes of young people and families in historically underserved neighborhoods and communities, cities, and counties, but also to understand how the backbone organizations and the community leaders within them play a key role in the initiatives. It is so important for us to better understand the competencies that are needed and required to ensure strong, sustainable, effective leadership.

Saying all of that, some of the things that we really are honing in on is really building the capacity of current and aspiring leaders to—because they are critical in sustaining the collective impact efforts and achieving the systems-level transformation that we see. Some of that work could be seen in our communities of practice or some fellowship opportunities we’re exploring, but it’s important to be able to understand that.

So what we did was we talked to 24 national and local place-based cross-sector cradle-to-career organizations and they were interviewed focusing on three different questions.

The first question was around what key competencies are most critical for backbone leaders. The second question was around what resources already exist to support backbone organizations and leaders. And then the third was around what additional supports might be helpful to the field.

Ironically, now presenting as a staff person at EdRedesign, but at the time of the report, I actually was working in the national community school space at the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership as a cross-sector national leader who had done local work. Judy actually interviewed me as a part of the study. But now being on this side of the table at EdRedesign, when we released the study, the whole point was to be able to provide an overview of the competencies that leaders consider of the greatest importance for ensuring strong and sustainable backbone structures. It really provides a review of supports that already exist for backbone leaders in developing their competency, so a great place to be able to think about how can people get connected to resources, some recommendations for what additional learning and development opportunities are needed, so really thinking about some of those implications for policy and some of the changes that we need to continue to the systems change work.

And then lastly, some strategic considerations that are raised by practitioners across the country. We have to really hone in on what are people seeing in the field and how are responding in real time to that. It’s our hope that people can be helpful, that this can be helpful for people in the field as local communities continue to build, scale, and sustain their place-based initiatives.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Awesome. Thank you, Tauheedah. The first area you mentioned was exploring the core competencies for backbone leaders. In the report you share 15 core competencies that emerged in the research, and you described them as crucial for establishing strong, sustainable backbone organizations. Those, of course, are ones that are able to help their collaborative efforts achieve their results. Actually, also, you say in the report and really appreciate this, that these ranged from more technical skills like project management, to more adaptive qualities such as demonstrated a learning orientation, and resilience.

There are 25. For today’s conversation I’d love for you each to pick one of these competencies to talk about and tell us how you see this play out in the work. You’ll certainly be whetting the appetite of listeners to go find all 15 in the report.

Judy Touzin: I think one of the ones that comes to mind is the importance of being community centered in the work. That shows up in a couple of ways, I think.

One of the first ways that it shows up and it’s significant, is for the person leading or facilitating, right, the person kind of in the backbone leadership role, to for themselves possess a deep-seated belief in the inherent value and dignity of the community that they are serving. This belief should then be reflected in how they talk about the work, and how they do the work alongside the community that they’re serving. That’s one way, right, this deep belief.

In the past, there have been conversations around like either our poverty porn or damage imaging or otherizing the communities, and defining them based on the things that they quote-unquote lack, or the deficits as opposed to simultaneously being able to uphold their assets, the aspirations of the communities that we’re working alongside. So I think that’s one.

Another way that being community centered shows up is in representation or proximity. The fact that the folks who are either working at the backbone or in the tables that the backbone is helping to convene and facilitate, that members of the community can look at that table at the collective and see themselves represented. That’s people who represent their backgrounds, their interests, and can relate to their lived experiences. So given that we think that those invested in supporting collective impact and backbones should work to either attract and/or retain folks who are racially diverse, proximate leaders, socioeconomically diverse, again, representative of the community that we’re serving, and we think it can show up in, again, lived experiences as it relates to the problem that you’re trying to solve being from and/or deeply committed to the community.

It comes up a lot sometimes as can I do good and meaningful work in services of the community that I’m not from. We think the answer is yes, but it needs to be couched in what is your perspective of the community, what is your level of humility in going to undertake work in a community that you’re not from, and how do you listen to the folks who are from the community and have the lived experiences that are represented there. So for us being community centered is one of the competencies that we think is super significant when stepping into the role of leading or facilitating backbone work.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Absolutely. Thank you, Judy. What about you, Rob? What comes up for you?

Rob Watson: Sure. A key piece to this puzzle, building on what Judy said is the skill set, the competency of building coalitions. So, what does it look like to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders, individuals, individuals who are part of institutions, from the grasstops to the grassroots, to really craft a common vision, a shared agenda, and really thinking about what it takes to do that. Having a backbone leader who’s able to look in and see across the different interests and motivations of different groups, what drives them, why they show up, how do you get them to stay at the table, really the winning the hearts and the minds element of this work.

We’re going to talk I know a lot today about relationships. This is truly a key element of the relational side of this work, and thinking about how do you attract and recruit that Pop Warner football parent to the head of the direct service program, somebody leading a house of worship to say we all want our kids to be kindergarten ready, we all want our kids to have access to a high-quality summer learning opportunity or access to a living wage. How do we understand the different ways people are coming at that through their lived experience, through their technical experience, and how do we get those folks to agree on something that’s at the population level that we can move a target that we agreed to be able to sustain the power of that coalition beyond any one issue area.

And that infrastructure that’s built through that coalition allows us to weather storms that we can see and that we can’t see, so things like COVID-19. I know on this podcast and many others there’s talk a lot about communities who’ve done the best in terms of dealing with the inevitable crises that emerged, have established coalitions, had that civic infrastructure in place. Backbone leaders really have to think about that coalition-building work as individuals and also who else they can work with that can be champions within different spheres of influence in a community to ultimately drive a common vision for success around a given set of priorities that a community has.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you, Rob. Coalition building is such an essential role that the backbone plays bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders all to be pointing in the same direction with all the nuances you just mentioned.

Tauheedah, what comes up for you?

Tauheedah Jackson: One of the competencies that I think is so important is systems thinking. As leaders we must really think about the system at all times, right, and have the ability to be able to see the conditions and the factors at play out and have direct or indirect impact on the challenges that the collective is working on. Rob talked about a shared visioning and working to solve a collective problem.

One of the things that I think is important is the understanding of both enablers and inhibitors from the community level to the policy level. One of the things I quoted when I actually was interviewed in the report was—one of the quotes that I said was that we are looking for the secret sauce and we want to codify and replicate but context matters, quite frankly, context is everything. And in order for us to be effective systems thinkers at the local level, or even as national entities supporting local backbones to be able to understand what it takes to do the work, locally, I had to understand my local community context.

I had worked in the community for 15 years when I was doing this work locally before I ever served as a cross-sector leader, which was really important because not only did I understand the local context but had some sense of state and federal landscape as well to be able to really think about how did I—what did I have to do to move the system? I also had to consider so much including local politics, policy, leadership changes, national climate, community resources and finances, local partners and players, right, all of the things, short- and long-term implications, and the various systems of supports that either existed or didn’t exist in community. That’s a lot to hold, right?

And it seems like a lot to hold but it’s important and I say all of that because I also think that myself and other people who did this at the local level or even as national entities, we are often the people who are connecting and orchestrating and communicating in real time with real people navigating real challenges to assure better outcomes. So it’s so important for us to understand the systems, how they interplay because it is those very systems sometimes that we are disrupting to be able to get to the systems change that we’re speaking about, and we have to understand what stands in the way of progress.

Currently, at EdRedesign, I have the opportunity in my national role to be able to work with 16 communities across the country through our Institute for Success Planning, and to support them to be able to build some of these competencies that we’re talking about and work in a collaborative way in their local communities to advance broader personalization through more relationship-based individualized supports to ensure all young people can succeed in school and life.

This is the work. I have both lived and professional experience understanding that without the systems change piece we won’t get to the policy changes that are needed to really sustain some of the generational things to be able to bridge generational poverty and things that we named earlier in some of our introductions. This is the work. It’s the right work and it’s the right time for us to really be doubling down on these strategies.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Absolutely. You all named being community centered, coalition building, and systems thinking. A couple of others just to throw out there, relational intelligence, fund development, being data driven, being visionary. It’s a lot.

And I appreciated that in the report you made the point that it’s unlikely that any one rock star leader will embody all of these different capacities, so it’s imperative to really ensure that there’s a team and that these are represented across a team of folks whether that’s staff or working with some partners to really embody all of these different capacities. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Rob Watson: Sure. I’m happy to jump in, Jennifer. You really hit it on the head there by just the ethos of this work is it’s a team sport and while you need to have critical leaders of backbone organizations and place-based partnerships, you have to have those figures who are the conveners.

The trick to the trade is really about creating multiplier effects. It’s about setting the table with a group of folks in house at your team. It might be on your staff, but also through broader, the broader coalition, an organization who is really good at policy advocacy or an organization maybe is really compelling at strategic comms or at mobilizing young people and families, so really thinking about what the skill set, the attributes, the talents that different folks can bring, and I think that that’s a big part of recognizing no one individual, no one organization is going to save us, but together, by bringing in all the different skills and experiences and perspectives we just might have a chance at this thing.

One other piece of this puzzle I think about often in kind of both my national and local work is much like you are a minor league baseball scout and you’re trying to build that talent pipeline from amateur athletics to college to the pros, we need to do that work in communities. It’s no surprise that sometimes our institutions fail us when we haven’t thought about who’s going to lead them. So we have to create pathways at the local level that think about not just one individual, one institution, a superintendent will come and go, a backbone leader will come and go, and we have to create the talent pipelines so that we consistently are supporting and rolling and creating civic leaders who will be stewards of our collective efforts over time.

And I think that’s a big piece to this puzzle. It’s not just in any given moment having a diverse talented group to have different skill sets. It’s also about building a talent pipeline. It’s intergenerational that you can hand off in this relay race so that we can continue to make progress over time in new and innovative ways.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Rob, say more about the talent pipeline. Do you have examples of how communities are doing that?

Rob Watson: Sure. I’ll just say that this issue of talent, we’ve heard as one of the top issues in the country. I know Judy in her conversations a lot of the work we do at EdRedesign, everyone is thinking about in the collective impact space. Since collective impact was made famous, there have been a generation of leaders who are retiring, who are moving on, and we’re thinking actively who are the next wave of leaders. It might be folks in a backbone already. It might be those who are going on. Everybody’s grappling with how do we produce the leaders we need to do the work in a day to day.

There are a number of different ways that people are going about it. In my hometown of Poughkeepsie, we’re trying to leverage service years, so things like AmeriCorps, special innovative public service fellowships, placing folks whether it’s a recent college grad or an Opportunity Youth or a school district parent, curated, dedicated yearlong or more opportunities that really are about addressing needs but helping build a pipeline of leaders. Some places like Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland, they created Baltimore Corps. They developed a signature citywide fellowship, an organization dedicated towards talent. There’s folks like Lead for America who created a hometown fellowship program to attract and retain talent to rural communities and small cities like my hometown where a lot of folks leave and don’t come back.

So it’s really thinking about your jurisdiction and what are kind of points of entry that you can create to train and cultivate talent. It’s also about folks who are on the frontlines right now and giving them the supports they need to perform in the day to day. You think about what LeBron James gets to perform at a high level on the basketball court. What if our teachers got that? What if our social workers, what if our backbone leaders, what if our school leaders, so it’s really thinking about the totality of supports that are needed to sustain the folks doing the work, but also create pathways for those who are coming next.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: That’s awesome. Thank you for going a little deeper there. In the research you elevate some important what you call strategic considerations that arose from the research. Again, I would love to hear from each of you about one of the strategic considerations that you think is particularly important for folks to consider.

Let’s start with you, Tauheedah.

Tauheedah Jackson: Yeah, so as far as strategic considerations I believe one of the things that we named that I believe is most important is the communication and relationship building pieces as key considerations, really thinking about how relationships matter, right? That there are trusting and committed relationships that serve as the bedrock for all of these collective impact efforts that you heard both Rob and Judy talk about. It is often said that partnership moves at the speed of trust so if there aren’t those trusting relationships, people aren’t necessarily willing to come to the table and to partner in those ways that are necessary for us to be able to build, scale, and sustain such initiatives.

But that also means that I talked about being in a field locally for 15 years before doing cross-sector work and then now 24 years, right, collectively as a national leader helping other communities doing this but it required both political and social capital for me to be able to be effective both locally and even at a national level, and a lot of that social and political capital is built on relational trust, and it’s really important that there are relationships at all levels.

You heard Rob talk about grassroots and grasstops and it’s important that those relationships exist all throughout the ecosystem because what you may need one day might be to call the CEO of a philanthropic giving arm at a local corporation, right, to navigate something or you might have to leverage a grandmother in community that might have knowledge of something so how are we really thinking about community in its broadest extent, and that trust and building that trust is core to not only having a shared commitment and a common purpose but also leading with humility and grace is so important, and having a healthy level of respect between partners in the ecosystem that goes beyond formal skills or credentials and formal leadership titles.

A lot of times leadership or authority is not granted by title, and I just want to kind of double click on this point because it’s often sometimes are local leaders who people would consider informal leaders that help to move this work or have an agenda to be able to make sure that the community comes forward and has a voice in it. So we have to honor and leverage both lived experiences, professional credentials, and then also community wisdom in this work.

And then lastly just really thinking about effective and transparent communication at all levels and in all forms. It is so important because it undergirds many of the leadership competencies that we just talked about earlier, and helps to build strong sustainable backbone organizations so relationships matter. You have to cultivate, maintain, and sustain, and I want to say cultivate, maintain, and sustain because it’s not just that that you’re pouring into an individual or a situation one time but you’re cultivating it over time and really adding value as a collective and not just as single people as Rob talked about.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: I imagine a lot of the listeners are nodding vigorously right now, Tauheedah. What about you, Judy?

Judy Touzin:I think the strategic consideration that really stands out to me is this idea that the table, right, that you are convening must reflect the work that you’re trying to do as a table. Sometimes because there is passion or commitment or enthusiasm or just urgency, right, that there’s something that we want to change or improve or an issue we want to address, folks will just bring everybody to the table, and that might be a very fine place to start, right, because you’re trying to figure out what is our direction, what is our intention.

As that becomes clearer though, it is important to make sure that the people who are at the table are the people who actually are best positioned to help drive change towards what’s been identified as the area of focus, and so that looks like leveraging the systems thinking competency that Tauheedah spoke about before and understanding that this is the problem that we’re trying to solve and we’ve gone through some sense of unpacking what are the roots or the underpinnings that are holding this problem in place in our community. Who are the philanthropic entities that might need to be engaged? Who are the people in the community that have a deep-seated understanding about the history of this challenge as it’s presenting itself in the community? Who are the direct service providers that are already kind of engaged in some of this work?

And as you get into collective impact, sometimes the direction evolves or it’s refined over time, and so being committed to the fact that as we iterate, as we get clearer, as we get closer, that there also needs to be a level of fluidity to the table, right? Someone who you didn’t think about engaging at the onset might be actually pretty pivotal by the time that you’re six months or a year into it, and so really honoring the fact that as we are trying to do such important community transformation work around oftentimes problems that have seemed intractable for decades and decades and decades, that we are honoring the fact that the people who have been convened that are helping us to work towards change are the ones who are positioned to do that so the table truly reflecting the work that the collective is undertaking.

Jennifer Splansky Juster:Yeah, thank you, Judy. So figuring out what is the problem we’re trying to solve, what do we need to do to address it, and then who needs to be involved and recognizing that that can be iterative rather than who do we have at the table, what do they all do, right? So focusing on the problem—

Judy Touzin: Exactly.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Great, really important advice. Rob, what comes up for you here?

Rob Watson: Sure, this one is not one I’m necessarily good at but I’m a work in progress. I really appreciated Judy’s work on this because I think it’s something that I know I’ve found, Tauheedah and I and some of the big national convenings we host and a lot of the offline conversations we have amongst friends and colleagues, this question of embracing rest, healing, and self-care and sustainability strategies. You know this work is tough, difficult, intergenerational work that can be traumatic, that can take you back to things you’ve endured where you’re dealing with trauma, you’re dealing with violence, you’re dealing with racial injustice. You’re dealing with some of the toughest issues of our time and some of the issues that have been with us for a long time, and so it really requires thinking deeply about how do you provide nourishment to individuals and organizations and groups of leaders so that we don’t burn out, so that we can do this work in a sustainable way.

I think that’s why you see in different organizations of many types, a nod to the academy even. You see the word sabbatical. You didn’t hear five, 10, 15, 20 years ago social impact organizations doing sabbaticals, and major leaders of national entities taking sabbaticals, and now you see boards, you see CEOs talking about I want our CEO to take a sabbatical and I want our heads of our departments and I want our folks on the front lines to replenish themselves.

You see more of a focus on mindfulness and on all the ways we think about health, physical, emotional, mentally, right? You see creating space within convenings themselves where we’re bringing them together, leaders from across the country, for folks to just have fun and not have to talk about just the challenges of educational equity or violence in our communities or climate change, right?

But how do you just allow people who care about the same things, coming from different walks of life who have to raise families, who have to deal with many of the challenges in the day to day, just giving them a space to build relationships, enjoy each other’s company so there’s a lot of different ways to come at this but I think ultimately it’s a recognition that people want to bring their whole selves to the work, the entirety of who they are, and we need to create space by design within organizations, within community spaces, within national networks to acknowledge that there’s a personal side to this work that’s critical, and in the tax that often comes on backbone leaders and organizations for having to be that convener, for having to sometimes be Switzerland and sometimes be the one who’s willing to have the hard, accountable conversation, and sometimes to say something that no one else can say.

There’s so many different things you have to play and do in this, and so that requires replenishment. It requires us supporting folks in ways that go beyond just professional development in the technical sense so that’s something I think deeply about, and as I said, I’m trying to figure out how to get right myself.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Naming it and uplifting it is the first step so thank you for doing that.

So in addition to the considerations and implications for individuals who are really engaged in implementing cross-sector collaborative work, the study also elevated some field-level findings about the types of supports that are needed and recommendations for next steps, especially for the funders and other field-level intermediaries who are listening to the podcast. What would you like to highlight? I’d love Judy to answer this as the lead researcher from this work.

Judy Touzin: One of the things that stood out for us as a ripe opportunity, if you will, was that as more and more funders and intermediaries emerge to support this work, they are uniquely positioned to be able to consider how they might leverage their resources and influence to help strengthen the growing field. The more that national organizations can partner around language and how it’s used to describe the skills and the competencies and the principles of place-based work, in essence helping to codify the nascent field, then the better positioned we’ll all be to be able to help build the capacity in those who are committed to leading place-based transformation efforts.

To Rob’s point about the dream team and the need for the robust pipeline of folks, shared language, shared understanding about what this work requires in terms of competency, skills, mindsets, practices, can help take the work a long way, and that would be in service of really developing the folks. For those who participated in our study, both national and local leaders, suggested offering learning tracks or certificate programs that offer focus and sustained engagement over the course of several months, and that was because several had attended kind of the larger webinars that sometimes felt like one-offs, and didn’t necessarily provide them the sustained opportunity, and so this helps them to identify where they are and then to better support them along their current area of need.

I will say at StriveTogether with their recent launch of their learning hub is one example of a national intermediary that is strengthening the field in this way, and that more broadly this level of collaboration is beginning to happen in promising ways in the cradle-to-career parts of the collective impact ecosystem.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thanks, Judy, and certainly you all are from the EdRedesign Lab at the Graduate School of Education but here at the Collective Impact Forum we know that folks are working not only in education and cradle-to-career space, many are, and folks are also working on topics like ranging from health equity to economic opportunity to juvenile justice or criminal justice reform, arts education, many, many more, and everything you’re sharing is relevant not only in the cradle-to-career space but elsewhere as well. So I would just want to emphasize that these findings, while they may have come from the EdRedesign Lab, there is nothing ed specific about the backbone competencies and the strategic considerations for the field. This is about doing effective, multisector, place-based, equity-focused work, and hopefully these findings have been very relevant regardless of the topic that folks are working on.

So as we wrap up, I do want to ask if there’s anything we haven’t talked about yet that you’d really like to share with folks.

Rob Watson: I think one thing I’m just holding that was a great piece of the report too, and I’ve been thinking a lot about is there are a lot of great national networks out there supporting collective impact approaches, whether it’s cradle-to-career or others, and you just spoke to that, Jennifer, but I know one thing that I’m thinking about often is how can we create more infrastructure that no matter where a community’s at in their journey, you can be supported.

I think the report noted sometimes that there’s certain barriers to entry on the onset for certain types of communities who want to raise this hand and give this work a shot, and so I think some of the future of the work is really around how can we continue through the national networks that exist and create a bigger tent so more types of communities, no matter where they are in their journey, can come in, and communities that are often overlooked for different reasons, where they’re located in the country, perhaps they don’t have all the social capital to have access in the first place, they don’t even know where to go, and then how can we perhaps create more localized infrastructures to build collective impact movements in addition to kind of the great stuff happening at the national level so I think that’s something I’m thinking about.

One other thing I would just say too is I think continuing to make the connection between this work and how it can transform democracy and civic life itself which all of our issue areas overlap with that. When you’re talking about climate or education, racial justice, I think there’s a through line here about the ultimate—you know, Tauheedah says this often, so what, and so that’s something that I’m sitting with as well.

Judy Touzin: I would just add really quickly the importance of having a learning orientation for taking on this work. Solving complex social problems is hard, and I think there’s a recent article that talks about how—or maybe a podcast from you all talking about embracing the messiness of collective impact and realizing that we may not get it right the first time, we may not get it right the third time but with each iteration we learn, and we grow, and we pivot. I’ll share a quote by one of the study participants that shared, “I’m always reading and always thinking. I grew in this work because I kept listening, learning, and being in the room.” So our encouragement to everybody who has for whatever reason, whatever your personal why and commitments to this work kind of raise your hand or thinking about raising your hand, trust the process, right? Trust that this is a learning journey and that the work that we’re trying to do is worth it, and keep listening, keep learning, keep being in the room.

Tauheedah Jackson: I will say you mentioned, Jennifer, around listeners that might be in the health space or juvenile justice and housing, and a lot of these place-based strategies and collective impact initiatives really are cross-sector in a sense that everyone across all of those sectors are at a collective table. I think one of the key roles of a cross-sector leader is to make sense of the strategy for people who might not be familiar with the strategy across those sectors, right? So how can they see themselves in the work, how can they understand the lane that they can occupy, and how can they understand how they can support the broader shared vision that we talked about earlier?

I’ll just leave with a quote which is an African proverb around, “If you want to go fast, go alone, and if you want to go far, go together,” and I think is so important for us to sometimes take pause. A lot of times we want to get the thing done and we want to go to the quickest route to be able to get to whatever we defined as a goal but a lot of times if you don’t include other people or don’t have inclusive processes or procedures, you end up redoing because you did not think about the people who are being impacted or you did not include those most proximate to the work in the process.

So how are we thinking from the outset of making the most inclusive opportunities, that we’re including people who are proximate to the work or are being impacted directly, and how can we collectively go together like we saw communities coming together during the pandemic, right, in ways that we never could have imagined. How can we really draw from some of the things we learned from that and really think about moving forward together in local communities and in the national space.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you, Tauheedah, and Judy, Tauheedah, and Rob, thank you so much for both inspiring and very practical advice for folks that are listening, so we are so grateful to have spent this time with you. The last question, how can folks continue to follow your work who want to learn more?

Rob Watson: Sure, I’ll take that one. So check us out at edredesign.org, edredesign one word, and you definitely can follow us on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and all the social media channels.

Please reach out. We are always looking to learn from others across the country. We approach this work with great humility. We’re always looking for deep and exciting partnerships with communities, with national networks, with individuals so please check us out, and we’re also just always looking for, you know, as I mentioned earlier, the minor league baseball scout, we’re always looking for the next big thing so please be in touch, and then again just much gratitude to you, Jennifer, and to the team. It’s a pleasure to always be on with Judy and Tauheedah.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you, Rob. So we have teams, we have our LeBron analogy, we have our minor league scouting connection here, sports fan. With that I want to thank you all. It’s been wonderful chatting with you, and have a wonderful day.

(Outro) And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, including checking out the report Building Strong, Sustainable Backbone Leadership, you can find links in the footnotes for this episode. And if you’re enjoying all that we share at the Collective Impact Forum podcast, we encourage you to rate us on your preferred podcast platform, and share your favorite episodes with colleagues.

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.

In Forum news, we’re excited to share that registration is now open for the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit, that will be held online next year on April 30-May 2, 2024. It’s our biggest learning event of the year, featuring over 25 virtual sessions and sharing out best practices from collaboratives from across the U.S. and globally. And we’re delighted to announce that our closing keynote will be with political leader and changemaker Stacey Abrams that will discuss the power of movement building. Please visit our events section at collectiveimpactforum.org if you would like to join the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit.

This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast producer. 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, let’s keep working towards collective impact.


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