Why communities of color are getting frustrated with Collective Impact


hand-813525_960_720A while ago I wrote “Collective Impact: Resistance is Futile,” detailing the frustrations of CI and comparing it to The Borg on Star Trek. “Controlled by a hive mind that neutralizes any sort of individualism, and comprising billions of annexed individuals, [The Borg is] strong and terrifying, like an army of zombie robots, each with one eye that has a laser beam.” That was my first impression of Collective Impact, at least the way it’s being playing out in Seattle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It creates and maintains the Illusion of Inclusion: Due to all the gatekeeping, inequitable funding allocation process, TDCE, and other factors, communities of farbenpracht-1018131_960_720color are oftentimes left behind by CI efforts. We are not funded on the same level, and yet are asked to provide input, do outreach, mobilize our communities, etc., and because we believe in the goals of the CI efforts, and sometimes because we are backed into corners, we’ll be involved. This leads to the CI effort being seen as inclusive, when in reality, it is tokenizing. My colleague Sharonne Navas of the Equity in Education Coalition (which is also arguably a Collective Impact organization) calls this phenomenon the “Illusion of Inclusion.” This deserves its own blog post later, but suffice to say, the Illusion of Inclusion is usually more dangerous than the lack of inclusion, because it makes the CI effort complacent and gives a false sense of security.

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

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

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

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

By now, you’re probably depressed. I want to reaffirm that I don’t think Collective Impact itself is bad. Like fire, or tequila shots at ED Happy Hour, or Netflix, it can be fire-982677_960_720used for good or for not-so-good. I don’t think any of the leaders of color I talked to are questioning anyone’s motivations or intentions. We believe that people mean well. However, good intentions do not guarantee policies and programs and backbone organizations that will be effective in addressing the challenges facing our communities. We must be vigilant, and we must be willing to make changes. Here are some suggestions, to start:

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

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

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

Let me know your thoughts.


20 thoughts on “Why communities of color are getting frustrated with Collective Impact

  1. Karen Woods

    Not unlike organizations of colour, small towns and rural communities must also face the “Ci-borg”. Of course we are talking about human systems, those wrought with feelings and emotions framed by past experiences of the communities, organizations and of course the individual leaders. Pushing the Ci (note the use of lowercase) mindset is in my opinion the equivalent of over correcting an out of control car—a potential wreck in the making. Reading your post reminded me of Meadows’ work on systems interventions— more specifically the importance of monitoring for feedback loops. According to Meadows, missing feedback is one of the most common reasons for systems to malfunction. Yet funders allow Ci initiatives to build momentum without properly funding a process to develop, monitor and respond to early warnings (to avoid sharp steering responses). Honestly,it feels pretty dangerous to speak against the noise from the Machine or attempt to grab the wheel when the risks include being inadvertently flung through the windshield or run over by the operator. Love your posts!

  2. Lisa

    It’s great if you live in a community where a lot of collaboration has been going on between and amongst community members and nonprofit providers of direct services. I live in a community where that is simply not the case the majority of the time. As a large funder attempting to avoid becoming a CI-borg, your post is a great reminder of the risks. But pushing the envelope (and yes, sometimes the envelope that holds the check) is a good role for funders if it gets providers to think in terms of performance improvement and the efficiencies to be had through collaboration. There’s nothing wrong with funding results. And I think results are much more likely from organizations that value and create a culture of collaboration.

    1. Ash Smith

      I completely agree with your comment. As the Development Director at a CI-borg…or funder… we have been working to bring a fractured nonprofit community together. That process is slow and messy. I do definitely see the potential for pitfalls, such as reducing the creativity and innovation at the grassroots level. That is why it is so important to ensure that our we do not fool ourselves into thinking that we, as the funder in the process, have all of the answers. Requiring results and outcomes is important, as it ensures that we do not continue to fund failing, duplicated, or or ineffective programs. However, we must be open to new ideas beyond our own, and must be willing to put large amounts of money behind innovative ideas. There is some give and take though. If funding is limited, as it has been significantly since 2008 in our community, then we must be willing to not fund some programs in order to give increased funding to programs that show results, and to build capacity in programs that need capacity to expand services. The idea of having every program go directly to donors is a nice ideas, but most organizations are too small to hire development staff. And if every organization saturates the community with constant requests for funding, you’ll have an issue of Donor Fatigue in smaller communities.

  3. LKitsch

    Yet another reason for nonprofits to begin to focus on individual and major donors and get off the foundation teat. And please don’t tell me that communities of color are at a disadvantage there because of the lack, or relatively short history, of an individual donor culture. Yes, that is true, but that is also an excuse to do nothing about it. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so start developing that culture now. Stop cursing the darkness and light a goddamn candle. Then someday, you can tell the foundations to shove it. Or at least their peccadilloes will be less harmful in the grand fundraising scheme of things. First step: take the staffer who spends their time on foundation grants and have them allocate 25% of their time into individual donors. And engage your board and CEO in the effort.

    1. corbin1994

      Please bear in mind that grant writing and major donor development are significantly different skill sets. Asking someone to move from one to another may result in failure.

    2. LTJaeger

      Assuming, of course, that your agency has a staff person whose time is dedicated to grant writing and resource development. For the rest of us that operate large and small programs where those duties are piece-mealed together, transferring 25% of our dedicated time from grant writing to donor development would mean that neither activity would get done.

  4. Michal Nortness

    This makes me very sad, and not just for communities of color (though I completely get how it marginalizes those communities even more), but for direct service in general. I know that organic and needs based collaboration can be messy and less ‘efficient’ than efforts backed up by scholarly journals – but we sure used to get the job done. And mostly have a great time doing it. Also learned from each other, broadened our understanding of the need and the possible solutions.

    1. Mathieu Despard

      Michael – interesting side observation: the original CI article appears in an academic periodical that is not peer reviewed nor does the article itself present any empirical evidence concerning the effectiveness of CI.

  5. DomusVols

    7 years ago I attended an education conference where Strive Cincinnati presented. I brought it back to Stamford, CT, and it has taken us until this year to find funding for a part time coordinator (thank you United Way of Greater Fairfield County), hire Strive, hold a series of focus groups that included everyone and their uncle, identify a space large enough to host a meeting and then hold the first meeting. Our first almost all-day retreat is this Thursday. I accept your valid concerns about sharing the wealth and aligning from the bottom up, not the top down. I also can vouch for how hard it is to make sure everyone’s voice is BOTH identified AND heard. But if done right, Stamford Cradle to Career has the potential of improving the quality of life for everyone. It goes without saying that the focus is on the disadvantaged (low income, under-served, communities of color, subjugated, or whatever the flavor of the moment is), but every boat will be lifted.

    Check out the Central Baltimore Partnership, another CI model. http://www.centralbaltimore.org/ Given the tragedy that engulfed Baltimore earlier this year, I’m not sure what to think, but I heard the former ED and founder Joseph McNeely speak a few years ago. He talked about CI and how his job was to act as cat herder and to make sure the “mom and pop” direct services voices (his words) were at the table and funded. I learned a lot. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I’ll share it with the group.

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  7. Mathieu Despard

    Great points about the critical role backbone organizations play. CI is not new – just a different label for collaboration, though the focus on impact is more explicit than prior iterations. Funders flock to ideas like CI because it promises to offer more bang for the buck, but the truth is, funders deploy far too little capital to make any discernible impact in communities. So if funders were really serious about CI, they’d far exceed the 5% minimum payout required by the IRS. Even then, many social problems CI targets typically require changes in public policies.

  8. MartyInVT

    It is unfortunate that CI is getting such a black eye in the nonprofit sector. The model, like all models, is incomplete and therefore requires the intervention of individuals skilled in transformational change. CI has only been intended to be applied to complex challenges, ones that no one entity can solve, and it requires the collecting thinking of stakeholders, but your description makes it sound like CI has been christened the cure-all for nonprofit woes. What you are describing here are not truly CI initiatives but rather consolidation cloaked as CI. What I see happening is that these CI efforts are merely tweaking the existing system rather than shifting to a new mindset and creating a new system. This can only happen when those leading the effort challenge their own worldview. CI is purportedly best used with complex challenges, those issues where outcomes are uncertain, self-organization drives the process, participants allow solutions to emerge, and individual and organizational learning are ongoing. Such an effort results in resilient communities. I suspect that those leading the CI effort don’t really understand what it takes to bring about transformational change and are just following the CI steps – like baking a cake, which is a simple challenge, not a complex one. Every transformational change effort needs to be tailored to the individual community and coalition leading the effort. The solutions to our complex challenges can only be found through generative dialogue. It doesn’t sound like that is happening here.

  9. Arthur T. Himmelman

    I am not persuaded collective impact proselytizers adequately acknowledge and respect the work of others. This includes community and neighborhood residents and activists and professionals in various fields working at what I call “community and systems change collaboration.”

    Indeed, most of collective impact’s concepts and strategies are taken from the work
    of others without attribution, repackaged, and cleverly branded as something
    new and better. Now, collective impact appears to have “discovered”
    equity as if this has not been a major emphasis of vast numbers of people and
    organizations for many years.

    It is essential to offer serious substance rather than platitudes about efforts
    seeking equity. Collective impact’s methods and techniques for working
    collaboratively for equity should be presented in historical, political, and
    economic contexts. If it is advertised as a “systems change” model,
    collective impact must recognize the necessity of significantly transforming
    existing power relations in our public, private, and nonprofit sectors. I may
    have missed it, but I don’t recall collective impact advocates addressing power
    relations except in the most general terms.

    The “bottom line” remains what it has always been in systems change: only the public sector has the power and scope of authority through legislative policies to bring demonstrations of innovation and better practices to scale. Indeed, it is the abdication of public responsibility for basic human needs, while providing grotesque amounts of money to the military and special tax preferences to the super rich, that
    created the necessity for (and myopic focus on) so-called partnerships and
    community-based collaborations. Such partnerships cannot possibly solve the
    problems they address and, in a significant sense, are intentional diversions
    from problem solving at a scale that can improve the lives of populations, not
    just individuals.

  10. Dawn Johnson

    Yes! I would say not just CI,but any ‘hot theme’ bandwagon for funders winds up following this tragectory (spelling intentional). The big funds to do the Next Big Bandwagon are justified by ROI, aggregatable statistics that thus require homogenized activities between rib organizations, doing apples and oranges from the ‘universal’ fruit bowl even when persimmons are the really appropriate local fruit. In short, when something becomes a hot topic bandwagon, the funding available and pressure to be a national player of importance leads funders and backbone orgs into the trap of writing national big box programs that require rib orgs to play along – even if the bandwagon is some version of ‘supporting local initiatives’. And we all know what category killers big box stores can be in a local area!

  11. Hamdi Abdulle

    The so called collective impact, empowers the middle man and it sucks the final dollars that used to support the intended target. Ask me about Sky way and the foolishness behind bundling together people who have no commonality in their problems. It is like let me divide 100 box into two, so half is mine. Let me divide the other half into to two so half is mine and let me divide the next half into two so half is mine and they know how to justify all the way till they level you to zero impact. I hate the fake collective impact. I hope Best Start for kids will not fall into those hands. They say they advocate for the minority, the refugees and the vulnerable without our presence, they use people from the streets to represent the community, give them few dollars, take few pictures and hit the road seeking for the next…

    1. Stephanie Bush

      Thank you for sharing your story as well. We must figure out the next steps which will crush the established system of illusion

  12. Kerry

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  13. Stephanie Bush

    I want to send out a sincere thank you for your strength and courage in getting this important message out! When researching anything to support what is currently happening to me, my mental real estate, and my baby (my org), there is very little information among all the dazzling reports for CI and the major backbone entity dealing death blows and blocking needed funding. I am a pillar of excellence for my home state specifically dealing with structural racism. This is a huge disappointment when I live and work in a historically under served community. Stigmas on my community say that we always misappropriate when in reality… the funds never reach our pockets to truly effect change. I am currently putting my foot down. I am not afraid to help remove this ridiculous roadblock to empowerment. Imagine as a non profit how many jobs can be created when the money is not tied up in hefty administrative fees and new ways to document our work. How do we build for 2 years only to find out that we no longer fit the scope of services? We helped to write the grant and participated in the planning. Now those that are not even living in my community are about to use my good name and keep my money. As you know this money is usually given by some heavy hitters who threaten to remove you or black ball you! How many of you will stand with me????

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