Tag Archives: humor

Collective Impact: resistance is futile

honey-bees-326337_960_720In the past few years, the concept of Collective Impact has covered lots of ground, with great results. Concerted efforts can kick some serious butts. Look what Strive has accomplished. Characteristics of CI are a common agenda, shared measurements, mutually reinforcing activities, constant communication, a backbone organization, and monthly happy hours.

However, like taking naps at work, Collective Impact should be done strategically and sometimes not at all. Recently, I’ve started seeing it become more and more like the Borg in Star Trek, a species that assimilates other life forms in a quest for dominance and perfection. Controlled by a hive mind that neutralizes any sort of individualism, and comprising billions of annexed individuals, they are strong and terrifying, like an army of zombie robots, each with one eye that has a laser beam. Resistance is futile, since any entity that tries to put up a fight is either assimilated and loses its identity, or else destroyed.

That, unfortunately, is what it feels like sometimes by those of us on the ground, the nonprofits that work directly with individuals and families. While no one is arguing with the importance and effectiveness of collective impact, it can be a little frustrating. Three or four times this year, we were told by various funders we need to align with The Borg. (There are several great CI efforts all around, so by “The Borg,” I am not referring to any specific one). Program officers, who are the Sherpas on the oftentimes Everestian slopes of foundation applications, have seen this shift in paradigm and have been trying to be helpful. Once a while, I get a call like this:

Program Officer: I’m calling to provide some feedback on your proposal. Are you in a secure location?

Me: Yes. I just walked into the bathroom.

PO: You need to mention a little bit more about your work with the Borg. The review team is looking for projects that really align with the Borg’s strategy.

Me: All right, we can expand that section. Thank you.

PO: I never called you. This conversation never happened.

Sometimes, we actually align with the Borg, in which case I’m happy to expand on how wonderful it is to be assimilated into the Borg hive mind. But occasionally we do not align. Heck, once in a while it makes no sense to be. As powerful as the Borg are in Star Trek, they were never able to assimilate members of Species 8472, which looks kind of like bugs, but that’s neither here nor there. Species 8472 is just so biologically different and incompatible, assimilation would only lead to disaster. A parallel can be made with collective impact efforts that try to involve communities of color, who have unique strengths and needs. Oftentimes, the first instinct is to assimilate everyone under one umbrella, and that could work. However, sometimes it does not work, and it may not necessarily be anyone’s fault. Several umbrellas may be needed.

Another frustration I’ve seen is funders’ shifting the funding priorities from direct service work to collective impact efforts and backbone organizations. Queries about support for direct impact programs often come back with “Sorry, we are now prioritizing funding the Borg’s work. Maybe you should go talk to them.” This is extremely frustrating. While the push is for everyone to align with CI efforts, the funding is not equitable. Direct service organizations, especially the ones that focus on communities of color, can only be involved in these amazing, region-wide efforts if we are strong and stable and have credibility with our clients. VFA has been getting requests to join various CI efforts and we have become more and more involved. If we were to shut down our after-school, leadership, parental engagement, and community-building work, no one would approach us, because we would have no connection or credibility. In order for these major collective impact efforts to succeed, funders must continue funding direct service organizations in parallel.

Much more importantly, however, is that clients may not be able to afford the time that it often takes for Borg-like efforts to achieve perfection. CI usually takes years. A kid who is failing school or an elder who needs food doesn’t have years. I just talked to a principal of a school with 90% low-income kids of color. She would love a common agenda and shared measurements and fully supports the work in this area. But right now her school desperately needs an after-school tutoring program because many students are several grades behind and they go home to empty houses and get no support.

In the Star Trek universe, there are few things more terrifying than a Borg invasion. They sweep through and assimilate or destroy everything. They absorb all resources. Collective impact should not have to be like that. The premise for collective impact is that we can do things much better by working together than by working in isolation. This is a premise that all of us on the ground fully believe in. But funding must be equitable and direct service must be simultaneously supported.

Site visits: uncomfortable, yet terrifying

officeThis week, VFA had a site visit. Whenever we apply for a grant, the second-best outcome is a site visit (the best outcome would be a funder saying, “We’re funding you, and in fact, doubling your request and sending the kids in your after-school program a laptop and a bunny each!”)

I always get excited about site visits. We write these grants telling people about how cool our programs are, but to have funders actually come down and visit is affirming. And terrifying. It’s a weird contradiction, like it’s your birthday—yay!—but you’re also getting a colonoscopy.

Before the visit, we try to prep as much as we can. Making a good impression is important. This includes tidying up the place and putting away our fold-out cot, which staff use for naps during particularly long days, or just weekdays. I also gather up all the papers on my desk and shove them into the overhead bin.

The staff’s personal appearance is also taken into consideration. “What kind of site visit is this?” one of them asked, “how should we dress?” The more funding is at stake, the better we dress. Less than $10,000, we dress a little better than normal, but are still generally shabby. At $10,000 to $19,000, we wear button-down shirts and tuck them into our jeans. $20,000 to $49,000, we wear slacks and a nice shirt, maybe a tie. $50,000 or over, I might require some of the staff to get Botox.

“$80,000,” I responded. “Ooh,” they said, “you better get a haircut.” A year ago, an hour from a visit with a major foundation, I checked myself in the mirror. Normally I look like a movie star, an Asian Steve Buscemi if you will, but this time I had a greenish complexion overshadowed by cowlicks so unruly, they were really goatlicks. Quickly I ran downstairs to a barber shop and got a trim. I made it to our program on time but was horrified to see that my face, neck, and shoulders were covered with bits of hair. “Quick, grab some tape,” I said, and for the next ten minutes, two staff used masking tape to remove offending pieces of hair. We got that grant, but the staff have never let me live that down.

On the day of this recent site visit, I was at a Leadership Tomorrow training. “Tidy up office, prepare slideshow,” I texted James, our Director of Youth and Community Engagement, who would be managing the project if we received this grant. This was only an office visit, not a program visit. Program visits have special challenges. We want our funders to see our programs in their natural state, so we don’t prep our students too much, except to tell them that a few people might be visiting and that if they don’t behave, Justin Bieber will stop singing forever.

When these visits go well, everyone leaves with a good feeling. The staff feel affirmed; the funders feel warm and fuzzy. Once in a while, though, they coincide with a crappy day, when kids have low energy, or some staff are absent, or the ED is hungover. Funders are usually pretty understanding and sympathetic when that happens, but I haven’t yet seen a bad site visit that has resulted in a grant or even a second-chance visit. It’s a horrible feeling watching a group of funders leave after an uninspiring tour. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re practicing for hours at a yo-yo trick and it’s awesome and you’re excited to show your older brother, but then the trick doesn’t go right, and he tousles your hair and says “That was a nice try, Vu, I’m sure you’ll get it eventually,” and you’re mad at yourself because you already got it, dozens of time, so then you hide his car keys under the couch cushions.

Office visits are challenging in that funders don’t have the visceral experience of our programs, a chance to meet our kids and stare into their big, liquid eyes brimming with hope and potential. So we create a slideshow to give them an impression. Two hours before the site visit, I texted James to “make sure only cute kids w big eyes are in slideshow.”

On my way back, I got a text from James. “They are here thirty mins early! They in conf room relaxing!” Crap, I thought, I don’t have time to clean up my desk! The previous evening, I had eaten some Morningstar vegan barbecue ribs and left the plate out on the desk. The office had been cleaned, so my cubicle would be the only messy area. They’re going to think I’m disorganized and sloppy! How could they invest in an organization when the ED can’t even clean up his mess after eating vegan BBQ ribs?!

I arrived at the office with twenty minutes to spare, but somehow felt late and anxious. I ran up the stairs and burst into the conference room to greet the four visitors. This was $80,000 on the line and I was blinded by their radiance. Program officers are on average 27% more attractive than civilians, and like Galadriel the Elven Queen from Lord of the Rings when she nearly held the One Ring of Power, they can be both beautiful and terrible to behold.

“I’m so sorry for being…early,” I said, breathless. They cracked up. Maybe they’re just humans, too, after all.