Collective impact and what progressives can learn from conservatives

[Image description: A person with one foot on a skateboard, facing a bright sun hanging low in the sky in the background. It looks to be evening or morning. The sunlight causes shadows from the skateboard and the person’s feet to extend toward the viewer. Image by Pexels on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, just a preemptive warning that this post is serious, political, disjointed, and will likely offend some people.

Like you, I’ve been thinking about the police brutally murdering Tyre Nichols in Memphis, the latest in the countless murders of Black people by the police. I’m thinking of Tyre Nichols, who loved skateboarding and photography and who had a son a little younger than my six-year-old, and I’m thinking of his family, whom he was just trying to get home to. I cannot imagine their pain.

This murder came while so many of us are still grieving the mass shooting deaths of people in Monterey Park, Half Moon Bay, and other places too numerous for many of us to keep track of anymore (about 40 over the past four weeks). This is where we are at for this new year. Endless death and injustice, not just sanctioned but sponsored by our government. And those of us in nonprofit and philanthropy, for all the good we do, often feel powerless.

But our sector’s job is to address inequity and injustice, so we need to focus. The statements we’ll be making condemning police violence and anti-Blackness have been a start, but they are not enough, and in fact, they can often lull us into a sense of complacency, kind of like a long-form of “thoughts and prayers.” We need to, as an entire united sector, work together to end white supremacy and its many manifestations, and we need to do it differently and more effectively.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about my love-hate relationship with collective impact. CI is seen by many prominent leaders and institutions as a solution that would finally get to the root of many of society’s entrenched problems. At its core it’s just the common sense idea that it’s more effective for a bunch of people and organizations work together to solve problems instead of doing stuff on their own.

But collective impact, as a formal theory and set of practices, has had issues, including the lack of equity framework at conception, the gatekeeping of organizations and movements led by marginalized communities, the Columbusing and academicizing of something that many communities have been doing for ages, and the consolidation of funding and power among mostly white-led “backbone” organizations.

Still, there are lots of examples of it working effectively. And there is no place collective impact has been deployed more effectively than by conservative movements. Without calling it “collective impact,” right-wing conservatives have successfully used it for decades, and to scales that many progressive-aligned organizations, funders, and movements could barely imagine. While progressives and moderates gather several organizations together locally to work on single issues such as early-learning or homelessness (and doing some good work), conservatives band together nationally to create and implement strategies that would effectively address every single issue they care about.

These strategies are creative: Pack the courts with conservative judges, bolster far-right politicians at every level of politics, control media narratives by supporting right-wing pundits and platforms, create secretive organizations working in the shadows to influence politics, maintain pipelines of conservative young leaders, infiltrate institutions such as universities, fan the spread of right-wing ideologies to other countries, etc. These strategies, leaders, organizations, and funders all work together in tandem successfully over the past few decades. This is collective impact at its purest and most effective manifestation.

And we are seeing the results: The banning of abortions; a well-funded police that uses violence with impunity; the blocking of almost all regulations on guns no matter how many mass shootings occur; few actions on climate change; stagnant federal minimum wage; banning of books; a theocratic Supreme Court; massive voter suppression and gerrymandering; etc.

To be successful in pushing back against injustice like the above, the progressive-leaning wing of our sector must stop wasting time with meaningless and distracting priorities and start working together to implement equally wide-reaching and creative strategies. We can call it collective impact or whatever, but we need to do more of it, and at scales that would match the conservative movement’s investment in furthering its values. Here are a few things to consider:

We need a common agenda uniting every issue we’re trying to address: The sector over time, and due to funding dynamics and other factors, has splintered into isolated causes that barely communicate with one another. We don’t have a theory tying together every problem we’re trying to solve or an agenda that would help us tackle the common root causes of the problem. We can spend more time trying to figure it out, but many leaders have already been proposing things that make sense. We need to act on them.

Most of our work in nonprofit is basically fighting white supremacy, capitalism, and right-wing ideologies. Almost every single issue will stem from one or more of those things. Our common agenda should be to elect more progressive people of color (especially women of color) into office, reverse Citizens United to decrease corporations’ influence on politics, protect and expand voting rights, and change the tax code to ensure wealthy people pay their fair share of taxes. Those four things, if we can advance them, would make a tremendous dent in many of the problems we’ve been trying to solve in silos.

Progressive-leaning foundations need to fund completely differently: And by that, I mean fund the way conservative funders fund, as outlined here in “10 things progressive funders must learn from conservative ones, or we are all screwed.” Increase your payout rates, fund faster, provide multi-year general operating dollars, and stop being distracted by meaningless and time-wasting crap like micromanaging nonprofits with tedious grant applications and reports. Also, stop fixating on single-issue trees and start looking at the whole injustice forest.

Those things should be basic by now. We need funders and donors to significantly increase financial support of progressive political candidates, networks of progressive leaders, progressive media and pundits, legal defense for progressive leaders and organizations as they do their work and run into trouble, and of course progressive nonprofits and movements focusing on policy and advocacy work. All of those things, together, is collective impact at a scale we need to start shifting systems.

Nonprofits need to stop being so nice and get a lot angrier. During this surreal episode where there was a global countdown to the release of the video of Tyre Nichols being murdered by the police, many people, like these folks, were more concerned about the potential “disorder” by protesters than by the injustice itself. It shows what our society values; not justice, but order. And our sector often reinforces this.

I want us to get angrier. Not just at the various forms of relentless injustice we have been tasked with doing something about, but also at the fact that we are expected to do it with 10% of the resources we need, resources that come with endless conditions and restrictions. We’ve been conditioned to be calm and level-headed and grateful, and over time, our imagination has been dimmed, our common vision narrower and narrower. It’s been affecting our ability to work together collectively to advance a just and equitable world. We need to restore both our righteous anger and our imagination.

I’m going to stop here. In general, while progressives throw around terms like “collective impact,” conservative organizations, leaders, and funders have been implementing these concepts extremely effectively. Progressives are far behind. We need to catch up. This week, we can write statements condemning police brutality. After that, though, we need to work together—differently, with a broader vision, with more creative strategies—to end it and end other forms of injustice.