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.

Being a nonprofit with balls, part 2

balls 1Two weeks ago I had lunch with Luke, whom you may recall from “Being a Nonprofit with Balls.” Luke had come to VFA a couple of months ago asking us to rally 15 to 20 community members for a focus group. I had just woken up from my daily ED power nap and was kind of groggy and in no mood to be accommodating, so we got into a fistfight. Of course, this the nonprofit field in Seattle, so by “fistfight” I mean that we threw big concepts, hoping to wound each other with phrases like “authentic engagement” and “equity.” I told him that we small ethnic nonprofits are overwhelmed with similar requests from well-meaning organizations who are trying to be “inclusive” and that we just didn’t have staff capacity to do it and that he should go back to advocate for more equitable funding if he really wanted to authentically engage the communities of color.

We decided to have lunch, and I was looking forward to it. While I thought Luke’s approach was ineffective, I appreciated his refreshing directness. He arrived on time at my favorite restaurant. Since he was technically my elder, I poured him tea.

“So, how did you get to where you are?” I asked. He told me of his journey and of his philosophy on life, which is basically that if you serve others selflessly, the Universe will reward you.

“I moved up here, didn’t have a job. I was at this event, and I met Ted, who is a millionaire. He told me about this thing he’s trying to do to improve education, so I said that sounds great, how can I help? And he gave me a job.”

“That’s great,” I said, wishing that I knew more millionaires so I could be selfless around them.

“Listen,” he said, “that thing with asking you to put together a focus group, that was garbage.”

“It’s OK,” I said, “we get asked all the time. We know people mean well.”

“It’s just, how do we get the communities to the table? We keep inviting them.”

For the past several months, I’ve been on this bent about community engagement and funding equity, especially around education. After talking to Luke, I realize that he’s a nice guy, but his approach is very indicative of the standard approach to community engagement, which has gone nowhere. People wonder, Why are the communities of color refusing to join our table? We’ve invited them countless times. Don’t they want to work with us? We’ve prepared place settings for them and everything!

The reality is that whoever hosts the table has the majority of the power. They can shift people’s seats around, kick them out, refuse to share the recipe for coconut cornbread, or whatever. It is challenging to have authentic engagement when people feel like guests at a table and not a co-host. “Inviting” people to the table is not enough, since this is symptomatic of not engaging people at square one, when the table was being created in the first place.

“Community engagement must begin at square one,” I said. “Too often efforts get to square three or four, usually well-supported by funding at each step of the way, before people stop to realize, ‘Hold on, we’re not doing a good job reaching underrepresented communities.’ They scramble and backtrack, but it may be too late, since funding usually has been allocated without these communities in mind. So then we get asked to participate without being provided resources.”

Another thing,” I said, “the people most impacted need to lead the effort. This is especially true with an issue like education, where the ‘achievement gap’ is basically kids of color. If this is the civil rights issue of our time, then the people most impacted need to be in the front leading. Allies and supporters are critically important. This work cannot be successful without then, especially since they have the relationships with funders. But they must be on the side or behind supporting the people most affected by inequity. Too often we see well-meaning people coming into the neighborhood saying ‘Hey, we know what works best for you. Come join and support our efforts!’”

“Also, people think that presence equals engagement. I’ve been to numerous ‘community input’ events that are fully attended by diverse communities. VFA has rallied our community members to these events. They have interpreters and UN-style headsets, and the room looks beautiful and inspiring, and no doubt pictures of the event will be posted everywhere afterward as proof of how effective the outreach and engagement was. Many of our community members leave going ‘Huh?’ Then they don’t see any results and feel that their time was wasted, and VFA loses credibility with them for inviting them. They may not understand all the concepts presented, but they know enough to feel shafted and tokenized. Presence is only one-half of engagement.”

“Here, try this vegan lemongrass chicken,’” I said, taking a break from my lecture, which I realized had been welling up for the past few years. “Having names on a list does not indicate engagement,” I continued, “VFA and other ethnic nonprofits get asked to join various coalitions and efforts. Because we are so busy doing direct service, we sometimes say ‘Yeah, go ahead, sign us up and use our name. We’ll drop by occasionally.’ This is a horribly destructive practice, as it stymies responsibility on our part to actively lead in the effort, and it reinforces the system of funding inequity and poor engagement. Funders looking at this list of ‘members’ may not be aware of how actively engaged they actually are. Heck, some organizations on the list may no longer even exist.”

Finally,” I said, “direct service organizations have tremendous potential for advocacy. After all, they work directly with families and know their needs and can mobilize them to change policies and practices. But we are not funded to do that stuff.”

This was a lot of information to take in. We paused for a while to eat our food. “So what can I do to help?” he asked. I thought about it for a second. For the past year and a half I’ve been involved with the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which is mobilizing the communities of color and allies to work together to improve education in Southeast Seattle. This is one of the few efforts actually led by the local communities of color to address the achievement gap. We are tired of being “invited” to the table. We must be a table. Trouble is, communities of color are not as connected to funders and decision makers, so we’ve been struggling with funding.

“Introduce me to your millionaire friend Ted,” I said, “I want to talk to him about SESEC.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. We continued our conversation until the bill came. “I’ll pay,” I said, but Luke insisted on getting it. I could have fought for the bill, or at least to pay for my share, but I knew he felt some guilt, and this was his way of appeasing. I let him pay. I guess it’s my way of being selfless.

Last week, Luke emailed me saying he had talked to Ted and that Ted was willing to meet with me. I followed up to schedule a meeting. I am going to meet with a millionaire. Will keep you updated. [Read Part 3]

Reflections for Thanksgiving

thanksgivingLast week I received a severe drubbing from a program officer for unintentionally breaching protocols with her foundation while seeking funding for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which I chair. I’ll explain the whole thing later in my book “Unicorns, Equity, and General Operating Funds: Quest of the Nonprofit Warriors.” (It’s a working title). Suffice to say, I apologized profusely and left the lunch meeting feeling very much like crap.

On the way back to the office, I walked by Panha, an elderly Cambodian woman who sells fish and vegetables on the sidewalk. Seven days a week she is out under a makeshift tarp awning, sitting on a short stool, her eyes framed by crows’ feet and greying hair. “Yellow mushrooms yet?” I asked. She shook her head. “Not yet!” For the past several weeks I have been waiting for the chanterelle mushrooms that Panha’s friend harvests for her to sell. Despite the heavy rain, still no signs of them. “You buy leaf?” she asked. Panha speaks broken English and does not know the vocabulary for many of the vegetables laid out in front of her. All the greens—kale, collards, bok choy—are “leaf” to her. She pointed at some greens that I did not recognize. “What can I do with them?” I asked, knowing what the answer will be, since she does not have vocabulary like sautee, braise, steam, etc.

“Make soup!” she said, and we both cracked up. It has become an inside joke between us.

In my cubicle, I composed a short email reiterating my apologies to the program officer, then started working on some grants that were due, thinking of how nice it would be to have four solid days off for Thanksgiving. I was still feeling pretty crappy.

Then I thought about Panha sitting out there in the rain and cold, like my mother may have once sat long ago, selling her wares at the market, which we transported for miles on her bicycle. It made me realize what an ingrate I was being. I started thinking about the things for which I am thankful. They range from small things (wine, The Walking Dead), to big things, like friends and family and good health and shelter. I am thankful for all these blessings.

But I am also very thankful for my work. In all the daily craziness, I forget sometimes how lucky I am to be able to wake up each day and be engaged in meaningful work. Three decades ago I was a kid growing up in a small mountain village in Vietnam. The War had recently ended and my parents would struggle to feed us. In my fractured memories of that time are images of our wood-burning stove, the dirt floor, the smell of pine and red earth, and the monsoon rain that battered our rusty, leaking tin roof.

It was luck, or Fate, or maybe Karma, that brought us to the US. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if we had not made it here. I was a frail and timid little kid. I did not know anything of the War or what it did to our family. Now I realize that my father’s role as a soldier on the losing side of this War would ensure that none of us kids would be able to make it into college. We would end up repairing bicycles or farming a tiny plot of land or, if we were lucky and clever enough to navigate the network of corrupt officials, maybe opening a small business. All noble occupations, and we might have even been happy.

But I like the work that I am doing now. I don’t think many people in the world get to do what they find fulfilling. This work, strengthening a nonprofit, advancing a community, is challenging and often crazy driving. We face obstacles constantly. There are days when I get bad news from a funder, or an elder lectures me for an hour on what I did wrong, or our cashflow is awful because a reimbursement-based grant payment is delayed and we might not be able to make payroll.

But there are also days like this Saturday, when I dropped by our SES program to find 80 kids experiencing Thanksgiving for the first time in their life. It was also moving to see two VFA board members there, serving these kids their inaugural portion of turkey. Later in the same day, at a different location, our Youth Jobs Initiative program brought in guest speakers with different occupations to inspire a different set of our bright kids who face so many barriers.

The work is constantly challenging, oftentimes aggravating, and infinitely rewarding. I get to meet and collaborate with awesome, dedicated people all the time. I have the best and most amazing team in the world. And my actions, perhaps in just a small way, may be helping to make a difference in the world, to make it better. For the chance to do that, I am very thankful.

I took a break from grantwriting and ran downstairs to get Panha some Vietnamese coffee. She loves Vietnamese coffee, steaming hot, with condensed milk. The rain still fell, and she was huddled under her blue tarp awning when I approached her. “Oh, thank you, honey,” she said, her eyes lighting up when I handed her the coffee. I asked her how business was going. “Not good,” she said, “raining, raining too much. Nobody buy.” The winter would be worse for Panha. But she is always in good spirit. “You buy pumpkin?” she said, gesturing at some green squash. What can I do with it, I asked.

“Make soup!” she said, and we laughed, and I went back to my office.

The case for nonprofit partying

WDPIn a month, we’ll be having World Dance Party, a giant multicultural dance party and potluck. It’s free and usually draws over 200 people of all ages and backgrounds. Of all the projects VFA takes on, this one is unique. There is no fundraising, no programming. No one will present on cultural competency. There will be no surveys or focus groups. No one will be asked to put dots on a flip chart. People will eat and dance. That’s it.

So what the heck is the point? Fun. The point is fun. We as a society are stressed as all-get-out, and those of us in nonprofits are probably even worse for wear. The pay could be higher, the workload lower. We spend all our times calculating, with every meeting, every event needing to have some sort of agenda. No wonder we are burning out, with some of us considering running off to raise llamas in the Andes.

World Dance Party started two years ago, when I was invited to an Aging Your Way event held by Senior Services. I had no idea why I was invited; despite my rapidly greying hair, I’m actually not a senior. But it was a good way to avoid work and get free food, so I sat in a room with 50 other people as we envisioned a community in which we would like to grow old. Most of us do not think about our own aging, preferring to be in denial about the cadence of time and the looming approach of the Inevitable. But during those four hours, we confronted the existential and realized there can be joy and hope in growing older, no matter what our popular culture leads us to believe.

“We should have a time bank where we could help each other out using our talents,” said one voice. “We should have more handicap-accessible spaces,” said another. One by one, people stood up to shout their ideas. More gardens. More bike lanes. A multicultural heritage festival. Then, a man rose to his feet, an Asian man, his shabby clothing and unkempt hair indicating that he worked for a small nonprofit. “We should have a giant multicultural dance party, where elders and kids and people of varying backgrounds can get together and teach each other different dances. Seniors can teach youth Disco. Kids can teach seniors to Pop-and-Lock. Salsa! Merengue! Bollywood! Everyone brings a dish to share. Booze. There will also be booze for those of age!”

“Well, those ideas are just brilliant,” said the facilitator, “Now, we’re going to break into groups to actually work on implementing them.” If that man who suggested the multicultural dance party knew he would have to do actual work and organize it, he probably would have remained silent, munching on his pita and hummus.

We have put on seven World Dance Parties now, several organizations working together to coordinate each one. Each event has drawn 150 to 250 people of all ages and ethnicities. We have had dances from multiple countries, from the Horah to Bhangra to Eastcoast Swing to Tinikling. At each World Dance Party, I get a vision of what our society should be like: diverse, everyone interacts with everyone, joy radiating from every face, a giant plastic bucket of cheese puffs on the potluck table. At one point, I stood back to observe the crowd, sipping on a beer. 150 people were holding hands, engaged in an Israeli dance, while others in the room were talking and laughing. Kids were dancing with older adults. Asians were learning West African dances. It was moving. That’s the kind of community I would like to grow old in.

I wasn’t the only one who was awed by the magic in the room. A lady who was also standing back to take in the scene came up to me. “Isn’t this wonderful?” she asked, gazing at the crowd, who had now moved into a line dance called the Wobble, “we should send this out to the universe, this energy, this pure happiness. If you and I were rich, if we each owned a yacht, could we be any happier than we are tonight?”

I thought about it for a second. Then I turned to her, slightly misty-eyed, and said, “How the heck would I know?!” I work for a nonprofit, I said. How would I ever know what it’s like to own a yacht? I mean, how much do those things cost anyway? $5,000? $10,000? I’ll never have that much money! Oh, God, I’m going to die without having paid off my student loans!

OK, maybe I had one too many beers. My new friend’s point was well-taken. Seldom do we see such joy. Our organizations work to fill critical needs; rarely does a nonprofit mission statement include the words “to increase happiness.” We do not prioritize it. Oftentimes we feel guilty, as if providing happiness is less important than basic needs. A party is frivolous, we think. But isn’t happiness ultimately what our work is about? I would say that bringing people a sense of community, of joy, of humor, of connection to their neighbors, is just as important. That is why VFA will always help organize events like WDP.

***

A few months ago, we posted an announcement on our website, selling off the naming rights to our cubicles:

Let’s face it, life is short, and all of us are on a quest for immortality. People with the means can have their names on buildings and stadiums: Carnegie Hall, the Trump Tower, the Monsanto Lab for Frankensteined Produce, etc. Naming buildings costs millions, which none of us have. However, with only $1,000, you can have your name on Executive Director Vu Le’s cubicle forever. That’s sixteen square feet of immortality, and every time someone passes by, they’ll be reminded of your greatness.

Well, I’m happy to announce that we have sold off our first cubicle, thanks to the generous donations of two amazing SVP partners. The ribbon cutting for the “Emily Anthony and Julie Edsforth Cubicle for Youth and Community Engagement” will happen at VFA’s first annual Halloween party on October 30th at 6pm at the VFA office, and all friends of Emily and Julie are welcome to come and witness this historic event. If you are interested in immortalizing yourself or a loved one by having your name emblazoned on a cubicle, please let me know. Hurry! These cubicles are selling like hotcakes! (If hotcakes sell at approximate one cake every three months.)