By Michael Hickey, Independent Community Development Consultant - Just recently I attended a very compelling conference put on by The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City, and my alma mater the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, entitled The Power of Collaboration. The title of the event comes from the very engaging article “Collective Impact,” published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Its authors make the argument that only through collaborative efforts can funders and nonprofit providers rise above the fragmentation of their service niche. The lay out a helpful framework include the following four components of effective collective action:
- Develop a common agenda: Agreeing upon both goals early on is critical, and this is most effective when all levels of the collective are engaged from the front lines, through nonprofit leadership, to stakeholders and funders. Not only will the agenda have greater depth and strength, but the collective itself will carry greater momentum.
- Share measurement systems: Common goals are only as good as the success measures put in place to monitor impacts. Keep the list of data points short, and if you can piggyback on existing data collection protocols to get your information, all the better.
- Develop mutually reinforcing activities: It’s not that every collective member needs to do the same thing, but rather that all participants should take up complementary actions and coordinate to provide comprehensive services.
- Collective action requires infrastructure: To do the job right, you frequently need a team dedicated to the task of keeping the collective itself, well, collective. Communications, data collection, planning and training are best managed through such a hub.
I love this. Makes complete sense. But here’s the rub: it places the onus for collective action on somebody somewhere taking leadership. And by leadership I mean spending volunteer time and resources to organize partners and engage in planning.
One of the great things about operating on the margins of the economy means that we are very used to taking such leadership and creating “something out of nothing” by aggregating the resources we have in greater abundance: good will, a commitment to mission, the power of the public good, and people who are willing to sacrifice comfort (money, sleep, diet) for all of the above. But there are two basic challenges:
- A Thousand Points of Light: We essentially compete with ourselves to lead, to aggregate, to create collective action. We end up competing for good will, commitment to mission, the power of the public good, and so on because those are the resources we do have access to (slim as they are). We mark territories and fear collaboration because we don’t want to lose ourselves or our position in the process.
- A Thousand Points of Night: In order to succeed we have to be willing to extend ourselves beyond our usual capacities. The great thing about having a lot of money and resources is you can always compensate someone to do something for you. When you don’t, you have to do it yourself or it doesn’t get done. That means you both push well past your comfort zone, and you probably have to take away from the mission critical work itself to leave room for addressing the bigger picture. In short, things will have to get harder before they get easier.
Why Evaluation Stinks
The problem of creating effective evaluation frameworks goes way beyond the problem of creating effective evaluation frameworks. Competing for scarce resources on the margins of the market subjects all of us (philanthropy included) to the pressures of never quite having enough. It requires leadership, true, but leadership that sees beyond itself to a collective action in which its individual role by definition must be diminished simply because it must be shared. There is no other way to achieve scaled impact when working on the edges of capitalism.
Now, here’s the good news: there’s hope. I would propose the following baby steps:
- Instead of trying to create a one-size-fits-all evaluative framework, commit to creating a more open-ended evaluation process that allows individual leaders to share the narrative of their successes. This still means creating goals and objectives, but ones that recognize the individual capacities and challenges of a particular organization, and encourages systematic growth through succeeding hurdles.
- Encourage leadership by supporting it wherever you find it. Nascent efforts to build capacity within sectors, communities, programs and so forth should all be encouraged and supported. Heaven knows we need it, and if someone is willing to commit the time and energy it takes then get behind them, lend your thinking and whatever resources you can spare.
- Encourage leadership by taking leadership. Bring leaders together wherever possible to discuss their strategies, ideas and goals. Support any effort that connects two or more leaders more firmly to one another through shared goals, measurement, complementary programming or resources.
- Push beyond your comfort zone in ceding leadership to others. If someone is on a roll, get behind them rather than trying to outdo them.
Remember: vulnerable, needy, forlorn and forgotten. We are describing not only our clients, our consumers, and our constituents – we are also describing ourselves. But there’s another important term to keep in mind: we’re also the majority. The center is small (and getting smaller), the margins are continuing to widen. In pushing back against the centrifugal forces of the market, we should never forget that we carry the greater mass by far. I mean this to go beyond simple attempts at inspiration. The system will only respond to our ability to throw off the center by creating countervailing forces. Please, I’m not calling for revolution, but the present system will not re-orient itself toward our work until it can see the direct benefits of doing so.
Michael Hickey is an independent community development consultant serving nonprofit, foundation, public sector and corporate partners in project development, strategic planning, and organizational change. Learn more at about.me/mhickey.