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.

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  • Charles Lines

    Yes, strong and high profile initiatives like Collective Impact can, almost unavoidably and despite their best intentions, gain boundaries with a sense of corporateness about them which, in turn, encourage a sense of permanency and with it an almost sub-conscious bias towards long-term thinking. This means that they can find it increasingly difficult to manage one of the key paradoxes at the heart of much complex collaborative working: the need to focus on the short-term (tactical) and the long-term (strategic) at the same time.

  • Collective Impact was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. Packed my bags and left the field of philanthropy.

    In my community, it discounts the expertise of the people working in the nonprofit community and gives authority to corporate folks who have no experience working in human service. In what other field would this be allowed to happen?

    I also struggle with the equity component of CI. The example I watched allowed upper middle class white people make decisions for people of other races and in poverty. Who knows? Maybe it works in the long run. I was just too old to spend a decade watching it play out.