Collective impact: Voltron Vs. The Borg


honey-bees-345620_1280A while ago, I wrote about how frustrated communities of color have been regarding collective impact (visit the Collective Impact Forum to learn more about what collective impact is and read thoughts on it).  Most CI efforts start out with the best of intentions. As they develop though, they sometimes warp into massive entities that conquer and destroy all in their paths. I liken this to Star Trek villain The Borg, a species made up of billions of individuals who got annexed into a single hive mind, whose catchphrase is “resistance is futile.” The Borg are a terrifying and destructive force, much like restricted funding or those annoying grants that make you get people to vote for your org.

I was talking about this at a training on equity, when a colleague said, “You know what collective impact should be more like?”

“The Golden Girls?” I asked.

“No. Voltron!”

Brilliant. We need to view collective impact more like Voltron. In case you are not familiar, Voltron is a giant robot from another planet, tasked with defending the universe from evil. But here’s the catch: Voltron is made up of five separate robotic lions, each with a paladin who controls it. When needed, the lions transform—one becomes a leg, one an arm, one the head, etc.—and assemble to become Voltron, a bad-ass sword-wielding space robot warrior. Here are some fundamental differences between the Borg and Voltron, and how they relate to collective impact:

Annexation versus collaboration: The Borg conquer and annex whole species of aliens. When you encounter them, you either give up your individuality and become a part of them, or you die. So many CI efforts feel like this; participating becomes non-optional, as the backbone organizations often act as gatekeepers to funding relationships. Those orgs who “resist” are put into bad places, shunned and blacklisted. With Voltron, though, the lions have to each agree to form. No one forces any of the lions to transform into Voltron. They just know that, when needed, Voltron is much more powerful than they each are individually.

Hive mind versus individual strength: As they absorbs life forms, the Borg gain their knowledge and experience, becoming even more powerful. Unfortunately, the life forms give up their individuality. With Voltron, each lion has its own strengths, individuality, and autonomy. Even when combined into Voltron, the paladins are each still in control. Yes, it must be trickier for five pilots to learn to navigate a giant sword-wielding space robot. One of them is the leader, but they have to learn to act as a team. The parallel I see for this is that it seems easier to invest only in this hive-mind, versus investing in individual organizations. But there are advantages, namely:

Rigidity versus adaptability: The problem with a hive-mind is that it is vulnerable to attacks. A single virus could wipe out the entire thing, as we’ve seen repeatedly in various sci-fi movies. Also, the hive-mind is much less flexible and adaptable. It must act as a single unit. Not so for Voltron. I did extensive research on Voltron—by watching the awesome reboot on Netflix—and in one episode, the Defender of the Universe faced a powerful monster that shot lasers at it. When the paladins realized that Voltron was not strong enough to fight it, they disassembled and flew in different directions, which made them much harder to hit than one huge target. Some distracted it, others attacked from behind, etc.

Monochromatic versus colorful: The Borg have one color, kind of a dreary grey, while each of the Voltron lions has a different color (Black, Red, Yellow, Green, Blue). This seems to be a minor point, until we realize that Borg-like collective impact efforts often fail at engaging communities of color and other diverse communities. This has been one of the collect impact movement’s greatest challenges.

Fear versus justice: The Borg are something to be feared. Sure, they have a sexy argument about joining them—namely, it’s so stressful to be an individual, to have to make decisions all the time, to suffer by ourselves; wouldn’t it be easier if we didn’t have the loneliness and existential crises of being an individual? In some ways, many collective impact efforts present these same arguments. It would be easier to work as one entity, to not have to constantly struggle alone to make a difference. But the Borg are scary, and when their argument doesn’t work, they use fear and force. I’ve seen at least a couple of CI backbone organizations that are terrifying, that seem to have forgotten the reason they were formed in the first place. Some start to believe their mission is to justify their existence, despite evidence that their existence may actually be harmful to the community. Voltron, on the other hand, has a clear mission, to fight evil and to defend the universe. Voltron’s mission is not to perpetuate Voltron. When combining is not needed, the lions separate to do their individual work.

Collective impact was founded on the idea that all of us can are more effective when we work together, rather than each doing our own thing and not communicating. I don’t think anyone disagrees with this. My organization, for example, believes that we can only change policies and systems to become equitable if we ensure communities of color are strong and have effective leaders, which is why we invest in organizations and leaders of color. We must ensure all the lions are strong, because Voltron cannot be formed to defeat evil if a single lion does not have the strength to transform into an arm or a leg. You know what I mean.

But while many CI efforts have been amazing, a few backbone organizations have become so Borg-like that instead of inspiring a common vision and effective collaboration, they create fear, dread, and divisiveness. All of us need to be aware of these challenges as we go about doing collaborative work. Here are a few things to consider:

Collective impact backbone organizations: Figure out if you are leaning more towards the Borg or if you’re more like Voltron. If you want to be more like the latter, then ensure each of the components who make up your collective effort is strong and well-funded, and not just you. Are you hogging all the funding and attention? Are you gate-keeping? Are you intentionally or unintentionally creating an atmosphere where people don’t even feel comfortable to give you feedback, or they have given up trying? Determine if your mission has morphed into one of self-preservation.

Partner organizations: Some of you that I’ve talked to have been frustrated by Borg-like collective impact efforts, especially smaller grassroots organizations led by communities that are of color, rural, LGBTQ, with disabilities, etc. Figure out which CI efforts would help you achieve your mission, which efforts are less Borg and more Voltron, which ones are willing to help strengthen your organization with resources and relationships and not just use you to make themselves look good. Learn to say no to efforts that are not a good fit, and get more comfortable with providing feedback to funders when things get too Borgy.

Funders: Resist the sexy allure of the Borg. Sure, they seem powerful and efficient and unstoppable, and you want to back a winner. And sure, Voltron, with its individuality and messiness in forming and disassembling, may seem too complicated to deal with. One of the biggest frustrations many communities have been having with CI efforts is how sometimes funders tend to only invest in the backbone organizations, sometimes even withdrawing funding from partner organizations to do so. This has proven in many instances to be bad, perpetuating resentment and weakening partner organizations, which renders the entire collective effort less effective. As I’ve mentioned earlier, a strong backbone is completely useless if there’s also not a strong heart, a strong liver, a strong pancreas, etc. The Voltron model is far superior to the Borg model because of its ability to adapt and to include diverse communities. To make that happen, you need to invest in individual organizations that make up the collective effort, including making funding processes more equitable. And understand that Voltron does not always need to form; sometimes the smaller, nimbler individual lions are much more effective when they work together in the field but are not conjoined.

Collective impact efforts must be less like the Borg and more like Voltron. They are much stronger when each and every partner organization is strong, just like Voltron can only succeed if every lion can effectively do its work. And if you are not inspired by Voltron, think of the Golden Girls. They’re each unique as individuals, but they are stronger as a group. Like Rose says, ”Dorothy, you’re the smart one, and Blanche, you’re the sexy one, and Sophia, you’re the old one, and I’m the nice one. Everybody always likes me,” to which Sophia replies, “The old one isn’t so crazy about you.” They crack me up. #BestShowEver. 

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  • Irene_B

    What do you mean by Collective Impact effort? Are you talking about national organizing networks? Since the “backbone organizations” aggregate, target, and amplify the power of groups on the ground, they only succeed if the local groups are strong and well-supported (strong liver, pancreas etc. as Vu said). I’d like to give a shout out to the Right to the City Alliance, the national organizing network the group I work for affiliates with, for consistently articulating this relationship between the work of the network and the work of the groups “on the ground” and advocating for resources for all.

    • betty barcode

      Sorta have the same question. Is Collective Impact a west coast thing? Been around upstate NY nonprofits for decades and never heard of it until discovering this blog.

      • Barbara Morrow

        Originated at Stanford. It’s hot in some New England states. As with everything, there’s the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

        • Irene_B

          Wow! Totally misunderstood what this post was about. I thought it was about the tension and competition for resources that can emerge between national networks and local groups. Now I’m at least sort of “up to speed” on Collective Impact. What I have heard so far is that it is a very top down model of change. Perhaps people are adapting it to be relevant to those of us who organize for change from the grassroots?

      • Cloggie

        I’ve seen it listed as a few different things (of course, none of them come to me at the moment). I’ve even seen a posting for something like this with the US State Department.

        Some of the time, it is right in an RFP. Essentially, you’d apply for funding to do whatever you do in a specific area and then have to find ways to coordinate your work with other orgs working in that area. The idea is that you have a multi-pronged approach to a specific issue with each prong addressed by specialists. Other funders are more subtle and simply help make connections among orgs whose work complements each other.

        As you can imagine, there are a dozen ways for this to fall apart, but it is a good concept if executed correctly.

        • betty barcode

          Thanks. Certainly the pressure to collaborate from funders in our region is intense. Every it once in a while it leads to exploitive proposals from fellow nonprofits. For example, if you’re an organization that cares for stuff (libraries, archives, museums, etc.) it boils down to “Please put an exhibit in our lobby; it’d be a great collaboration!”

          • Cloggie

            Yeah. I work for a smaller organization, which means a lot of collaborating. This summer, we had the dream. A large organization with a very large grant said they wanted to incorporate our work into an event they were planning and handed us a check that covered all of our costs.

  • Barb Welch

    Oh darn. Now I’m going to have to watch Voltron tonight.

  • abstract668

    Perfect place for me to say that the term “backbone organization” makes me want to throw up, because meat bones are gross and disgusting. Therefore I suggest calling the lead agency the “lead agency”, “central coordinator”, or “project administrator”. Voltron would work, too. Just please lose the image of a cocksplatched chicken!

  • Rick J Fritzemeier

    VU, I disagree with you about half the time, but I sure love reading your blog, zany”ness”, incredible thought process, and now amazing analogies (who would have “thunk”, Borg vs Voltran). Keep pushing me to think different.

  • LTJaeger

    Great article, and very timely for many CBO’s on the West Coast.

  • Jason Feld

    Awesome post. Totally nerded out on the Borg/Voltron analogies. 🙂