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Hope and Guts in Collective Impact Leadership

This is a story of hope, and guts.

When we talk about Collective Impact, we talk about the collaborative infrastructure that brings order to otherwise messy collaborations and the “essential intangibles” that help collective impact develop organically:  relationship and trust building, leadership identification and development, a culture of learning, connections between people, and the power of hope.  (for more on the essential intangibles, see Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work)

I recently had the honor of working with a cross-sector steering committee in Kent County, Michigan, and based on what I saw there, I’d like to add “guts” to that list.

Kent County is a welcoming, entrepreneurial, and family-friendly community, but too many kids are graduating high school not ready for college, and too many students in college aren’t ready for the workforce. To make matters worse, achievement gaps along racial and economic lines are worse than state averages. This situation is mirrored in many communities in the U.S., but it was particularly vexing for the people of Kent County because they’re known as an extremely giving community where individuals, philanthropies, schools, and faith-based organizations devote considerable resources to making the county a better place to live. But the change they wanted to see wasn’t happening. For lack of a better word, they were stuck.

But the leaders of Kent County didn’t want to accept that.

Halfway into developing a Common Agenda for change, the k-connect Steering Committee leadership said “we should have a community forum. We need to involve the community, tell them what we’re doing, and listen to them.” And when I asked how many people they wanted at this forum, they said “oh, about 150.” I was in shock. Clearly they meant we would invite 150 people but expect about 30 to show up. But no, the Steering Committee wanted 150 people to come together and give feedback on a 2-month old common agenda. And they wanted to pull everything together in the next month and a half.

We put all our efforts behind the event: in partnership with the steering committee, we recruited community members and planned a 2.5-hour agenda. Throughout it all, the Steering Committee leadership had confidence. They had the guts to say “this will work; we have to do this.”

A little before noon on October 9th, 2012, community members started coming to the ballroom we had reserved. Then some more came. Then some more. And at 5 minutes before we had planned to start the event, our two registration tables were overwhelmed with people paying their $10 to come participate. So did people come? Yep. About 150 of them, just as the Steering Committee predicted.

During the event, members of the steering committee presented some unflattering data that not everyone wanted to hear. But by doing so, the steering committee showed the guts to “step out” as community leaders who were putting their name to this initiative. We then went into breakout groups where all participants expressed their concerns and hopes. Lastly, we led all 150 attendees in a paired exercise in which they talked directly with one another. Although there is so much work to be done as collective impact unfolds in Kent County, the Community Forum was undoubtedly a success.

The people at this community forum had every reason to disregard CI as just another initiative.  They have seen initiatives come and go and were well aware of the wasteland of good-hearted initiatives that fell apart after a few years.  Why, then, did they all show up at this event?  Two reasons:  

  1. Hope - They were hopeful because they saw collective impact was different than what had been tried in the past.  To witness 150 community members discussing a common vision and getting excited about how they can work together – that was hopeful.  I believe that this hope will help drive sustained collaboration in Kent County.
  2. Guts - The Steering Committee leadership had the guts to think big.  They had the GUTS to say “we’re going to change things dramatically AND we’re going to do it in a way that’s transparent with the community.”

As visible leaders of the collaboration, the Steering Committee leadership took a risk by bringing the community together.  But it also took hope and guts for those 150 community members to be open to the idea that game-changing progress can be made in Kent County. 

Learn more about Kent County's collective impact initiative, k-connect.

David Phillips

Former Associate Director, FSG