It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Last week, FSG had the privilege of hosting a session, “From Collaboration to Collective Impact,” at the Council on Foundations Fall Conference for Community Foundations. Over 150 conference-goers – representing a variety of geographic regions, perspectives on social change, and social issue priorities – packed a room at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis Convention Center to engage with the idea of Collective Impact. This year’s conference theme asked participants to “think bold,” “aim high” and “elevate your mission”; what better way to embrace this call to action than exploring what Collective Impact could mean for community foundations? As mentioned in previous posts by my colleagues John Kania and Javier Hernandez, funders play a unique role in Collective Impact initiatives. Whether mobilizing community stakeholders, supporting the backbone organization, or collecting and raising awareness of evidence-based strategies, funders push beyond traditional giving to play an integral role in these efforts.

Building on FSG’s core belief that experiential learning leads to deeper understanding, FSG asked foundations to dive into a role play exercise. They took on roles of different community members in a fictional town, including parents, superintendents, local business owners and after-school providers, and then discussed whether Collective Impact was an appropriate approach for addressing education concerns in their community. Throughout the room, and even into the hallway, passionate voices defended the rights of their children, or earnestly lobbied for shared accountability. It is amazing what can happen in only 30 minutes of experiencing Collective Impact. As we debriefed we heard participants talk about the importance of establishing trust and addressing ego. A consistent theme in the discussion was this process takes time, patience, and a steady commitment to build-up the capacity needed for lasting social change. In other words, this work is a marathon, not a sprint.

Becoming a Community Anchor
After giving participants a taste of Collective Impact, we used the majority of the time to talk to community foundations involved in various stages of the work. We were joined by Mark Hurtubise of Inland Northwest Community Foundation (INWCF), Evan Mendelson of Community Foundation of Southern Arizona (CFSA) and Kathy Merchant of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF). Although their efforts focused on different issue areas [education to aging communities to economic development], in different locations, with different asset sizes, all agreed that community foundations are uniquely positioned to be a part of Collective Impact initiatives because of the long-term nature of the work. “We are anchor institutions” said Merchant, “especially since [other institutions] are viewed as less viable. I think it is the community foundation’s responsibility to step up on the most important issues, [those] that require the long haul approach, because we have the patience to see it through.”

Here are some additional learnings from our panel and conference participants on what it takes for community foundations to become anchor institutions:

  • It’s About Being Open to Where Ideas Come From
    A community foundation’s involvement in determining the social issue focus of Collective Impact can happen in a lot of ways. INWCF gathered and facilitated five local task forces, to ensure selection of the issue area most pertinent to their community. CFSA catalyzed their efforts by soliciting a number of “collaborative grants” (community planning grants), then selected 4 efforts, of which 3 are currently running. In Cincinnati, the Strive initiative was already in existence, but aligned well with the community foundation’s desire to address racial disparity through education. As a result, the foundation became a major funder and partner from early in the project.
  • It’s About Supporting Capacity Building
    Instead of funding individual programs, community foundations involved in Collective Impact often focus on the “interstitial stuff” – working together, being more effective, and developing shared leadership. Every quarter, CFSA gathers the organizations in their three Collective Impact projects to address topics like evaluating systems change, collaboration 101 and shared leadership. Later, they support the organizations to incorporate what they’ve learned as they continue to address community issues in a cross-sector fashion. CFSA also has a metric to measure process, which helps groups assess their ability to work together. Similarly, the foundation has spent time educating its own board on the same issues, to ensure shared understanding and continued support of Collective Impact ideas.
  • It’s About Adapting Your Approach
    Embarking on Collective Impact work requires funders to change the way they function, and embrace a new sense of community ownership. “We have come to the conclusion that we have to break the mold,” said INWCF’s Hurtubise. “We have to look at our role in a different way, to help design a model in the community that helps us out of the marsh, into stability.” For example, Greater Cincinnati has dramatically increased its funding for education and has aligned all education grantmaking to Strive. While previously, they were funding a variety of individual programs), they later “insisted that if a nonprofit was going to come to us they needed to prove they were doing these things [Strive cradle to career approach].”
  • It’s About Working with What You’ve Got
    Our panelists stressed that lack of resources shouldn’t deter anyone from determining that Collective Impact is the right approach for their community. There isn’t an asset size cut-off for who can or can’t participate in Collective Impact. “You don’t have to be a giant,” said Hurtubise. “Any community foundation can do this work.” True community-wide efforts, because they are owned by more stakeholders than just the foundation, offer many ways to increase resources and get the job done. For example, through establishing the Priority Spokane Fund, INWCF was able to leverage additional funding from the private sector and other larger foundations. Similarly, they developed relationships with local universities who are helping with the development of metrics.

Staying the Course
I couldn’t end this post without sharing these parting words of advice from Kathy Merchant. “Manage expectations of what can and can’t be done. Stay the course. You can – and we should, as community foundations – step up to the plate and stay there. You can pull harder than anyone on this.”

We’d like to hear from you! What has this been your experience as a community foundation, funder or working with funders? What other responsibilities, actions do funders undertake as part of Collective Impact?

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