We hear a lot about the five conditions of collective impact; however, the more I’m exposed to collective impact work the more I realize it’s as much about the intangible elements as it is about process, rigor, and outcomes. The beauty of collective impact is watching a diverse set of stakeholders, who may be previously unknown to one another, break bread at the same table – they share successes, failures, hopes and dreams for their community (however they define it). The way people work together and the relationships they build with one another are critical to success. Lack of trust can derail the best intentioned collective impact efforts and stop forward progress in its tracks. The recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact, reminds us that “real change only happens at the speed of trust.”
The Importance of Trust in Collective Impact
This certainly reflects my own work in South Dallas to facilitate a community revitalization collective impact effort. This initiative marries a grassroots approach with formalized systems players to encourage social change in five focus areas – economic development, education and schools, health, housing, and safety and security. Working at a grassroots level gives a whole new meaning to trust building with different types of stakeholders – from residents to community partners to the funder and the Backbone organization. I’ve learned it’s easy to underestimate its importance, but building trust is an essential (not optional) activity in small and under-resourced communities, like South Dallas, that often have a history of misgivings – and it doesn’t happen overnight.
In small communities, relationships have deep roots – community leaders and residents have worked and lived together for decades and have intimate knowledge of one another. At its best, those relationships promote a “we’re all in this together” mentality, which supports change and propels the work forward. At its worst, toxic relationships and mistrust spread like a cancer and prevent partners from working together, stalling forward momentum. And sometimes egos and self-preservation overshadow the purpose of the work, particularly in resource-constrained environments. In the temptation to take credit versus build credibility, the common vision and greater good are easily lost.
Building Trust in South Dallas
These were valid concerns when I initially started working in South Dallas. It didn’t take long to discover that many stakeholders had a history of complicated interactions that contributed, in part, to halt forward momentum in previous community revitalization attempts. However, nine months later, the spirit of cooperation among major players has increased so significantly that territoriality has diminished to the point that it no longer hinders working together for the common good of the entire community.
With this in mind, many in South Dallas believe bringing people to the same table should be considered a win, especially if we think of it as a building block toward the collective impact tenets of continuous communication and mutually reinforcing activities. The interaction I’m witnessing in South Dallas is unusual and perhaps even unprecedented. The constructive dialogue among community stakeholders to more intentionally partner and align efforts – through serving on the leadership teams of each other’s initiatives and working towards common goals – simply wasn’t happening a year ago. Partners have established a level of cooperation that so far seems genuine and productive.
Next week, I’ll discuss a few approaches we used to build that trust in South Dallas – approaches that you can use in your own communities and collective impact initiatives.