Collaborating for Equity and Justice: Moving Beyond Collective Impact

Nonprofit Quarterly By , , , , , , , , AND  

This article comes from the Winter 2017 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Social Media: The New Nonprofit Nonelective.”

The United States has historically struggled with how to treat all its citizens equitably and fairly while wealth and power are concentrated in a very small segment of our society. Now, in the face of growing public awareness and outcry about the centuries-long injustices experienced by African Americans, Native Americans, new immigrants, and other marginalized groups, we believe that our nation urgently needs collaborative multisector approaches toward equity and justice. For maximum effectiveness, these approaches must include and prioritize leadership by those most affected by injustice and inequity in order to effect structural and systemic changes that can support and sustain inclusive and healthy communities. Traditional community organizing and working for policy change will supplement the collaborative approach. We believe that efforts that do not start with treating community leaders and residents as equal partners cannot later be reengineered to meaningfully share power. In short, coalitions and collaborations need a new way of engaging with communities that leads to transformative changes in power, equity, and justice.

To that end, a group of us have developed a set of six principles under the name “Collaborating for Equity and Justice.” Drawn from decades of research, organizing, and experience in a wide range of fields, these principles facilitate successful cross-sector collaboration for social change in a way that explicitly lifts up equity and justice for all and creates measurable change. We do not propose one specific model or methodology, recognizing that no single model or methodology can thoroughly address the inequity and injustice facing communities that have historically experienced powerlessness. Instead, we provide principles linked to web-based tools that can be incorporated into existing and emerging models and methodologies, toward developing collaborations that will increase the likelihood of systemic and lasting change that ensures equity and justice for all community members.

The principles we developed were also in response to popular use of what we perceive to be a flawed model: Collective Impact (CI). Foundations, government agencies, health systems, researchers, and other actors in the past relied on sophisticated collaborative models, such as Frances Butterfoss and Michelle Kegler’s Community Coalition Action Theory, Tom Wolff’s Power of Collaborative Solutions Model, and Pennie Foster-Fishman and Erin Watson’s ABLe Change Framework.1 However, some leading foundations and important government agencies eagerly sought a simpler way to create large-scale social change through multisector collaboration. When John Kania and Mark Kramer introduced their model of Collective Impact, its five core tenets and basic phases showed similarities to earlier models, but it was more appealing in its simplicity and marketability.2 The CI model was introduced in a six-page essay without pilot testing, evaluation, or significant actual experience in developing coalitions, yet government agencies and foundations quickly adopted and endorsed it. (It was revised the following year, but the revision did not substantively improve the model.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), and philanthropic funders incorporated it into calls for proposals. Professional organizations also embraced CI. It was the theme of the 8th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference in 2015 (cosponsored by Kaiser Permanente and the California Department of Public Health, among other organizations).

CI is described as a systematic approach that engages both organizations and individuals affected by a given issue of concern and organizations and individuals influencing that issue. Yet the model presents serious limitations, such as its failure to cite advocacy and systems change as core strategies, engage those most affected in the community as partners with equal power, and directly address the causes of social problems and their political, racial, and economic contexts. Critiques of CI have been offered by nonprofit sector leader Vu Le, who stresses the fallacy of the model’s “Trickle-Down Community Engagement” approach and “Illusion of Inclusion”; PolicyLink leaders Michael McAfee, Angela Glover Blackwell, and Judith Bell, who stress equity as the missing “soul” of Community Impact; Tom Wolff, in “10 Places Where Collective Impact Gets It Wrong”; and Peter Boumgarden and John Branch, whose article “Collective Impact or Coordinated Blindness?” appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (as did “Collective Impact,” Kania and Kramer’s first essay on the subject).3

The model’s utility in practice has further been questioned by researchers who attempted to employ and test CI in collaborative efforts to address problems such as food insecurity, and found it less useful than other well-developed, community-driven models.4 The themes that have emerged from this growing critical literature include using a top-down business model rather than a community building and development approach; the lack of a racial justice core as essential to the work; omitting creative and diverse contributions from grassroots stakeholders as equal partners; imposing shared metrics; and not acknowledging previous research and literature.5

To their credit, the framers of and later contributors to the CI model have continued to modify the approach, most recently developing the Collective Impact 3.0 model, which adds new conditions, including “community aspiration” and “inclusive community engagement,” and has a stated focus on “movement building.”6 Yet, as discussed in this article, the meaning and level of commitment to such phrases—and the lack of meaningful evaluation of the old or newer renditions of the model—are deeply problematic. Further, although the revisions in CI 3.0 and other suggested modifications draw greater attention to equity and justice, they do not explain how CI’s top-down collaborative model, which doesn’t include those most affected by the issue in shared decision making, can be fundamentally reengineered after the fact for true inclusion and equity. We have yet to see evidence that CI can accomplish this.

We cannot continue to accept or slightly modify the CI model and expect to move forward. We cannot repair a model that is so heavily flawed regarding equity and justice. It is time to move beyond Collective Impact. The following six principles for collaborative practice that promote equity and justice are linked to tools and resources created on the Collaborating for Equity and Justice Toolkit website, a new Community Tool Box WorkStation, aimed at helping collaborative solutions to succeed.7


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