As practitioners, advisors and consultants to funders, conveners and conductors of community collaboration, we have observed collaboration and collective impact in communities across the country. From our on-the-ground experience, we have seen it done well, and not so well.
In this first of a two-blog series, we’ll provide several guideposts about how funders can better see the communities they are working in and more effectively navigate their relationships in those communities.
Identify and understand community knowledge
Don’t assume you have a clear understanding of the everyday reality in a community because you talked to a few people there. You have to dig deep and listen for different kinds of knowledge and experience on issues. Rarely is a problem or a solution so new that no one else has been looking at it. Someone is working on this issue somewhere, maybe in a part of your community you’re less familiar with. Often, as you dig in to first learn about the problem, you will discover different angles, and may well find ways to add value instead of overtaking existing efforts.
Seek out data for learning
Be careful as you acquire and consider data—we have seen it both over and undervalued. Easy accessibility to data doesn’t mean it’s presented in a way that illuminates the dimensions of community issues. Data has to add meaning, and we have to learn to ask the right questions. We need to use data to check our assumptions and we need to understand what’s really behind the data:
- Ask for data to be broken down into different subgroups and dimensions. Aggregate city, county, or state data is rarely informative enough to drive a strategy.
- Go beyond percentages. When somebody tells you 15% of young people have this problem, ask, “Is that 200 people or 20,000?” We miss scale when we’re looking at percentages.
- Consider cohorts. When your data source includes data over time, be sure to ask to see data on the same people over time. For example, a school that has 50% of kids reading on grade level in 3rd grade, what was that group of kids like when they arrived in Kindergarten? In 1st or 2nd? What has happened to the same kids over time?
Avoid “picking winners”
When you work to support making collaboration happen, you have to pay close attention to competitive dynamics tied to receiving support. Take your time to find out who is really moving the issue on the ground, not just those who can quickly sound articulate about your challenge. This is a key place to watch your biases on who you know because it’s easy to tap people already in your network. To get collaboration right, you may need to support new partners who can create forward movement.
One approach to consider is to follow the lead of the community most effected by the issue. Consider how you can engage community members more authentically in planning, decision-making and the allocation of resources.
It’s about relationships built on trust
To move the needle on community issues, we have to build trusting relationships that will sustain change over time. It’s easy to focus on action and results while not tending to the trust building needed to make things last. Take time to create intentional efforts to build trust. Many communities are tired of talking about problems, seeing studies undertaken, and having private and public sector funders come and go—so understand why they may not trust you coming to the table to insert your thinking.
Take a cue from international relations, and create confidence building measures. Start by doing small things together; this action itself will help all parties learn how to work together. Measure and monitor these relationships just like you can measure and monitor outcomes. Focus on building trust and relationships as much as changing a specific community outcome.
David Moore is President of Moore Strategic Consulting. He has more than 25 year of experience in the nonprofit and education sector, leading organizations, teams and partnerships. He has a track record as an effective leader within nonprofit organizations, as well as a trusted advisor providing strategic leadership, investment strategy design, and leadership development. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeffrey M. Glebocki is Founder & Lead Advisor of Strategy + Action/Philanthropy. He is Foundation Coordinator for the Doll Family Foundation, and has served as executive and senior program staff for several private and family foundations. He is on the faculty of Exponent Philanthropy and a former Exponent Philanthropy board member. His email is email@example.com.