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“A Perfect Storm of Turbulent Gases” by NASA, ESA and J. Hester (NASA) / pingnews.com

This article is from the Nonprofit Quarterly’s Winter 2016 edition, “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

Principle 1: Explicitly address issues of social and economic injustice and structural racism.

As McAfee, Blackwell, and Bell stated in Equity: The Soul of Collective Impact:

Race remains the fundamental fissure in America; it compounds and perpetuates disadvantage across neighborhoods and generations…. Racial inequities persist in all sorts of policies and practices, implicitly and explicitly…. In fact, racial disparities exist on every measure of individual and community well-being.8

The reality is that race/ethnicity and social class are far greater predictors of social and economic mobility than individual ability, motivation, and hard work, in part because racial, ethnic, and class-based inequities are often entrenched in policies and practices. As Junious Williams and Sarah Marxer have said, “Without rigorous attention to persistent inequities, our initiatives risk ineffectiveness, irrelevance, and improvements that cannot be sustained.”9

The Collective Impact model not only fails to address these inequities and injustices but may, in fact, by its very nature serve to perpetuate them. For example, the model endorses multisectoral collaborations consisting of organizations that often are complicit in maintaining prevailing power dynamics that perpetuate racial and other forms of inequity and injustice. The emphasis on using “shared metrics” privileges traditional data collection for and by those in positions of power, and controls for the very contextual variables that often are part of the problem. Data on disproportionate rates of obesity and diabetes among African Americans, for example, without attention to their disproportionate rates of residence in low-income food deserts, may be used to make the case for offering courses in healthy eating rather than working to change the environments and policies that cause the lack of access to healthy, affordable foods. By contrast, data collected by community members in low-income neighborhoods (for example, the amount of shelf space in local stores that is devoted to alcohol, tobacco, and sugary snacks versus healthy foods) have been used to help pass and implement city-supported healthy retail policies and programs.10

A 2016 review of initiatives incorporating Social Determinants of Health (SDoH), commissioned by the National Academy of Medicine, provided numerous examples of multisector collaborative models.11 While some of these models focused on achieving health equity, none of them explicitly named addressing the role of structural racism as the vehicle through which they would accomplish their mission. In fact, the authors omitted any mention of structural racism or any other forms of structural inequities in their conclusions on addressing SDoH. Unfortunately, the documents, recommendations, guidelines, and models that such thought leaders put forth too often play a role in perpetuating efforts—from the individual to the systems level—to address SDoH while continuing to ignore structural racism and other forms of structural inequities.

The principles of Collaborating for Equity and Justice suggest that multisectoral, community-led coalitions explicitly address structural racism, defined as the history and current reality of institutional racism across all institutions, combining to create a system that negatively impacts communities of color. When the Boston Public Health Commission’s REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) Coalition was launched to address breast and cervical cancer health disparities, it circulated a brochure in the community that stated, “If you’re a black woman living in Boston, you have a greater chance of dying from breast or cervical cancer than a white woman. Why? Racism may play a key role in determining your health status. It may affect your access to health services, the kind of treatment you receive, and how much stress your body endures.”12 Black women in the community came to the coalition drawn by the honesty and resonance of that statement.

We suggest that collaboratives actively pursue racial justice—which we define, per Keith Lawrence and Terry Keleher’s Chronic Disparity: Strong and Pervasive Evidence of Racial Inequalities—as the creation and “proactive reinforcement of policies, practices, attitudes and actions that produce equitable power, access, opportunities, treatment, impacts and outcomes for all”—particularly for communities of color.13 The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) embodied this approach when mandating a three-day workshop for commissioners, staff, and community grantees based on a racial justice framework. Their work then focused on addressing the racism inherent in the social determinants of health that impacted the issues of concern. The Boston REACH program was one of the few funded health disparities efforts in the nation that named racism as the issue and addressed it directly, including helping staff respond to the pushback encountered when the term racism is explicitly used. (See the Collaborating for Equity and Justice Toolkit for tools and resources for this principle here.)

Principle 2: Employ a community development approach in which residents have equal power in determining the coalition’s or collaborative’s agenda and resource allocation.

Collaborating for Equity and Justice’s second principle focuses on the importance of using a community development approach that originates at the grassroots level. This approach requires that collaboratives design and implement intentional strategies to engage the community—particularly residents and those most affected by inequities and injustices—in ways that are attentive to power relations and disparities and that, ultimately, ensure that residents are equal partners.14 This means that residents are not merely providing input, serving as advisors, helping to test ideas, or interpreting information but also are fully involved at every step and in making decisions about initiatives and other matters that affect their lives.15

This also means allocating time, resources, and expertise to prepare institutional leaders and residents to engage meaningfully with each other. Such engagement can be contentious and bring to the surface conscious and unconscious racial and other biases, threaten the privilege and power of some individuals and institutions, and intensify the consequences of internalized oppression and historical trauma. As a start, white members of the collaborative must gain understanding of and reflect on their own white privilege.

The other implication is that the basics of engagement—such as transportation to meetings, child-care assistance, translation of information, interpretation during meetings, and safety of residents—must be considered and built into the process. It means avoiding the use of technical language and professional jargon in communications and facilitating meetings in ways that raise, rather than dampen, community engagement and power. The intentionality of engaging residents as equal partners and paying attention to the process is very different from Collective Impact, which advocates determining a common agenda among organizational leaders and then—and only in some cases—bringing some community representation to the table. Wolff states, “Without engaging those most directly affected, Collective Impact can develop neither an adequate understanding of the root causes of the issues nor an appropriate vision for a transformed community. Instead, the process will likely reinforce the dominance of those with privilege.”16

McAfee, Blackwell, and Bell cite Oakland, California’s early federal Healthy Start Program to reduce infant mortality among African Americans as a classic example of Collective Impact before the term achieved currency.17 Like the federal program of which it was a part, the Oakland program emphasized the centrality of high-level community engagement and leadership from the outset, with clients and local residents, community benefit organizations (CBOs), service providers, and other actors working together with the common goal of reducing infant mortality by 50 percent. That this ambitious goal was achieved is a remarkable testament to the power of collaboration that begins with community. Sadly, the most recent call for applications from Healthy Start’s funding agency (the HRSA), suggests that this focus may be lost. Local Healthy Start programs are now required to implement the Collective Impact model by setting a goal and then building “a network of nonprofits, government agencies, schools, businesses, philanthropists, faith communities, and key community leaders who create common strategies and coordinate collective activities to achieve goals over time.”18 The inclusion of key community leaders is ill defined and may well result in the inclusion of a few hand-picked community leaders known to represent the status quo rather than the interests of community residents. Indeed, the community residents and program participants are only brought in once the collaborative is formed and the strategies and activities are determined and defined.

Once community collaboratives have formed using a top-down approach, converting them to models that involve community residents as equal partners—whereby they have real influence over the agenda, activities, and resource allocation—is very unlikely. Numerous tools exist for assessing and addressing community engagement, from Sherry Arnstein’s early “ladder of participation” and the CDC’s “continuum of community engagement” to the Public Participation Spectrum developed by the International Association for Public Participation.19 These tools help community groups to differentiate between token participation and authentic, shared decision making.

Around the country, hundreds of examples may be found of high-level resident participation and leadership in collaborations that are focused on criminal justice reform, the rights of people with disabilities, and ending environmental racism. Increasingly, youth-focused coalitions, in which adults are trained to engage and work respectfully with young people as equal partners in working for change, are gaining traction.20 In such coalitions, generational differences and development of youth leadership must be worked out—and all this while ensuring that youth get the support needed to be successful academically and in life. In California’s impoverished Central Valley, low-income Latino high school–age youth were helped by two social justice organizations to share their knowledge about their greatest concerns and their learned skills in community organizing, community-based participatory research, and policy advocacy to address those concerns. The resultant youth-led coalition ¡Escuelas, Si! ¡Pintas, No! (Schools, Yes! Prisons, No!) began a multipronged campaign, titled No Child Left Behind…Bars, that garnered substantial media attention and resulted in school district and other policy changes that substantially reduced expulsions and disrupted the school-to-prison pipeline.21 (See the Collaborating for Equity and Justice Toolkit for tools and resources for this principle here.)

Principle 3: Employ community organizing as an intentional strategy and as part of the process. Work to build resident leadership and power.

A weakness in most community-based coalitions, collaborations, and partnerships is the absence of community organizing. Community organizing creates the power necessary to demand and share in decision making. Collaboratives can mistake community participation or community engagement for genuine community organizing. In such situations, advice is given to those with existing decision-making power and authority rather than enhancing the power among resident leaders in the community.

Brian Christens and Paula Inzeo identify at least three ways that community organizing initiatives differ from Collective Impact and many other coalition-driven approaches to community change.22 First, community organizing efforts are intentional about analyzing their community’s power structure and building the power of their initiative to be able to change this power structure, when necessary, to achieve greater equity and justice. Second, organizing initiatives prioritize leadership by people who are most affected by the issues of concern, rather than by those who are professionally or politically involved in working on those issues. Third, unlike CI and other approaches that emphasize only vague collaboration, community organizing initiatives also develop a capacity for conflict when it is necessary to drive important changes in policies and systems.23

The Collaborating for Equity and Justice approach recognizes that collaboratives must build and catalyze leadership at the grassroots level (and at all levels) to be able to mobilize the community and its resources, advocate for change, and engage all residents, institutions, and systems to define the problems and solutions. Many CI efforts and similar coalitions involve representatives of powerful institutions who are unlikely to embrace analyses or proposed solutions that implicate the community’s power structure. Yet, community organizing strategies for authentic change are contingent on a critical understanding of community power and how to use it to advance community-driven solutions to local concerns.24

Coalitions, collaboratives, and partnerships can learn from and partner with community organizing efforts in numerous ways. One strategy is to provide training for those involved in the coalition or partnership so that principles of community organizing can be infused into more of the collaborative’s work. For example, members of a coalition might seek to develop a deeper relationship with residents who are directly affected by issues of concern and engage them in the coalition as equal partners. When this approach is taken, professionals should play a supporting role whereby they share expertise, access, and resources but refrain from defining the problems and prioritizing the solutions.

This approach is well illustrated by Valuing Our Children (VOC), a grassroots child abuse prevention program in Athol, Massachusetts that provides leadership training for program participants (moms and dads), which led to their becoming part of the board and staff of VOC as well as of numerous other community organizations. They began a Valentine’s Day Vigil to prevent domestic violence and child abuse, and joined the advocacy efforts of the North Quabbin Community Coalition and the legislature for policy change on welfare reform, transportation, and other issues.25

Another strategy is to dedicate some portion of the collaborative’s resources to organizing activities, such as hiring a community organizer to build relationships with and engage residents as equal partners in the process—from identifying issues and potential solutions to taking direct actions for community change. One caution with this approach is that if organizers and organizing initiatives report directly to the coalition or depend on it for funding, this will inevitably stifle the “capacity for conflict” that Christens and Inzeo note as a distinguishing characteristic of organizing.26 If collaboratives are truly invested in a community organizing approach, then they must seek to provide enough autonomy and funding to the initiative so that it can take bold, independent action, including potentially challenging the coalition or some of the institutions that its members represent.

The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition in Massachusetts wanted to increase the voice of the residents in the coalition and in the community. After understanding that the community had previously had a history of strong neighborhood associations, the coalition hired a community organizer to help rebuild local neighborhood associations to become a voice in the coalition and the city.27 These new neighborhood associations became a force in the community, advocating for such local needs as playgrounds, Crime Watch, and street improvements, and held an annual citywide “Neighborhood Expo.”

A third strategy is for coalitions to explore possible synergies with existing community organizing initiatives. At least one of these initiatives now exists in nearly every midsize to large city in the United States, and such initiatives are increasingly prevalent in many other countries.28 For example, collaboratives working for racial justice and equity could seek to link with their local Black Lives Matter movements. Rather than seeking to incorporate these organizing initiatives as one more partner at the table in the coalition, those seeking to collaborate for equity and justice should understand that organizing initiatives often represent a uniquely important source of grassroots power. Often, they can take direct actions and controversial stances that would be very difficult for many other coalition members to take. Collaboratives should therefore seek to understand their shared interests with local organizing initiatives and explore ways to strategically coordinate efforts with them. (See the Collaborating for Equity and Justice Toolkit for tools and resources for this principle here.)

Principle 4. Focus on policy, systems, and structural change.

As McAfee, Blackwell, and Bell note, “Systems and policy change are integral to advancing racial equity. Without changing policies and systems, transformation at scale cannot be achieved. Policy offers the most direct route to measurable progress. But all too often collective impact practice stops at the programmatic level.” McAfee and his colleagues go on to say, “Collective impact partnerships should plan to amplify the possibilities inherent in local successes and translate the lessons and insights in