Ask Me About Building Leadership and Creating a Culture for Collective Impact

Posted 4 years ago at 7:37 am

Hello, Everyone.

As part of the Collective Impact Forum’s new “Ask Me About” initiative, I am here to help answer your questions and provide any guidance that I can share that could assist with what you are working on right now.

My work over the past two decades at Public Allies and through other efforts has been focused on building authentic, collaborative, and inclusive leaders; helping diverse leaders define and achieve common goals; and supporting efforts to engage community members as assets and partners in solving community problems. As Senior Advisor to The Collective Impact Forum, I have been focusing on leadership development, community engagement, and how to build a culture for effective collaborative work. I'd be interested in your thoughts and questions on these important topics.

What challenges are you working through in regards to leading your collective impact initiative? When you think about the issues that you are facing now, what comes to mind?

As part of “Ask Me About,” I’m here to listen and share ideas where I can. This thread will be open for the next week, through March 3, for you to share your questions and reflections.

What would you like to talk about?


Betsy Stubblefield Loucks

backbone organization

I'm the new lead staff for the backbone organization in an ongoing CI effort in Rhode Island. This effort is about 1.5 years old, and is in the implementation stage. Two questions:

1-I'd like to know more about how to keep my action team leaders engaged and taking responsibility for the work, but also support them so that they feel like the work is possible and organized and part of the larger shared effort and vision. How do I navigate that fine line between doing supportive work but not taking over ownership of the projects?

2- What are some ways to provide sense of momentum and belonging to a unified cause beyond large group meetings?


thank you- this is an amazing resource!!

Submitted by Betsy Stubblefield Loucks on Wed, 2015-02-25 09:12

Paul Schmitz

technical assistance provider / consultant, funder community of practice

Good questions, and ones I can contribute to but would suggest connecting to other backbone leaders and facilitators as well.

1. There is always a challenge as a leader of an effort like that of calibrating the right amount of responsibility/direction with delegating and sharing responsibility with others. It is indeed a fine line. I think that one of the roles of a backbone leader is to work with everyone to agree on the work, delegate it out, and ensure that there are clear accountability mechanisms and even ask the group how we should hold each other accountable for the work. Seek their agreement for the role you will play in holding them accountable, and be transparent about wanting the work shared. It may be also helpful to gauge where this work sits in their priorities and what their competing priorities are. It may help you understand better what is on individuals' plates and where this work falls. The big thing here is talk about with the group and perhaps use activities that surface these discussions and agreements.

Two books I would recommend that help me think about this stuff. One is The Responsibility Virus by Roger Martin. I also think that Heifetz, Alinsky, and Grashow's The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.

2. In community organizing, there is the idea that you have to have some small, concrete wins to keep people engaged for the longer, bigger wins. You might think about what are some short term wins (milestones toward your larger goal, specific collaborations that could not have happened in past, difficult agreements, new impacts or experiments) that can be achieved and celebrated. Establishing and celebrating milestones may help.

The other thing to keep in mind is that this work is about relationships, and attention to relationships is important work that can seem unimportant on the surface. Underlying both of these questions is how do you define the culture of your collective impact effort? If the group has agreed upon values, groundrules, a focus on relationship and trust building activities, goals and milestones, etc, then you can enforce that. It is an intentional process, and the more you can surface people's interests, fears, incentives, etc., the more you can have honest conversations about what needs to get done. It sometimes just takes time for the group norms and trust to build and the plan to become clear, but if done right then people should be motivated to serve each other and the greater goal.

I hope this is helpful, and am sure other backbone efforts have other ideas.

Submitted by Paul Schmitz on Tue, 2015-03-03 11:30

Linda Sandquist

backbone organization

Our United Way is working on several Collective Impact projects.  Unfortunately, as we all know happens, our progress seems to be rather slow and steady. Recently two other organizations have come out and said they are taking on projects we have already earmarked as part of our common agenda ---- they are now taking ownership of the projects.  How do we ensure that we continue to be the backbone organization?  Our agency is clearly the one with the credibility and the capacity to move things forward.  This is turning into a turf war.  Help!

Submitted by Linda Sandquist on Wed, 2015-02-25 09:19

Paul Schmitz

technical assistance provider / consultant, funder community of practice

Ugh! This is a hard one to answer with limited information and understanding of relationships and context. Here are some rough ideas of how I would look at it.

I would meet with the CEO of each of the groups. If you are not the CEO, I would have your CEO lead it. I would also consider involving any influential board members or collective impact partners. You may want to express a little power in setting this up. I would sit down with the groups, I would explain the process, the goals, and who has come to the table. I would ask them why they have chosen not to play with the group? I would ask why they believe that working outside the common agenda will acheive better results for the populations you are serving? I would also try and identify what interests they have that compell them to work outside of the effort. They may have pressure from funders, board members, drive for reputation, etc. that is driving this work and I would try and make those interests explicit.

This is "Difficult Conversations" stuff (there is a good book with that title), and adaptive leadership issue in terms of surfacing the conflict and the interests (The Practice of Adaptive Leadership has some good activities). I think the important thing is to bring clarity about your interests, why you believe this is conflicting with those interests, and why you believe that will not be good for the lareger community good. It is time to surface and talk about turf. 

Again, this is tough to answer without more context, but I hope it is helpful, and I would welcome others to share their ideas.

Submitted by Paul Schmitz on Tue, 2015-03-03 11:38

Veronica Borgonovi

backbone organization, funder of initiatives, technical assistance provider / consultant, blog contributor

Hi Linda and Paul,

Thank you both for the thoughtful post and response. As Paul said, ugh! This is clearly a challenging place to be, and you're not alone in experiencing something like this. 

I also agree with Paul that it's tough to respond without more context. I'll share a few thoughts that may be helpful, though please take them with a grain of salt given I don't know the specifics of your situation.

When you speak with these other organizations, it may help to think carefully about language. For example, "our" common agenda could be interpreted as your organization's agenda, versus the community's agenda. Who is the common agenda serving, and how can you effectively communicate that so these other organizations can see this work is part of a larger whole? Do they agree with the common agenda? If not, what are their concerns? If so, what do they believe are the specific assets they can align against it? And how can you together reconcile the assets available against the roles to be played?

You mentioned that your agency has the credibility and capacity to serve as the backbone. Can you have an authentic conversation with these other leaders to discuss how to resource the CI effort appropriately? Would having them help lead specific projects mean that you're actually freed up to more effectively serve as the backbone for the entire effort? Is there a way to carve out roles so that collectively you're serving all stakeholders who need to receive the benefits of these projects (again, without context it's tough for me to know whether this question even makes sense)? If there is tension between your organizations due to vested interests in the outcomes (competing for scarce resources), is there someone participating in the effort or affected by the issue who is perceived as neutral and could effectively help facilitate these conversations? Can you collectively partner to seek out additional resources if you feel full participation by all organizations would be most powerful? These conversations can be very challenging, and hopefully maintaining a focus on the goals (the common agenda) can help participants be open and honest about potential ways to partner in bringing about the change you seek. Making time to develop trusting relationships with these leaders may also be key, rather than just going straight in to a conversation about "turf."

This sounds tremendously challenging and I do hope others will also weigh in on this. Please keep us updated on how this moves forward! Best wishes,


Submitted by Veronica Borgonovi on Tue, 2015-03-03 14:25

Paul Schmitz

technical assistance provider / consultant, funder community of practice

Thanks Veronica for adding your wisdom to this!

Submitted by Paul Schmitz on Thu, 2015-03-05 20:54

I am interested in hearing about the first steps to introducing collective impact as a positive shift in thinking to groups of program directors from multiple sectors who are steadfastly rooted in fighting for the lives of their programs.  These are passionate, dedicated folks who are tired, underfunded, and feeling unheard.  Some are already angry.  The thought of aligning work or collaboration sounds like a clever ploy from the state to create "efficiencies" to save even more money and continue to underfund efforts.  It also sounds like way more work, which they don't feel they have time for with the amount of clients they have needing them.  Trust has been broken at several levels, I think mostly between our state and these directors.  How could United Ways or other potential backbone orgs start approaching this conversation with program directors in an empowering way? 

Submitted by Jodi Clark on Wed, 2015-02-25 10:46

Paul Schmitz

technical assistance provider / consultant, funder community of practice

Great questions Jodi.

I think the first steps are:

(1) Use data to establish that (a) lots of good work is being done, but (b) the needle isn't moving (i.e., we have lots of programs achieveing great outcomes, but our population-level result isn't moving). We can't keep doing the same thing if we are not seeing the result improve. I know we all care and work hard, but we have to find a new way to work that can add up to better change.

(2) Share examples from other cities that demonstrate that this approach can help groups take a leap toward better outcomes. Explain why it is different from normal collaborations. I always focus on 3 core innovations: (a) shifting the unit of analysis from the organization to the comminity and figuring out how to move the population wide outcome; (b) collaboration isn't a side project but becomes the core of what we do - our efforts are aligned and measured through the common agenda; and (c) there is a backbone group or leaders who facilitate the process, keep us all working together, and hold us all accountable.

(3) To launch this kind of work, the first thing we need to do is build relationships and trust. It will take some time, but for this to work we need to build a new culture. We will hold the population level result we want to achieve as the unifying interest. We all want to acheive this, and wouldn't our community be better in so many ways if we did. Wouldn't it feel great to know you are not just achieving outcomes but that your city has solved a problem like reducing teen pregnancies by half or increasing graduation rates 20%? Be clear about the process and that the first part will be culture-building and developing the common agenda. The backbone leaders/group should be identified and should include  people who are respected for being fair and honest brokers.

I went to a launch event in one city where in the first 2 hour meeting with about 70 organizational and public leaders they spent the first hour talking about how race impacted the issue and the community context in which it has to be solved. The Mayor was in the room and heard a lot of things that probably were uncomfortable. But it started to define a culture in which honest conversations would be had, difficult issues would not be ignored, truth would be spoken to power. It let people know this would be different, and it has been. Think about how a launch meeting could define not just the common agenda or goal but define the culture and demonstrate how this will be different.

I'm sure my colleagues at The Collective Impact Forum have additional thoughts on how groups have launched this work

Submitted by Paul Schmitz on Tue, 2015-03-03 11:52

Mona Farid-Nejad

technical assistance provider / consultant

Hello Paul,

I am a doctoral student interested in studying the intersection of culture, collective impact and evaluation. My aim is to understand how best to go about creating a facilitative and collaborative culture for maximum impact. I would like to base my research on practical issues facing practitioners of collective impact initiatives. Given your experience in this area, where would you say there is the greatest need for research? What are the questions you have yet to find answers for?

Thank you in advance for your time. 

Submitted by Mona Farid-Nejad on Thu, 2015-03-05 19:44

Paul Schmitz

technical assistance provider / consultant, funder community of practice

It would be interesting to see if groups that spend more time up front focused on building and practicing inclusive, collaborative cultures have different experiences than those who don't pay as much attention to culture as they go forward. It would be interesting to find a few paired examples - more top down and faster vs more inclsuive and a bit slower -- and examine the challenges and successes they achieve going forward and compare. We have lots of anecdotes about these issues but it would be great to get more research that backs up or disproves what we have been seeing in terms of the investment in relaitonship building and trust and the attention to inclusion and racial equity...

I'm sure there are others with more research/evaluation experience who have other ideas. 

Submitted by Paul Schmitz on Thu, 2015-03-05 20:53

Paul Schmitz

technical assistance provider / consultant, funder community of practice

I also think navigating power dynamics in collective impact - funders/organizations, big organizations/small organizations, government leaders/community members -- is an important topic for exploration. What can we learn about best practies for managing these dynamics to ensure everyone at the table feels fairly engaged and invested in working together. This is a ripe area for some research into best practices and lessons learned. 

Submitted by Paul Schmitz on Thu, 2015-03-05 20:57

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