Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fly Fishing Your Way to Collective Impact

The Roaring Fork River flows through the canyon behind my room at the Aspen Meadows Resort - home of the first conference on the Funder's Role in Collective Impact -- so it shouldn't surprise anyone that reads my fly fishing blog that I spent the night reflecting on how my one passion informs what has become my life's work.

Look and learn before wading in. Many fly anglers, even experienced ones, assume the most (and certainly the largest) trout are up against the far bank. It seems nine out of 10 anglers immediately wade into a river, stripping out line trying desperately to reach the far shore. In the process they spook the fish holding tight against the near bank, cause a ruckus with their aggressive wading and quickly discover that there are too many competing river currents to get a good drift on the far side. A river is a complex system. Just because one has seen one river doesn't make one an expert on a new river. And even if a river has been fished before an angler should take the time to understand what has changed since the last visit, because like all complex systems a river is constantly changing. Take the time to stand at the bank, observe, learn how the fish are responding to their environment and watch some more before wading in.

Funders of collective impact need to do the same. Patrick McCarthy, CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said yesterday that advocates of collective impact cannot be in a hurry -- either to define the high level vision or shape governance. Stakeholders need to learn together and develop a shared understanding of each other's interests, as well as their collective aspirations. Learning before wading is costly, time consuming and sometimes frustrating; but the dividends are great.

Junious Williams of the Urban Strategies Council, made a strong case for the value of accessible, transparent data in helping communities achieve change. We need robust data that enables us to see the integrated relationships among the systems we are trying to influence within our communities, he said. Using data to inform decision making rather than wading in -- assuming one knows the answers -- is a critical part of the collective impact framework.

Williams, McCarthy and others emphasized the need to understand the needs of the individuals whose lives we are trying improve by actually engaging them in the change process. Paul Schmitz of Public Allies said the best people to work on neighborhood change are the residents themselves. They should be engaged, and even hired to help lead the change.

Pay attention to what's below the surface. The vast majority of trout are caught not on beautiful, delicate dry flies that float on the river's surface, but on chunky, hairy nymphs that bounce along the bottom. This requires the angler to understand the dynamics of river currents and the effects of obstacles -- such as boulders and logs -- on trout.

The Funder must also understand the power dynamics within the complex system -- including how their mere presence in the process influences those dynamics. Good data adds transparency to the system, Williams said; just as polarized sunglasses can bring some transparency to the river bottom.

McCarthy said that issues of race, class and equity are often hidden below the surface of community conversations. Because we are uncomfortable with such conversations we are eager to reach agreement on a high level vision that seems to address these issues, such as this vision for a neighborhood redevelopment effort: "All families will be better off." Yet, the stakeholders never take the time to understand what each other means by being "better off."

Schmitz echoed an earlier post here by saying that collaboration requires conflict. This work requires people to change their behavior and that is an inherent source of conflict. That conflict is often below the surface, hidden from view. But eventually it will come out and disrupt the collaborative process. Funders and designers of collaborations need to develop a process that surfaces the conflict within the "collaboration room," or else it will surface outside the safe space of the collaboration and cause even more conflict.

Fish close in. As noted above, most anglers are inclined to fall in love with the long cast even though actually catching a trout requires an angler to be in constant contact with the fly. Long casts make both sensing the take and setting the hook very challenging. And more often than not, a long cast results in an unnatural drift, spooking the trout.

Many funders, particularly foundations, have a habit of keeping their distance from their grantees. There are a variety of reasons -- including a sincere desire to allow the experts in the field to do their work without excessive interference. But working on sustained community change is not traditional grantmaking and as Ben Hecht of Living Cities said, it requires an engaged grantmaker. "You need a point of view," he said. It is very hard to develop that point of view from a distance.

Muscle memory matters. Weather and work often conspire to keep fly anglers off the water for months. And many of us think it's just like riding a bike and we can resume accurate casting without any practice. Not so much. There is both an art and a science to fly casting; and like all such hybrid activities it requires practice.

Stacey Stewart of United Way Worldwide described collective impact as the building of new community muscle that results in civic confidence. Building those new muscles takes hard work. And Hecht added that most people aren't technically proficient at using the muscles required to work and/or lead collaboratively in complex systems.We must learn to build these muscles and get proficient at using them.

Schmitz of Public Allies said leadership requires us to practice the values that engage with others -- not engage to or engage at. This practice of collaboration doesn't come naturally -- it requires preparation, dedication and commitment. In this way it isn't like fly fishing at all. Fly fishing is relaxing and pure pleasure. In contrast, collaborating to achieve collective impact is, as McCarthy said, "awfully tough work."

But it's worth it.

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