"Collective Impact" -- Resistance is Futile (Point of Vu)

We're pleased to announce that Vu Le -- who wrote last issue's hilarious and popular article about foundation site visits -- has joined Blue Avocado as a regular humor columnist. By day: executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association in Seattle; by night: caped crusader for humor. We're calling his column: Point of Vu.

In the past few years, the concept of Collective Impact (CI) has covered lots of ground, often with great results. Concerted efforts can kick some serious butts and do it more sustainably, too. Look at the examples such as Strive and others profiled by consultants and foundations. CI efforts are characterized by a common agenda, shared measurements, mutually reinforcing activities, constant communication, a backbone organization, and monthly happy hours.

However, like taking naps at work, Collective Impact should be done strategically and sometimes not at all.

Recently, I've started seeing it become more and more like the Borg in Star Trek, a species that assimilates other life forms in a quest for dominance and perfection. Controlled by a hive mind that neutralizes any sort of individualism, and comprising billions of annexed individuals, they are strong and terrifying, like an army of zombie robots, each with one eye that has a laser beam. Resistance is futile since any entity that tries to put up a fight is either assimilated, loses its identity or else destroyed.

That, unfortunately, is what it feels like sometimes by those of us on the ground: the nonprofits that work directly with individuals and families. While no one is arguing with the importance and effectiveness of collective impact, it can be a little frustrating. Three or four times this year, we were told by various funders we need to align with The Borg. (There are several great CI efforts all around, so by "The Borg," I am not referring to any specific one). Program officers, who are the Sherpas on the oftentimes Everestian slopes of foundation applications, have seen this shift in paradigm and have been trying to be helpful.

Once in a while, I get a call like this:

Program Officer: I'm calling to provide some feedback on your proposal. Are you in a secure location?

Me: Yes. I just walked into the bathroom.

PO: You need to mention a little bit more about your work with the Borg. The review team is looking for projects that really align with the Borg's strategy.

Me: All right, we can expand that section. Thank you.

PO: I never called you. This conversation never happened.

Sometimes, we actually align with the Borg, in which case I'm happy to expand on how wonderful it is to be assimilated into the Borg hive mind. But occasionally we do not align. Heck, once in a while it makes no sense to be.

As powerful as the Borg are in Star Trek, they were never able to assimilate members of Species 8472, which look kind of like bugs, but that’s neither here nor there. Species 8472 is just so biologically different and incompatible, assimilation would only lead to disaster.

A parallel can be made with Collective Impact efforts that try to involve communities of color, who have unique strengths and needs. Oftentimes, the first instinct is to assimilate everyone under one umbrella, and that could work. However, sometimes it does not work, and it may not necessarily be anyone's fault. Several umbrellas may be needed.

Another frustration I've seen is funders shifting the funding priorities from direct service work to Collective Impact efforts and backbone organizations. Queries about support for direct impact programs often come back with "Sorry, we are now prioritizing funding the Borg's work. Maybe you should go talk to them."

This is extremely frustrating. While the push is for everyone to align with CI efforts, the funding is not equitable. Direct service organizations, especially the ones that focus on communities of color, can only be involved in these amazing, region-wide efforts if we are strong and stable and have credibility with our clients.

Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) has been getting requests to join various CI efforts and we have become more and more involved. If we were to shut down our after-school, leadership, parental engagement, and community-building work, no one would approach us, because we would have no connection or credibility. In order for these major collective impact efforts to succeed, funders must continue funding direct service organizations in parallel.

Much more importantly, however, is that clients may not be able to afford the time that it often takes for Borg-like efforts to achieve perfection. CI usually takes years. A kid who is failing school or an elder who needs food doesn't have years. I just talked to a principal of a school with 90% low-income kids of color. She would love a common agenda and shared measurements and fully supports the work in this area. But right now her school desperately needs an after-school tutoring program because many students are several grades behind and they go home to empty houses and get no support.

In the Star Trek universe, there are few things more terrifying than a Borg invasion: they sweep through and assimilate or destroy everything. They absorb all resources. Collective impact should not have to be like that. The premise for collective impact is that we can do things much better by working together than by working in isolation. This is a premise that all of us on the ground fully believe in. But funding must be equitable and direct service must be simultaneously supported.

Vu Le is the executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), a Seattle nonprofit that provides academic, youth leadership, and community engagement programs for immigrants and refugees, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese.

Like any other ED, he comes home exhausted from hours of telling staff what to do and taking credit for their work. To de-stress, he writes humor columns about nonprofit stuff. This Halloween, he plans to dress up as a Borg drone and go around the neighborhood taking all the candies. Vu can be reached at vu.le at vfaseattle dot org.

Comments (11)

  • I agree completely. If you're a small organization you always have to send the executive director and it ends up being a huge percentage of the total staff time in our organization. I need a grant just to pay for my time going to meetings with the Borg!

    Oct 02, 2012
  • I know what you mean. I have 20 to 25 meetings a week. This barely leaves anytime to do important ED things, like updating the budget, yelling at staff, and watching clips of the Daily Show.

    Oct 17, 2012
  • Great piece. But can we ask the Powers that Be to reset the search options on the Blue Avocado website so that we can search for articles that Vu Le writes now and in the future? I just tried to bring up his last article for Blue Avocado. It is noted in the opener of your piece, but not by article title, so I tried to search by his name. Here's the error message I got back: "You must include at least one positive keyword with 3 characters or more." So the search options assume that Blue Avocado authors have names that are three characters or longer -- clearly not the case here. Anyway, welcome Vu Le and thank you!

    Oct 16, 2012
  • Got our tech team working on this....thanks for letting us know!

    Oct 16, 2012
  • Thank you for the warm welcome! I never knew my short name would cause so much trouble. Vu

    Oct 17, 2012
  • The title of his last piece is, "Humor: The Uncomfortable, Terrifying Site Visit"

    Oct 16, 2012
  • Great article! Our agency has been involved in a "Borg Collective" for two years and has experienced many of the same issues brought up by Vu. Particularly striking are his observations about the impact of a collective impact strategy on smaller agencies--which in our area tend to serve people of color and be run by people of color. These agencies are trying to get their point of view across to the funders in charge of the CI but are often perceived as troublemakers by the established agencies. How can we get this message out without being dismissed as naysayers?

    Oct 16, 2012
  • Agencies in Seattle face similar concerns. Funders here are aware of the needs of smaller organizations, especially ones focused on serving communities of color. However, we've been seeing funding going to larger organizations and collective impact orgs. Communities of color need to speak up, but having "champions" among key funders and other organizations who get it go a long way. Funders and CI organizations need to understand the danger of having CI efforts that are not reflective of community demographics and needs. There is success, failure, and also something worse than failure, which is succeeding in a fundamentally wrong way. These "troublemakers" are a critical voice and should be considered a resource and supported to participate. It is challenging, given the lack of time and resources, but small organizations, along with their champions, should try to come together, collectively, and speak as one voice to raise their concerns to funders and CI orgs.

    Oct 17, 2012
  • Thanks Vu - great thoughts about CI. There's definitley something to be said about individuality vs. common agenda. One solution is in the new FSG report about collective impact for youth. They cite Philadelphia's U-Turn as a successful example.U_turn has no MOUs or formal agreements between partners yet are able to meet collective impact goals. This allows them to retain individuality while being part of the collective. More like Voltron than the Borg.

    Oct 18, 2012
  • Well done! I agree completely. I absolutely believe in collaboration, but its really frustrating to hear of funders offering large CI groups money to to pay evaluators and statisticians while denegrating the actual direct work with the service population as "just a bandaid" that should find ways to be self-supporting. (their offices are nicer, too) Ok, that was venting; I'm over it now, i guess.

    Oct 18, 2012

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