Community Engagement for Collective Impact: Lessons From Alaska

People who run collective impact efforts say one of their toughest tasks is keeping community engagement going beyond the “summits” where everyone gets fired up. What does it mean to keep communities engaged in the mission that they’ve signed on for? Why is it so hard to do this well?

I mused on these questions in an earlier blog (“Putting Community Into Community Engagement”), promising to return with a story from a group that found a way to put community members at the head of its change efforts. My search took me as far from my comfort space (improving opportunities for urban, disadvantaged youth) as I could go: rural Alaska.

I didn’t actually travel to Alaska — only to Aspen, Colorado. That’s where I met Brian McNitt, program officer for the Alaska Conservation Foundation and lead staff for its Sustainable Southeast Partnership. At the Collective Impact Funders Forum (hosted by the Aspen Institute and FSG) last spring, Brian told of how the foundation created a network of professional staff (called “catalysts”) in the communities where it works. These catalysts keep the local work moving and keep the communities connected with each other and the foundation.

I interviewed Brian to find out more about how they made this work. Here are the six things I learned:

Define “community” the way the residents do. Southeastern Alaska is no more a community than Northern Kentucky (a region where the Forum works). Brian and the Foundation had to acknowledge that convening people from different geographically and sometimes culturally isolated communities to discuss how to address community problems was convenient for conveners, but did nothing to catalyze change locally. They decided to decentralize the effort and build capacity in 12 small communities.

Pick people, not organizations, to mobilize people. They waited to start organizing for change in a community until they found a resident “community catalyst” who had the passion, networks and skills needed to build momentum. In one community, the Foundation even stopped the work because it couldn’t find an appropriate replacement for the original local catalyst.

Give the catalysts the right supports. Understanding the challenges and complexity of the work, they carefully created support scaffolding around these local leaders. First, they asked the community catalysts to help identify a local organization to host the local work. This organization then received a grant to hire the catalyst and support the effort.

Second, they hired regional catalysts with expertise in the each of their four resource issues (food security, renewable energy, sustainable economic development, natural resource management) to support the community catalysts. Third, they provide a rich array of online and face-to-face networking opportunities for both groups of catalysts.

Build the shared agenda from the bottom up. The Partnership has a central table. Several of the host organizations join Brian (the only Foundation staff person) on a Leadership Team that crafts and monitors progress toward a shared agenda. This agenda reflects the projects and priorities selected by advisory groups in each community. Brian noted, “We start with a person who has interest and connections, and work outward.”

Believe in the tipping point approach. The Partnership works with seven of the 30 communities in Southeast Alaska, and hopes to expand to 12 within a few years. It does not think it needs to work directly in all 30. The Partnership is starting with the communities that are the most ready, hoping that deeply changing the norms in about one-third of the communities will eventually change norms across the region.

Stay true to the model. Brian was not only open but proud of the fact that the Foundation has gotten it wrong sometimes. It has replaced host organizations that weren’t a good fit, usually because the host didn’t embrace the collaborative spirit that is central to the initiative. Foundation staff have come close to wanting to speed things up by pressing through decisions or just doing the work themselves. They quickly realize (or are reminded of) the biggest lesson they have learned: “Unless we really embrace and support the idea of a community base — people in the community, from the community, engaging others in the community — and let that base tell us what’s important, we won’t get the level of buy-in necessary to move the agenda.”

I asked Brian two questions that you’re probably asking yourself: 1. Can you give me an example of change that has happened that you’re sure would not have happened with a different approach? 2. This worked in rural Alaska, but do you think it has relevance for the rest of the country? His answers were not only yes, they were inspiring.

To see those answers and to learn more, read these excerpts from the interview.