Setting “Multiple Tables” for Collective Impact

Karen Pittman, CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, interviews Brain McNitt about how the Alaska Conservation Foundation hires “catalysts” to keep communities engaged in the mission.

What are the biggest challenges in making collective impact initiatives work? That question was posed to us at the Collective Impact Funders Forum last March, hosted by Aspen Institute and FSG. Several people cited the struggle to maintain community engagement “beyond the summit” – those inspiring events that bring everyone to the table to connect, brainstorm and build energy. What happens to the connections, ideas and energy after they go home?

Brian McNitt shared a solution. The Alaska Conservation Foundation, he said, figured out that the only way to sustain community engagement was to build tables in the communities. Brian is a program officer at the Foundation and the lead staff for its Sustainable Southeast Partnership, which (as you will see) covers a huge geographic area.

This was music to my ears. I called Brian after the conference to find out more about this multiple tables approach. Below, I share my questions and his answers.

Embedding a Catalyst in a Community

Q: You mentioned that you realized during the forum that the collective impact initiative that you are a part of is very similar to others in some ways, but different in one very important way. Can you explain?

A: Once we read the SSIR article [that defined collective impact], we knew we were doing collective impact. But unlike many initiatives, we have several tables instead of one. Our natural resource management initiative is based in a number of communities that are both geographically isolated from one and other and culturally different. We found out quickly that the best way to sustain community engagement was to have a person [dedicated to the task] in each community.

Q: Did the Foundation hire or outsource staff to the communities or set up offices?

A: The community catalysts, as we call them, are from the local communities. The hiring process has evolved. Initially, we looked for people in the community that we recognized were interested in this work and had a solid network in the community. Once we identified the person, we matched them up with a local CBO [community-based organization] that they felt comfortable with.

The community catalyst is employed by and housed in the local organization. Their salary comes mostly from a central fund at the Foundation, which the CBO receives as a grant. As the program has matured and we’ve solidified relationships with the partner organizations, we’ve started relying on them to find the right person when there’s turnover.

Q: So the catalysts come first, then you pick the organizational partner to match the catalyst.  What role do the organizational partners play?

A: Several of the host organizations are part of central agenda-building body called the Leadership Team. The shared agenda was generated by and is monitored by this group. This is our central table. I am the only Foundation staff person on the Leadership Team. [This graphic shows the Partnership’s framework.]

Establishing Roles and Connections

Q: How does this shared agenda managed by the partners connect to community work of the catalysts?

A: The project and priorities we on work together are derived from communities; we take direction from them. We’ve encouraged the catalysts to create an advisory group in each community using their own networks. We start with a person who has interest and connections, and work outward.

One of the biggest lessons we learned is that the real key to the work is having the right individuals.

Even when we rely on the partner organization to find the catalyst, the Leadership Team participates in the selection process so that the partner understands what kind of person we’ve had success with.

In one community, we looked and looked and didn’t find a good replacement. We decided to stop working until the right person was found.

Q: So it’s clear that your primary commitment is to finding and supporting a strong “backbone” catalyst. How do you make this priority clear to the organization partners who might be inclined to think that they are the “backbone”?

A:  The contract that we enter into with the partner organizations comes in the form of a one-year grant agreement. This [understanding their role is to support the catalyst] is a big part of the conversation. We plan for long-term relationships, but we assess annually.

We have a few examples of catalysts asking to switch organizations. We let them choose a different one.  We’re looking for organizations that are extremely interested in collaboration and working with a broad range of partners. The ones that didn’t work well were mostly those that didn’t really embrace collaboration.

Q: How are the catalysts supported?

A:  We have two levels of catalysts. The community catalysts get support from four regional catalysts, each of whom has a special area of emphasis [rural sustainable economic development, food security, renewable energy or natural resource management]. Each community catalyst works with two regional catalysts, depending on their community’s priorities.

Good communication is essential. We have a website that is internal, only used to share information. We encourage all the catalysts to share weekly, even if it is just two paragraphs and a photo. The idea is to keep everyone in touch with one another and share ideas.

Q: Do you bring them together physically?

A: Absolutely. Both the regional and community catalysts get together separately on a regular basis [once a month] to build the team, share stories, successes and challenges. Our goal is to get all of catalysts in both groups together twice a year.

Going to Scale, and Elsewhere

Q: Let’s shift gears slightly. The key mantra of the collective impact approach is impact at scale. It’s clear that your decentralized approach generates deep community ownership, but do you end up getting lots of small community projects that don’t add up to big regional agendas you’d like to advance?

A: We’re taking a tipping point approach to collective impact. We’re focused on the Southeast region of Alaska [about the size of Maryland and West Virginia combined], which has only about 75,000 people divided across a few large, but mostly very small, communities. Our theory of change: If we can be successful in changing the mode of operation in enough communities in the region, the region will adopt a new way of operating.

We think we can get there if we get about 12 moving – a little over a third. Scaling up, for us, is moving the whole region, but we think communities have to take the lead. Right now we have catalysts in seven communities. The plan is to be working in 12 by the end of 2016.

Q: Let’s stay with this theme. Do you have an example of something you think has helped achieve scale that wouldn’t have happened if you just convened regional players rather than using this community-focused approach?

A: This is in the process of happening now, but it’s a perfect example: One of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership’s target communities has three types of governing bodies, or influential orgs: the city government, the tribal government and the Village Alaska Native Corporation. These exist in almost all communities, even the small ones. Most have overlapping membership and ownership. These are the most influential groups when it comes to the land management, and in some instances they don’t all agree on the best course of action.

This was true for this particular community, so we focused on building relationships between the three organizations so that larger projects that focused on natural resource development and management can be more successful. Each organization manages a certain set of land, resources and staff. Two years ago, the community catalyst and regional catalyst jointly proposed and helped lead a couple of different work training projects with the community organizations. Twelve people from the community were hired and trained to do forest and stream restoration work. The project began with the federal land (the easy target), but once the team was trained and up to speed, they needed more work opportunities.  The three entities are the main land owners in the community.

All now agree that we need an “all lands” approach to get the lands better managed and put more people to work. So the entities are now applying together to various federal programs to move the work forward. This wouldn’t have happened before the program began. If it’s successful, it’s a model for other communities.

Q: That’s a powerful example. But let me ask the hard question I’m sure some reader will ask. This approach is fine for rural Alaska, but can these lessons be brought to cities?

A: Let me offer a caveat: I’ve never worked in an urban environment. I’m sure there are significant differences. But I’m also sure that people are probably pretty similar in how they think and act. And I know that 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. This was true for us. I imagine this is true everywhere.

Q: Last words?

A: Making sure these community partnerships are maintained and moving is a lot of work – so much that we sometimes say we should just be our own organization and get things done. But we quickly remind ourselves why that wouldn’t work.

My guess would be that the tendency to organize from the top down is popular because it’s so much easier. You think, let’s get started, form “the backbone” and then get communities to buy into it. The Leadership Team plays certain key backbone functions, but the agendas and energy come from the communities on an ongoing basis thanks to the structures that the partnership put in place.