Collective Impact and the Wisdom of Slow Culture
In the world of commerce scaling up has a long history. In the eighteenth and ninetieth centuries, mass production spawned the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, scaling applied to retail businesses like fast food and electronics manifested as chain stores and franchising.
The intention with these enterprises is to maximize profit by providing reliable and affordable products and services through economies of scale. In terms of profitability, mass production, chains, and franchising have been stupendously successful.
On the nonprofit side, given the significant gap between community needs and resources it is understandable that policymakers and funders are going to eager to find ways to extend the benefits of what they see as effective ideas and practice. Slow Food USA, Link TV, and KIPP charter schools are good examples of how innovative nonprofits have shared and spread the wealth.
The downside, of course is that one-size-fits-all predictability and sameness can have a sterilizing effect on the delicate strains of quirk and diversity upon which vital culture depends to multiply and thrive. For people like me who are concerned with community cultural development, or in the current vernacular, creative placemaking, this is no small thing.
Interestingly, for, El Sistema, the extraordinary Venezuelan youth development music program cited as a replicating exemplar in the invitation to this blog post, the jury is still out here in the U.S. The program’s challenge is translating a centralized government supported model to the American nonprofit environment. The approach has been to invite new and/or existing youth music programs to adopt the programs pedagogy and affiliate with a national office. But, in terms of resources each program is on their own. Not surprisingly there have been mixed results.
The implication in the blog invitation that I received was that organizationally driven strategies that have proven successful locally can be imported to good effect. While I strongly support sharing, learning, even stealing good ideas, I think some investments in widespread replication have been misplaced.
This is because I believe long-term community wide improvement depends much more on collective action across sectors within communities, than it does on seeding innovative ideas in organizations across the land.
Does this mean I that think that brilliant individual programs can’t precipitate change? Certainly not! I know they do, particularly for building facilities or programs where both the problem and solution are clearly defined. But for the systemic economic, educational, and environmental issues that have persisted generation after generation in many of our communities these isolated approaches have fallen tragically short.
Given this, my enthusiasm for replication is for scaling up successful strategies for mobilizing people and organizations to work together in their own communities on common issues. And the good news is that there are policymakers, funders, and community coalitions that are doing just that.
The thinking behind this approach is documented by John Kania and Mark Kramer in their Stanford Social Innovation Review piece, Collective Impact. The article shares striking examples of how “key actors” working across sectors in places like Cincinnati, Somerville, MA, and southeastern Virginia “have joined together in disciplined collaboration…to solve entrenched problems.“
I think the growing interest in “collective impact” is particularly relevant for the cultural sector. First, this approach provides an impetus for working across sectors and integrating creative resources into community-wide initiatives. Secondly it is an opportunity to share what we have learned over the past thirty years about the relationship between thriving cultures and successful community building. A good portion of our work at the Center for the Study of Art and Community involves sharing the “wisdom of slow culture” with artists, and their cross-sector partners working to advance community health and vitality.
Here are some nuggets that have risen up that I think have particular implications for community cultural organizations exploring ways to extend their impact through collective impact.
Collective impact grows from community ownership. The two most consistently articulated principles we encounter in successful arts-based community development programs are “accountability to the community” and “participatory democracy.” Put simply, this means that these programs exhibit good manners and share power. The common sense genius here is that effective programs walk their talk by delivering on their commitment to community participation and ownership. At the Wing Luke Asian Museum this means that exhibitions that are curated with the community, for the community. For, Swamp Gravy this means that writing a new script each year involves both literary imagination and the art of negotiation.
Commitment to community engagement is a responsibility, not a strategy. For a community arts center like Northern Lakes Center for the Arts, or a culturally specific arts group like the Isangmahal Arts Kollective, community relationships are intrinsic to both art production and presentation. In a sense, the work is not complete without the community’s involvement. Community members are thus regarded more as a constituency than an audience. This notion of a cultural constituency implies a broad range of responsibilities and, in some instances, even obligations. These include expectations of openness, accountability, continuity, and respect.
Learning builds trust. Effective programs are aware of the deep distrust that many communities have for “do-gooders.” They know that building trust requires both patience and a respectful engagement of the many layers of a community’s cultural landscape. Over the years, these organizations develop a capacity for discovering and learning from the histories and stories that form community identity. In their training programs the Pomegranate Center emphasize that communities must learn how to use this knowledge to build trust and support for effective collaboration.
There are no shortcuts When combined, the amalgam of creative and community-development processes requires scrupulous care and attention. Powerful programs like Pillsbury House + Theater and The Point believe that the communities they serve deserve the best of both. But because empirical research often defines success in community-development work, there is a tendency to steer resources toward activities that will translate in terms of volume rather than depth. Sometimes this results in premature and/or inappropriate attempts to scale up. When this happens, resources are often spread too thin and systemic, root problems ignored. Because it is new, arts-based community development initiatives are particularly vulnerable to this pattern of investment.
Funders must be willing to work outside the box. Most of the organizations we have studied have one or more funders who have provided extraordinary levels of support. In most cases, these special relationships have manifested as grants that exceed the original time or funding limits. In other instances, funders have worked behind the scenes through referrals to other funders and/or individual philanthropists.
What do you think? Do you have any additional nuggets to share?