How can the social sector create lasting impact? By changing the way it thinks about and approaches social change, writes Tynesia Boyea-Robinson in Just Change: How to Collaborate for Lasting Impact. Drawing on her experience in both the private and social sectors, Boyea-Robinson shares lessons she's learned and strategies she's found to be effective for changing how we think about and create change, how our organizations work, and how we collaborate.
It's an approach well worth considering; as chief impact officer at Living Cities, a partnership of foundations, financial institutions, nonprofit organizations, and the federal government that's committed to improving the vitality of cities and urban neighborhoods, Boyea-Robinson is tasked with ensuring that the organization's investments lead to measurable impact. She also has witnessed, both in her own family and in her previous work at Year Up National Capital Region, the barriers that many poor urban children come up against, leading her to acknowledge that the challenge of creating change, let alone lasting change, is daunting.
Something like closing opportunity gaps, for example, is a complex problem, one that involves interconnected relationships unique to each situation, as opposed to a merely complicated problem, the solution to which involves many difficult steps but can be mastered and replicated. And yet, she writes, we can create lasting impact, even around complex problems, if we work together and focus on a problem's underlying cause instead of its symptoms, continually improve our efforts through ongoing feedback, use data to define the impact we are looking to achieve, and align our programs, policies, and funding streams with clearly articulated goals.
Boyea-Robinson is careful to note that meaningful social change rarely is driven by a single individual, organization, or sector. And while forging cross-sectoral partnerships is just one of the six ways, as she puts it, to "change how you create change" (the others are focusing on bright spots, changing systems through individuals, defining success in terms of people not neighborhoods, engaging the community, and supporting racial equity), it really constitutes the core message of the book. By definition, participation in a cross-sectoral collaboration creates the possibility of achieving something bigger than any one individual, organization, or sector could achieve alone. At the same time, collaborations, if they are to succeed, require solid relationships and a high level of trust, not to mention partners who are willing to commit to a collective goal that transcends their own individual objectives or reputation.
Boyea-Robinson and her colleagues at Living Cities liken that effort to planning a wedding. Just as the latter requires the bride, the groom, and their families to decide what kind of affair it should be (private and intimate or a lavish celebration with hundreds of guests), whom to invite, and where to seat the invitees, Living Cities'partnership-building model is built on a clear articulation of the shared goal that brings each party to the table and being intentional about choosing the right combination of partners — always with the focus on results. Those with influence and the authority to demand change must be at the table, of course, but just as importantly, there has to be authentic engagement from the community. Public- and private-sector leaders may be "content experts," but members of the community most directly affected by a collaboration's agenda are "context experts" whose experiences can provide valuable insight into how the proposed solutions to a problem are likely to impact the community itself. Trust also is essential to the success of any collaborative effort. And that means that partners must be open to sharing what's not working in their own programs (as hard as that may be), willing to receive feedback (even when it is less than positive), and eager to embrace change (understanding that change is a process and not an end in itself).
In order to understand what's working and what isn't, however, collaborations need data — consistent and continual feedback that helps partners determine whether the effort is on track to meet its goals. Likening feedback loops to the flashing radar speed signs used in school zones, Boyea-Robinson quotes Jeff Edmondson, founder of StriveTogether: "the best data doesn't help you prove, it helps you improve." And for data to do that, it cannot solely be about individual program success; it must also measure the right things and capture whether progress is being made toward the overarching goal(s). For instance, while data may show income levels are rising in a particular neighborhood, it may not be because the target population of the intervention is doing better, but rather because it is being displaced from the area by gentrification. Similarly, educational outcomes may improve, but unless the data is disaggregated by race and gender, it will be difficult to tell which population group or groups is really benefiting from the improvement.
While Boyea-Robinson is realistic about the complexity and scale of the social problems we face, she is passionate in her desire to see change and optimistic about the future. Which is why, with the goal of helping other organizations achieve results more quickly, she and her organization have committed to knowledge sharing in real time (not just after a "proven" success) and "open-sourcing social change." Peppered with mini-case studies and chapter-ending questions designed to help readers apply lessons learned to their own work, Just Change is a tangible demonstration of that commitment.
[The book also has an online component (www.changeforimpact.org) where readers can share their own learnings or download resources and tools highlighted throughout its pages (http://tools.changeforimpact.org)]
At times, Boyea-Robinson's clear and thoughtful advice may strike the reader as commonsensical or, even, obvious. And it's true: there isn't anything particularly revolutionary or novel here. Instead, readers are treated to a lot of sage advice from someone who is deeply engaged in social change work and not afraid to admit she still has plenty to learn. As Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities, writes in the foreword, "[t]he concepts and approaches you'll read about in these pages are simple, but deceptively so. The hard work is applying them in your communities." While you won't want to use it to plan your wedding, Just Change can help you prepare for something just as big: taking on the challenge of collaborating for lasting social impact.