[Add feature image from publisher.]
This op-ed was originally published in _______.
Successful collective impact is built on trust and authentic human connection among people with diverse experiences. While it is encouraging that at least ten percent of funder collaboratives surveyed by The Bridgespan Group in 2021 include some aspects of constituent engagement and power sharing to capture differing voices, foundations must go beyond finding of shared goals, values, and metrics in their pursuit and invest in the cultivation of authentic partnerships between their program staff, grantees, and the community they serve in order to achieve the aspirational outcomes they are after.
Earlier this year, the Early Relational Health (ERH) Coordinating Hub at the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), with support from Einhorn Collaborative and other funders, launched an effort to embed early emotional health into pediatric practice by bringing together a broad spectrum of stakeholders involved in the movement. With the recognition that parent-baby relationships are a key driver of family and community well-being, it was critical for parents to have a seat at the table and the decision-making power to shape CSSP’s research, implementation, and evaluation of early relational health across the country.
We are part of the initial steering committee made up of parent leaders, pediatricians, policy experts, nonprofit leaders, and funders, to shape the strategy for the broader effort. We come together from different identities, perspectives, and experiences to build a shared vision for the early relational health field, a theory of change, and a governance structure that embraces the importance of shared power, consensus building, and relational trust.
Our previous experiences creating collaborative tables have also helped us be more informed about the pitfalls in a funder-grantee relationship. We knew that our “how” was just as important as our mission to make a sustainable and long-term impact on the field.
So, what is different about the makeup of this governance structure? Typically, researchers would bring in some parent voices to inform their study or conduct a focus group or survey to get parent perspective. In our set up, parent leaders – people who combine their lived experience with skills training to represent a broad constituency of families in decision-making circles – are part of the governing body throughout every stage of the initiative, have shared power with other steering committee members, and lead a network of 10 other parents in their communities to inform program strategy and design.
These parent leaders and their networks, brought together by the Family Network Collaborative, represent communities core to our collaborative effort, including people across the country who identify as Black, African American, and Brown parents; Indigenous parents; parents of children with special health care needs or disabilities; Spanish-speaking immigrant parents; parents with a Southern cultural background; and fathers. Each of the six parent leaders who sit at the governing table engages their network to bring the perspectives of their entire group into the room, so we are hearing from a total of 66 diverse voices who are part of these communities, not just organizational leaders who represent them.
While the two of us come to this work from different orientations — one as a funder located in New York City and one as a parent leader based in Wayne County in Detroit, Michigan — we also come to it as parents. We know that when children and their parents and caregivers experience emotional connection with each other, it can positively affect brain development and mitigate the effects of anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems. Growing the field of early relational health and giving families access to this type of support is not only important in improving the parent-child relationship at an individual level, but it is also critical in building a healthy and equitable future for our country.
At the start of our partnership, instead of diving straight into the materials of the work, we spent the first few sessions fostering connection among committee members in order to build relational trust, find shared purpose, and relate to one another across difference. These elements are foundational to the effectiveness of collective impact and especially critical given the diversity in our group. During the second meeting, shortly after the Uvalde shooting in Texas, we took turns sharing what it meant to be a parent today in our country grappling with a multitude of concerns. These moments of connection and the act of listening created the space for all of us to be more vulnerable with one another, to feel heard, seen, and valued. This, in turn, built the trust needed for us to raise diverging viewpoints and be more open and curious about new ideas and areas of disagreement.
Without this key ingredient of connection and trust, power imbalance is harder to address, tension and differences are harder to be resolved, repair is harder to practice, and consensus is harder to reach.
We are sharing what we have found to be helpful in building authentic, trusting, and effective partnerships between funders, grantees, and parent leaders with the hope that they can be helpful in the design and implementation of other collective impact efforts.
- Prioritize forging human connection and trust: This is not a nice-to-have; it’s the cornerstone of a healthy and sustainable partnership. While this concept is not new, it can be difficult to implement in practice. One approach we took to building and fostering connection was to study the links between steering committee members, between parent leaders and their parent networks, and between funders and grantees to understand the different relationships, dynamics, and power at play. In doing so, we become better facilitators of accountability, repair, and healing when tension or disagreement arises.
- Value people’s time and expertise: Members of the steering committee who are not funders are compensated for participation. Parents in the Family Network Collaborative receive monthly stipends to support the work they do as part of the group, including but not limited to paying for childcare, attending meetings, doing pre-work, traveling, and participating in speaking engagements.
- Reduce barriers to participation for community leaders and members: A Family Network Collaborative coordinator works closely with parent leaders to ensure that all materials and meetings are fully accessible for all. For example, meetings are scheduled at times convenient for parents and materials are created in plain language and languages spoken by the parents. The coordinator also has frequent conversations with parent leaders to ensure that they have multiple opportunities outside of the steering committee meetings to voice their perspectives and ideas.
- Welcome diverse viewpoints and disagreements, and practice repair: The steering committee members and parent networks were selected specifically because we have different backgrounds and perspectives. Our groups operate with core agreements that guide our communication and interaction during meetings. These agreements create a container that allows participants to bravely speak from their perspectives even when they contradict what someone else has shared.
While it takes time to foster human connection, build trust, and cultivate authentic partnership in service of shared ownership, it is this very foundational work that philanthropy must invest in to achieve the long-term impact we are seeking.