Can Collective Impact and Individual Success Co-Exist?

Note: I was privileged to hear a colleague present an inspiring speech yesterday, which inspired me to ask his permission to print (an abridged version of it) here for all to read. How does this does relate to last week's topic on "Millennials?" As well as next week's "Blurring the lines between Generations?" Because the sheer numbers of the Millennial generation - 83 million and counting - coupled with their intense interest in making a difference efficiently tells me that once social change begins, it will be like a tidal wave. Enjoy! As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at

Presented on June 25, 2015
The United Way State of the Community Event, Fort Collins, Colorado
Speaker: Bill Fulton, Executive Director of the Civic Canopy, Denver, CO.

"We live in a time when the challenges we face as a society feel so overwhelmingly complex that it is tempting to settle for superficial remedies that make us feel good, rather than substantial remedies that make us become better.  We hear of uplifting stories of someone who has beaten the unfair odds they faced, and found their way to a better life.  Perhaps it is a young man who escaped the constant threats from gang members in his tough neighborhood, and graduated to go on to a good college and start a business.  Or a family whose economic hardship inspired a local business to raise money to pay for their daughter’s surgery. These stories of beating the odds remind us of how resilient the human spirit is, and how compassionate the broader community can be.

But while the individual stories might inspire us, our need for them should concern us. By celebrating the outliers, we ignore the fact that we have lost faith in the American Dream as a possibility for most American families. By shining the spotlight on the exceptions, we ignore the rules that make it so unlikely for people to rise out of poverty to the middle class. 

'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'
"My passion for stories of people changing the game probably began in college, when I had the rare chance to live in East Germany before the wall came down.  When I arrived in 1988, The Berlin Wall was a seemingly immovable a fixture on the global stage. Ronald Reagan had just delivered his famous, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall', speech in Berlin a year before I arrived. With few exceptions, resistance behind the iron curtain was rare, and met with brutal responses. Chris Gueffroy, a young waiter in East Berlin, was shot trying to escape over the Berlin Wall just months before I got there. Marx and Lenin cast shadows across half the globe. The oppressive legacy of Prussian authority was hailed as a model of discipline. The public sphere, supposedly the site of voluntary assembly, was a sham, with mandatory support for leaders like Eric Honneker and Mikael Gorbachev. Hundreds of thousands of East Germans marched in May Day parades like the one in spring of 1989 in full compliance with the existing system, getting along as they knew best."

"Fast forward just a few months, when signs of potential reforms gave people the courage, and the hope, that if they stood up for what they knew was right, perhaps it would make a difference. By October, 1989, nearly 300,000 people were gathering in Leipzig for 'Monday Marches.' By November 4, nearly a million East Berliners gathered on Alexander Platz. Five days later, on November 9th, 1989, crowds toppled the wall with a nonviolent force that could not be stopped."

"In a matter of months, a system that had shaped the world, and constrained billions of human lives, gave way to the force of resistance sparked by civil society movements.  The lesson I took from this experience is that all systems are human made, and therefore can be remade to become even more human.  Even the mightiest of walls can fall if we unify our efforts to bring them down.  In short, the rules of the game can be changed by those courageous and committed enough to change them."

The End of the American Dream?
"So, let us consider our own rules of the game.  What can we say about the forces that shape the outcomes of our lives? It is sobering to realize that someone born in Canada is twice as likely to live the American Dream as a child born in our own country.  Indeed, your chances of moving from the lowest 20% of the economic strata to the top 20% are higher in virtually every other industrialized country.   We invented the American Dream, yet, like so many things, it seems to have been off-shored to other nations.  Why is this?  What happened to the days of each generation passing on to the next the chance of a better life?  When did that change?"

Can We Decrease The Prosperity Gap?
"I have become obsessed with that question of late, and have devoured virtually everything I can get my hands on to understand it.  There are no shortages of people to blame—either the 1% or the 99%, depending on which news program you watch.  But what shocked me from the research is that while our public discourse about the root causes is heated and controversial, the actual research among historians, economists, and sociologists of all strips is a near consensus.  In essence, over the past 40 years, we have shifted from an ethic of shared prosperity to a mantra of individual success." 

"In this shift, the fruits of economic progress have not been shared equally among all citizens who have helped generate them, but have remained highly concentrated.  This is not an ideological explanation; it is simply a mathematical equation.  There is virtually no way for those who live at or near the poverty level to keep their heads above water given the current gap between their earnings and the rising cost of living.  If we truly want to change the rules of the game, we have to begin here—by shifting our mindset from individual failure and success to a commitment to community well-being."

"I found a graph recently of how productivity has increased while wages have stagnated incredibly revealing, but also disturbing.  Not only because it isn’t fair, but because it makes me uncomfortable to talk about.  Phrases like “corporate profits have soared while wages have stagnated” seems laced with division and finger pointing.  So I confess that in the past, instead of confronting these brutal facts, I have tended to avoid them.  But what I have discovered is that this discomfort is a hallmark of our system perpetuating itself through the trap of “either/or” thinking.  In many debates, you must choose whether you believe the individual is to blame for his or her fate in life, or if society is to blame.  You must choose whether you believe that the marketplace will solve the situation, or the government.  Such stalemates are senseless.  We have to shift from an either/or focus on problems, to a both/and focus on solutions. And we can’t be afraid to have these conversations. Let us ask instead, “How can we have both community well-being and healthy businesses?  How can we have both effective government services and a strong private sector?”

"Promoting economic prosperity for everyone requires us to champion both the role of individual effort, as well as a commitment to providing the public resources needed each person to succeed.  Making this shift will unlock enormous civic energy that is currently trapped in endless and useless stalemates."

Collective Impact vs. Individual Success
"The third shift we need to make if we want to truly change the game is to move from isolated efforts to a collective impact mindset.  For example, I have been blown away by the efforts I have seen underway through United Way’s impact investing strategy and collective impact approach, and I have a sense that it is just the beginning of even greater things to come.  For those who are new to the concept, let me unpack the basic notion of collective impact, by sharing a story.

At the Civic Canopy located in Denver, CO, we have the opportunity to work with communities across the state, and see this shift happening slowly but surely everywhere we go.  I was in a rural county last week, and was practically in tears as Michelle, the principal at Wiley Middle School recounted how the school had once had one of the highest teacher absentee rates in the state, but rather than treating it as a discipline issue, they created a shared culture of health—transforming the lunch offerings to include only fresh food, creating a salad bar every day, turning the lunch room staff into true chefs who took pride in their meals, building a new school playground so kids could be more active.  Not only did teacher absentee rates almost disappear, student achievement and attendance rates have shot up, and the school just got a $20,000 check from its self-insurance pool because of all the money they had saved on health care costs.  All of this in a county with one of the highest obesity rates in the state."

"How did they do it?  It’s simple. They rewrote the rules of the game by bringing the right people together, in dialogue, agreeing on common goals, combining resources, and taking action together. Shifting from individualized effort to collective action transformed the rules of the game. And, better yet, stories like this are becoming far from rare."

The Shift from Either/Or to Both/And Solutions
"What does this mean for you and me?  We have to shift from an obsession with individual success alone, to a focus on overall community well-being. Everyone needs to share in our community’s prosperity. Our system is not designed to support this yet—just ask Walmart, whose announcement of a pay increase for workers was promptly rewarded on Wall Street with a significant drop in its stock price."

"But we have to change the narrative and restore our community mindedness. Those of you in the business community will have to help lead this effort Second, we have to shift from our fixation on either/or problems and move to both/and solutions.  The next time you watch a political debate, or read an analysis of a social issue, notice how quickly either/or thinking pops up.  Conversely, the next time you see a problem successfully solved, you will likely see both/and solutions at play.  Finally, we have to move from isolated efforts to solve our intractable problems and embrace a collective impact approach."

"While there are encouraging stories of change across Colorado, we don’t yet have a compelling case of an entire community truly putting its shoulder behind the wheel and saying we won’t rest until we reach our goal of cutting the poverty rate in half by 2025.  There are a few counties that could be the tipping point for the state of Colorado.  Any of you could be the crowds gathering in Leipzig, whose courage and commitment eventually brought down the Berlin Wall."

"I encourage you to match your bold goals with even bolder commitments to join forces, take on the difficult conversations, make the difficult mind shifts, and truly change the game across Colorado.  We know how to do this. The time is right.  And you are the ones we have been waiting for."

(Editor's Note: Well said, Bill.)

About the Civic Canopy:

The Civic Canopy began in Denver, CO, in 2003 in response to the growing complexity of social problems and the clear need for individuals, nonprofits, business, and government to work together to solve these issues.

After three “Raising the Civic Canopy” events exploring ways to improve civic health by collaboration drew more than 800 people, the need to go from a volunteer network to a formal organization was clear. So in 2008, The Civic Canopy incorporated as a nonprofit in the State of Colorado and located in the heart of Denver, CO.

What We Believe

Vision: The Civic Canopy builds stronger neighborhoods, healthy communities and a more just society.

Mission: The Civic Canopy designs innovative tools and facilitates collaborative processes that create the conditions for meaningful change.
Next week: Blurring the lines between generations.