The Long-Lasting Impact Of Collective Action

In nearly every facet of our lives — from our workplaces to our homes — we work with others to achieve common goals. So when our neighbors, communities and region face challenges, it only makes sense that we unite to resolve them together.

In the world of service providers, this is known as “collective impact.” At United Way of Metro Chicago, we created the Neighborhood Network Initiative to unite residents, government leaders, social service organizations and others in 10 neighborhoods to tackle problems they identify. José Rico, our Senior Vice President of Community Impact, sat down with Carley Mossbrook, our Digital Content & Communications Specialist, at the 2019 Collective Impact Convening in Chicago last week to better understand the power of this work. 

* * *

CM: “Collective impact” is one of those jargon-y terms that we, in the social service sector, use pretty often. But for others, it can sound a bit wonky or mystifying. Can you tell us what exactly “collective impact” is?

JR: Collective impact is when neighbors come together to make a change. That’s really what it is. There’s obviously a lot of flow charts and theory, but it’s about people who feel invested in something together, whether its their neighborhoods or an issue they care about. They know that there are other people who have an interest in doing it and find ways to work together to accomplish something they can’t do on their own.


CM: From what I hear, it’s a very effective way to drive large-scale change. But how is collective impact specifically serving communities here in Chicago?

JR: It’s powerful because of how Chicago is organized — it’s a city of 77 neighborhoods. People see what the challenges are in our city through the lens of the neighborhood they live in. Collective impact is a way for people to organize and change the problems they’re facing at this local level. Residents are involved with their school council, in their church and through neighborhood associations.


CM: As one of the largest health and human services providers in the state, how does United Way of Metro Chicago practice and facilitate collective impact?

JR: Six years ago, United Way began supporting Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), a neighborhood group that organizes residents around policy issues, provides social services and creates connections between residents and local institutions. We’ve provided financial and technical support to help this organization and others in the area work better together. Since, we’ve created similar networks in nine other neighborhoods. They lead the work, but we provide resources so they can grow and tackle more problems and serve more people.


CM: How do the non-profits and social service agencies who serve individuals and families in these neighborhoods benefit from participating in these networks?

JR: Through the Neighborhood Networks, our partners tell us they’re now able to work with more neighbors and institutions in the neighborhood to make the changes they want to see. Folks who are in the neighborhoods learn what problems other organizations are tackling and the work they’re doing, and align their programs to meet those needs and fill any gaps.


CM: It sounds like this doesn’t just benefit each neighborhood, but also benefits the city as a whole. How is collective impact achieve change on a larger scale?  

JR: Our work to enhance resources in communities helps revitalize the region and helps it operate in a more equitable manner. If we don’t invest more in uniting and building up communities, Chicago is going to stop being the “City of Neighborhoods.” It’s going to be the “City of the Central District and the Northeast Side” and everything else will be gone. There won’t be any local flavor. There’s not going to be strong ties to one’s block.


CM: And none of us want that! At the end of the day, the Neighborhood Networks convene all of these changemakers to improve our neighbors’ lives. How do the people who call these neighborhoods “home” benefit from service providers working together?

JR: When social service providers, schools, hospitals and others work together, the people who need these resources can more easily access them because they have more opportunities to get connected. Also, when these stakeholders work together, we can address every need that a person or family has. For example, a parent enrolled in a workforce training program may need daycare for their kids in order to attend classes. If the staff at the training program is connected to childcare providers in the area, they can offer referrals and that parent can actually participate and be successful.


CM: It sounds like, through these partnerships, the complexities of people’s lives are acknowledged and they can be supported in the various ways they need. I’ve seen this at play in Brighton Park. What’s happening with our neighbors there?

JR: The community is seeing great successes! When United Way first gave them a grant, BPNC used those resources to increase the number of health promoters and parent ambassadors in their schools. In turn, students’ academic and non-academic needs were better supported and their parents became strong community leaders.

Because of these successes, more funders are now getting on board to invest in this community. Two community buildings are being built in Brighton Park — a health care clinic and a day care center — and family safety and domestic violence programs are expanding.


CM: Wow! That’s exciting to hear. So, lastly, if someone wants to be a part of this work, how can they get involved?

JR: You can get involved by investing your resources, time and energy into your community or seeking out opportunities to bridge relationships between groups you work within. We also encourage you to learn more about our Neighborhood Networks and to create connections through volunteer opportunities with United Way.



What’s a Neighborhood Network?

The team at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago had an idea. They already knew that the people best equipped and most dedicated to creating positive change in their communities were the members of the community themselves. They saw that in Chicago, nonprofit organizations and human service providers were already working to establish affordable and comprehensive health care, safety regulations and engaging educational programs for their residents. But these groups weren’t always working in sync, and were often severely underfunded. United Way thought that that by connecting these partners, leveraging their capabilities to help each other share knowledge and resources, and combining their voices to be heard, these communities could become louder, stronger and more impactful. The Neighborhood Network Initiative was born.

Ten communities comprise the Neighborhood Network. They each have a lead agency–a partner organization in the community that serves as the director for that Neighborhood Network. They also have their own Community Engagement Manager from United Way who connects the work in the communities to United Way. Each Neighborhood Network was chosen “based on both level of need and their capacity to improve lives for their residents with the additional investment, partners and strategies of the Neighborhood Network model.” After connecting agencies and organizations in the community and bringing them to the table, the network chooses a bold goal, a concrete objective they will work to achieve in the coming years. These goals are long term, as is all of the work being done by the Neighborhood Networks–their purpose is to create lasting change by attacking systemic issues with an integrated, focused and community level approach.The neighborhoods are divided into cohorts based on their level of progress in establishing their bold goals, finding partners and establishing organizational permanence. Cohort One, the most developed neighborhoods, is made up of West Chicago and Brighton Park. Cohort Two includes Evanston, Austin and Little Village, and Cohort 3 includes Auburn- Gresham, Bronzeville, South Chicago, Cicero and Robbins/ Blue Island.

Community organizing in the Neighborhood Networks is based on the concept of collective impact. “Collective impact is a proven, effective framework used to bring a range of actors together to solve complex social problems. Unlike partnerships or traditional collaborations, collective impact moves participants to act beyond their self-interest and to act towards a common (community) interest.” There are five basic tenets of collective impact–shared measurement, reinforcing activities that establish a coordinated plan to address an agreed upon problem, a common agenda, continuous communication and a backbone organization. For the Neighborhood Networks, United Way serves as that backbone–providing funding, connecting partners and keeping the networks on track to meet their goals. They also provide a sense of legitimacy to their member agencies, attaching a trusted name to the work they do in order to find more partners and secure additional financial backing.

The purpose of the Neighborhood Network Initiative is to organize and invest in communities that are working to help their residents all fulfill their human potential and increase their quality of life. The role of United Way is not to tell these neighborhoods how to operate or what to do. Rather, they work to keep these networks focused and financed so they can fulfill the needs of their own communities and create lasting change. Check back in with our blog or with the neighborhoods’ home pages to learn more!

Blog submitted by: Elana Ross, Intern, Public Policy and Advocacy