“If You Want to Go Far, Go Together." In Connecticut, an Ambitious Collective Impact Push



Closing opportunity gaps from early childhood through employment feels like a tall order—“cradle to career” is how one fund leader described it. Even focusing locally in a single small state, with multiple funders at the table, such a broad, interconnected mission sounds overwhelming. Trying to quarterback it from a community foundation with a comparatively modest budget of $1.6 million in initial grants must feel next door to impossible. 

But that’s exactly what the newly christened Collective Impact Opportunity Fund at Fairfield County’s Community Foundation (FCCF) is trying to do. The mission of the fund is “to close educational, workforce and other opportunity gaps among children, youth and their families in Connecticut.” 

We’ve profiled FCCF before. It hosts more than 500 funds with net assets of $212 million as of January 2019, including what IP called “the biggest women’s fund in New England.” FCCF’s territory covers a gilded swath of Connecticut’s coast that’s home to many finance firms; its donors include the billionaire hedge fund manager Stephen Mandel.  

What makes the Collective Impact Opportunity Fund interesting, though, is not its home—or its mission. Many funds and donors have similar gap-closing priorities. And many have also mounted collective impact efforts, as we’ve often reported, as well as focused on interconnected system change, as the Collective Impact fund is doing. This piece gives a great overview of system-targeted engagement and the smaller, connected investments of the “portfolio approach” being deployed by FCCF. 

It is noteworthy that Dalio Philanthropies is a founding funder of the new initiative, tapping one of the nation’s largest hedge fund fortunes and underscoring the family’s growing role in addressing inequities in Connecticut. “Barbara Dalio could become one of the most prolific education philanthropists in the United States,” we reported last summer. 

But that’s not the reason the new fund is intriguing, either. 

Engaging Funders at a Deep Level

The Collective Impact Opportunity Fund stands out for its approach to its donors and investors—taking the view that collective impact, done correctly, should deeply engage funders in addition to the range of community stakeholders who are typically at the table in these efforts.  

While the new fund looks to engage local leaders in developing solutions that can be funded, scaled and lead to system-wide change, it also has a keen eye on building the capacity of funders to achieve deeper impact through collaboration with each other and key stakeholders. "We have a group of funders that have coalesced around common strategies and goals around closing opportunity gaps, but also to align that philanthropy to—not come up with solutions—but to work with collectively with families, groups and others to be active participants in co-developing solutions in a community-minded approach,” said Richard Wenning, executive director of the BeFoundation, a founding backer of the new fund.

In a press release, FCCF said that “funders will align their financial resources, expertise and networks to work together with nonprofit, business and government leaders in making grants that will help realize the tremendous potential of Connecticut residents from cradle to career. In partnership with local stakeholders and other experts, participating funders will collaborate with grantees to develop common performance measures and an annual cycle of analysis and reporting.”

But even as the Collective Impact Opportunity Fund envisions a central role for funders, its founders say they’re mindful of unequal power dynamics. “We don’t want to do top-down,” said Juanita James, president and CEO of FCCF. “That’s an insight this fund has, working with the community. It’s about diversity, equity and inclusion, and how not having that, the fabric of the community is broken. We know that if we want impact, we have got to create solutions that tap existing community talent and capability.”

That echoes the bottom-up view of funder Barbara Dalio, who told Inside Philanthropy, “[Grantees] know. You sit with them and they know what their challenges are. They know what they need, what they don’t need. They live it. It would be counter-productive to really tell them what to do.” And it echoes the thinking behind a $300 million public-private push to tackle equity challenges in Connecticut that Dalio Philanthropies launched earlier this year, which places a big emphasis on including community voices in the design of the program. 

Another pillar of the new fund’s approach is that better outcomes can emerge from focused, sustained internal development of the investors. A seemingly simple, yet important example is building a shared donor language. 

“Together,” Wenning said, “we can create common expectations of what success looks like, speak common language in a way that is shared, agree on what impact we want collectively so we can know when it’s happening.” 

Building Capacity

Donors and investors, James said, are often good at analyzing the capacity of grantees, recognizing how a recipient would be able to leverage support into impact. But they examine and invest in their own infrastructure less well and less often. “Our objective is to understand what those capacity needs are, but also to be willing to invest to build that capacity—invest in marketing, research, infrastructure, in the business. The reality is, there is a dearth of resources of investment in infrastructure to deliver more effectively in ways we can learn from each other so solutions aren’t just reaching one group.”

That matters to the bottom line of grantmaking organizations, Wenning said. “We reflected as a group on number of studies we funded to explore how a grantee was doing, for example.” That kind of outsourcing is less effective, he said, than being part of a process where we discover together and produce formative research to produce learning, as well as an answer.”

Finally, the early funders and leaders of the new Collective Impact Opportunity Fund are deeply invested in seeing and solving systemic challenges—not discrete shortfalls —and they are committed to dragging others along philosophically.

Thinking Systemically

“With 27 years in this community, what we learned is that point solutions don’t work. You cannot address education as an isolated incident. If you don’t address food insecurity, housing, mental health—if you just do the academic support portion—it doesn’t create a systemic solution. We have to look at the whole person —all of the influences,” James said. 

“After 35 years of this kind of work,” Wenning said, “I don’t want to live through Groundhog Day again.” In Connecticut, he said, “we do a good job investing in early childhood education. However, once a child reaches elementary school, we can continue to blow wind into their sails or not. And we want funders to look at the whole view. Even if funders want to focus on a specific thing, we want to draw their attention to next steps.” 

That’s textbook portfolio investing aimed at long-term system change, wrapped in collaborative giving. Boosted by internal capacity building and goal setting, it’s an approach the new fund is confident will blossom. “It’s like the African proverb,” James said. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Considering the distance involved in closing birth-to-career opportunity gaps, going together seems smart.  

Related: In a State with Deep Inequities, a Billionaire Couple is Catalyzing Action on K-12 and Jobs