Jay Connor at the Collective Impact Summit

Posted on October 25, 2014
By Larry Gemmel

Joseph “Jay” Connor brings considerable business success and experience to the challenges of creating community change.  Born in Dublin, Ireland, Jay grew up in Chicago and went on to assume senior management roles in two multi-billion dollar corporations: ADT Security Systems and Johnson Controls.  In the mid 1990’s Jay had an epiphany, sold his business, and decided to take his organizational expertise and devote himself to the nonprofit sector.  In conversation with Mark Cabaj at the Collective Impact Summit hosted by Tamarack in Toronto 6-10 October 2014, Jay described the problem he felt was facing the sector: “At that time (1994), we thought the organizations just needed to work better.  But when we went out to see if communities were better off, we couldn’t find any correlation.  I realized that while peak performing organizations are needed, they are not sufficient.”

CIS_Jay_ConnorAs a result of this experience, Connor obtained research funding and started work on a book that was to become Community Visions, Community Solutions: Grantmaking for Comprehensive Impact.  This led to a series of projects working with more than 75 communities where he refined his approach to engaging people in very different ways.  He likens the process and its complexity to that of making a movie, and quotes Francis Ford Coppola - When asked what is the difference between making a good movie and a bad movie?, Coppola was said to have replied “In a good movie everybody is making the same movie”.   

Catalytic Leadership

When the Collective Impact article came along, Connor “saw it as an inspiration, great language around what I was working on, and I started thinking about what tools do we need to make this work on the ground?”  He calls his key insight Catalytic Leadership – “In traditional organizations, the leaders are responsible for the plan.  In a community collaborative project, the catalytic leader is responsible for the outcomes”.  Catalytic Leadership is characterized by:

  •         Inter-organizational vs. hierarchical
  •         Provides catalyst vs. Taking Charge
  •         Right question vs. right answer
  •         Coordinated action vs. Follower efforts
  •         Ownership vs. Buy-In
  •         Responsibility for community outcomes vs. Responsibility for strategy and tasks

Erie Together

To illustrate his approach, Jay told the story of the work he has been doing in Erie County, PA.  Erie as part of the “Rust Belt” was experiencing massive rural and urban poverty in 2008.  The community woke up one morning to find they were featured in a newspaper headline as having the highest rate of poverty in Pennsylvania.  The Mayor, United Way, and church leaders responded to the challenge and started working on this, but poverty is a pretty big piece of work and they needed new ideas.  They found out about Liz Weaver’s work with the Hamilton Round Table on Poverty Reduction and were inspired by their Mission: Making Hamilton the best place to raise a child.  While focused on poverty reduction, they recognized that ultimately their work was to make the whole community a better place.

Erie began defining themselves by stating what they are not and this changed the whole sense of ownership for the initiative.  They started to take all of the diverse, patchwork things people were doing, and gave them some alignment and coordination towards a common goal.  Political and institutional leaders were smart enough to step back to let the community lead organically and focus on outcomes.  They realized they had to jump over the negative factors and create an aspirational goal that would inspire people to collective action. 

The Aspiration Process

To get from the present to the desired state, people have to think differently about structures, processes, and measures.  This can be very difficult to do within existing systems structures, but by bringing the community together around an aspirational goal you can start to build inclusive ownership. In Erie, they set out to create a three pronged vision to create a thriving community: Erie Together - Working together to make the Erie region a community of opportunity where everyone can learn, work and thrive.  This included a goal of “Learn - More Children become successful adults.  But they didn’t have a focus: initially they had 12 different definitions of education readiness.  The breakthrough came in mobilizing multiple self-organizing action teams to create a transformational change process that focussed on a single definition and measure and is facilitated by a small 2 person backbone.  They were also clear that while they wanted people’s expertise, they didn’t want their institutional agendas and their technical jargon.  They went so far as to ban a list of the 10 most hated jargon words and appointed a “Jargon Sergeant at Arms” to enforce the rule, balancing “content” experts with “context” experts from the community.   

The Keystone Outcome 

One of the most amazing emergent ideas was that of the “Keystone Outcome”.  Research had revealed that 3rd Grade Reading Proficiency directly correlated to a large number of other outcomes.  By focussing on this single measurable outcome Erie Together recognized they could influence multiple outcomes such as economic, health, high school completion, and reductions in teen pregnancy and involvement with the justice system through a cascading series of influences.  The final results after three years were significant shifts in reading outcomes which are now shifting many more outcomes in a positive direction. 

Proficient and Advanced – From 34% to 75%

Basic – From 33% to 19%

Below Basic - From 33% to 6%

7 Habits of Effective Communities

In a hands-on workshop to go deeper into the process of community change, Jay went on to detail what he calls the “7 Habits of Effective Communities”:

  1.       Reach for it
  2.       Go with who you got
  3.       Hold the centre
  4.       Keep the circle open
  5.       Avoid the blame game
  6.       Choose measurable outcomes
  7.       Develop a sense of urgency and keep going

For more information about Jay Connor’s work and ideas about achieving broad-based community outcomes, visit his website at http://www.workingdifferently.org/ 


View attachment here: jay_connor_at_the_collective_impact_summit.pdf

Collective Impact

Larry Gemmel

By Larry Gemmel

Larry Gemmel has more than 25 years of experience in the voluntary non-profit sector, working with United Way - Centraide organizations in Canada and internationally and as the Executive Director of several pan-Canadian organizations. He has done work for Tamarack Institute as a freelance writer. He has considerable expertise in non-profit and voluntary sector development, management, project management, governance, and specializes in building networks, knowledge transfer, and the successful application of technology.

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