Get Out of Your Comfort Zone for Collective Impact

by John Sayles CEO, Vermont Foodbank

The Vermont Foodbank is placing a bet on a transformational shift in human services involving nontraditional partnerships and collective action. We’ve joined with six local partners – the hospital, community action agency, agency on aging, low-income housing developer, federally qualified health center, and mental health and addiction service provider to move from a services focus to a focus on community well-being: bringing together people, institutions and programs that impact the social determinants of health and holding ourselves collectively accountable for the health and well-being of a whole community. This is a complex undertaking, without a clear recipe for success. We’ve all committed to stepping outside our comfort zones.

Called the Caledonia-Southern Essex Accountable Health Community (CAHC), we are one of the 5 national pilot projects funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation through Feeding America that is ground testing the use of collective impact principles in communities to more holistically address hunger, health, housing and economic stability. You can learn more about the CAHC at on the Vermont Foodbank website.

Many more partners have joined as the word of our work spreads and we have individual successes, like opening a warming shelter in town that connects to other resources. The State Agency of Human Services and local school system have added their voices and perspectives. More voices, of course, mean more opportunities but also more work to build understanding and trust. And building understanding and trust is a full-time job.

Moving forward, we still struggle to understand the interconnectedness and interdependence of the social/political systems we have constructed over the years. Access to health care, food, housing and meaningful work is essential to family stability and health, and many of our neighbors can’t fulfill those needs on their own. Systems designed to help often separate interdependent needs into “program” areas that don’t address the interconnectedness of people’s lives. The systems we’ve designed and administer don’t meet our stated goal – family stability.

The systems need to change, but before that can happen we need to understand why the systems don’t work. Convening nontraditional partners is a first step. It takes courage. You may not think a community housing agency, local hospital or regional planning commission understands the work you do. And you’re probably right. Understanding each other takes patience and persistence. Building a trusting relationship with your partners and maintaining it takes resilience. But with the right people around the table you can start understanding those complex interconnections and interdependencies that stand in our way. You’ll need everyone’s commitment to the shared goal of community well-being.

Bring your resources, learning and perspective to the table – and leave your organizational ego at home. Discover how our social and political systems interconnect. Recreate adaptive systems that understand those connections. Be willing to change what you do to help the whole community reach its shared goal. You will see lots of barriers at first (regulations, policies, “the way we’ve always done it,” other partners’ stubbornness) but don’t give up. We can’t create community well-being without each other.

John Sayles joined the Vermont Foodbank as the CEO in March of 2009 after serving ten years in senior appointed positions with the State of Vermont. Prior to coming to Vermont, John practiced law in Maryland, both in private and government practice. He is a graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law and Frostburg State University in Maryland. He moved to Vermont in 1999, and lives in Montpelier with his wife and son.

John is a member of the Feeding America national board, the Policy Engagement and Advocacy Committee, and is Vice Chair of the Eastern Region. He was presented the 2012 Dick Goebel Public Service Award by Feeding America for contributions in public policy development.