Building Community Power through Collaboration and Iteration in Policy
- Essential Common Future
This is how we’re following good ideas and supporting diverse approaches in our policy work
In 2020, following the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) fiasco, the resulting economic fallout for marginalized communities, plus our country’s racial reckoning, we were called in by a number of partners to influence federal policy development on behalf of the 200+ communities we support. Think tanks and policymakers realized how essential our community’s perspectives were to integrate around topics like increasing access to capital, the care economy, and worker ownership. We needed impactful, grounded ideas — our communities have them. We also experimented with our own research to support the Biden-Harris administration in developing their economic priorities related to racial equity.
Given the successes of this work, we decided to dedicate time and resources to finding our voice in this space, stepping into our leadership as a multi-racial think and do tank.
As New Profit describes it, there are six primary conditions that keep systemic injustices — like persistent, racialized wealth inequality — in place. Policy, alongside resource flows and practices, represents a fundamental structure that must be changed in order to achieve true progress. Through our policy work, we’re advocating for the greater prioritization of community voices in economic policy development. Without community expertise, policy will consistently reinforce systems that extract wealth and resources from communities of color. Similar to how we shift capital to shift power at Common Future, we’re changing policy to fundamentally change the conditions in which our communities operate.
Over the past 18 months, we’ve teamed up with the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance, B Lab, and the Omidyar network to push for a new White House Initiative on Inclusive Economic Growth. Our ideas have been featured in FastCo, Forbes, Inc., and Triple Pundit. We’ve supported groups like the American Economic Liberties Project on their Access to Markets initiative, which rhymes with the recent Executive Order increasing competition, and we’ve worked with the National Economic Council and the Federal Trade Commission on understanding how concentrated power in our economy creates unfair conditions for marginalized groups. Over the upcoming months, we’re excited to be working with the Kauffman Foundation on entrepreneurial policy development and Public Private Strategies on quality jobs. We saw a gap and challenged ourselves to enter a new space, bringing community leaders along to co-develop the economic policies that impact their work.
In late 2021, we interviewed 19 leaders in economic policy and economic development to discover where there might be opportunities for greater impact in the economic development and advocacy space.
After deep analysis, we noticed a number of missed opportunities within the field of community-centered economic policy development. Success to us means sharing our learnings — which come from our relationships and conversations with community leaders, think tanks, consultancies, and funders, in addition to our own research — with those who could leverage this knowledge to better their own practices.
What’s broken in economic policy development:
- Those with good ideas are perpetually under-resourced
Leaders and thinkers with the best quality economic policy ideas often do not have the time or capacity to develop their solutions. In order to build out a promising idea, organizations need access to research teams and policy experts to run cost-benefit analyses and build potential implementation plans — and, given structural failings, there is limited incentive to prioritize this work.
2. Most think tanks leverage surface-level community engagements
Most agencies that practice elements of participatory policy design practices do not go nearly far enough in what they call participation — community leaders must be involved, and ideally lead, from the very beginning of the policy ideation process.
3. Networks of support are largely unorganized
Though there are tens of thousands of organizations who agree with the issues that we touch (e.g. cracking down on monopolies to make it easier for small businesses to compete), networks of aligned actors are still vastly underleveraged in the economic policy advocacy space.
4. Social change advocates and decision-makers are talking past one another
Framing and storytelling are deeply underappreciated. Issue framing and dot connecting need to come first, as the components of an equitable economy are still not largely understood by most policymakers.
5. Funders and nonprofits overemphasize the organization as the unit of change-making, rather than the ideas that we ought to be organizing around.
Drawing lessons from modern organizing movements, such as the Sunrise Movement and Black Lives Matter, we recognize that we must build porous frameworks and scaffolding, rather than closed institutions and agendas.
6. Organizations are oftentimes so focused on short-term policy wins that they neglect to organize around a compelling vision of change.
This makes the individual ideas that we care about (e.g. worker ownership) feel fractured and even, at times, niche. As many have already written about, previous and current populist movements have not come together around a unified future, and this is severely limiting the chances of our ideas to take hold.
In order to redress these trends as scale, we know that we must be building infrastructure that will support greater resourcing, effective strategy development, organization, and strategic communications over the long-term. We’re asking, how can we rethink how an intermediary supports effective policy development and advocacy, so that we’re building capacity for structural change over the long term?
How we can do things differently
As a think and do tank, we strive to model the change we need to see. In order to build a community-centered, strategic, and influential policy platform at Common Future, in service of the movement, we’re (1) embracing aligned approaches rather than narrow solutions and (2) building collaboration into our DNA.
- Embracing aligned approaches, rather than narrow solutions
There are a plethora of promising economic policy solutions in the ether that have yet to take hold. Whether it’s an issue framing — such as in the call to defund the police — or an issue of buy-in — like with the historically low uptake of Universal Basic Income projects — there’s a lot working against good ideas. Change moves both painfully slowly and jarringly quickly. If you want your ideas to be heard, you need to have them patiently at the ready, for when the right opportunity comes along to incorporate them. And then, when that time comes, you may only have 24 hours to move.
Given these factors, conventional wisdom tells us that in order to build momentum, we need to sacrifice our boldest goals in order to get quick wins. Consequently, and far too often, transformative ideas have been cast aside. In their place, we’ve become all too satisfied with insufficient, fractured solutions. Though these incremental changes are crucial, experts tell us that incrementalist thinking has had such significant, negative effects that it’s resulted in some of the issues we observe within our two-party system and political engagement at-large.
Like many other organizations who engage in advocacy, we ask: How can we push against these forces, while still staying rooted in grounded change-making? As our CSO Jess Feingold has written about, when facing complex challenges, we’ve found that it is effective to be as responsive, iterative, and experimental in our approach as possible — without this strategy, we risk replicating the status quo time and time again.
Channeling this perspective, we’re building out a policy platform that orients us towards a handful of north stars, utilizing a number of strategies, networks, and leverage points from which we might be able to get there. Especially as a group that’s pushing forward thinking, we must ask, How can we ensure that what we build today is uniquely relevant to the world tomorrow?
In order to make fundamental change, we’ve realized that we must embrace what we don’t know and stand firmly in what we do. At Common Future, this means holding tightly to our north star all while holding loosely to the strategies in which we get there. Inherently, this is an experimental approach — we’re testing what works, in any given context, in order to bring about the change that we wish to see.
2. Building collaboration into our DNA
Though most of us can name that collaboration is necessary to effect large-scale social change, and frameworks like collective impact are still valued, the sector is not dedicating nearly enough time and resources to collaboration. Those interested in economic policy change need to be funding those organizations that take this collaboration seriously and supporting their ability to broaden their networks and connections.
In this fantastic piece in SSIR by leaders at Open Impact, the authors encourage funders to prioritize greater coordination in their funding allocations. We must double down on this strategy in the economic policy space. There are a number of incredible organizations already thinking this way — from Liberation in a Generation to the Centre for Public Impact. We are deeply inspired by their approaches.
At Common Future, we ask: What might it look like if aligned organizations came together to put forward a joint framework? What will it take to facilitate sustained collaboration around a shared strategy over the long term?
One wonderful example of sector-wide collaboration that we’ve been a part of is the White House Initiative for Inclusive Economic Growth. Integral to these efforts have been pulling together an influential group of >50 (and growing) organizations working on aligned economic change efforts, including the Ford Foundation and the Omidyar Network. The principle of the proposal is straightforward: Structural change to our economy is possible, if we can get coordinated. Given how many agencies, projects, and programs the issues of community investment and stakeholder capitalism touches, we hope that a new White House initiative will play a quarterback role in pushing work along.
As an intermediary representing the interests of 200+ community leaders across the country, we’re eager to continue to build partnerships with those organizations working on similar efforts. And, we have some exciting work coming down the line that plans to do just that.
If you’re interested in joining us in this journey, reach out to email@example.com.