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August Spark News: Getting Unstuck – Equity, Advocacy, and Collective Impact

Spark Policy Institute

Are We Getting Anywhere?

Spark Policy InstituteAt Spark, we’re experts at developing actionable strategies to achieve meaningful, measurable outcomes. But in today’s complex environment, it’s sometimes challenging for our partners to see the progress they’ve made. In our August newsletter, we’re sharing resources you can apply in real-life settings to measure your progress and take positive steps forward, no matter where you are in the process of making meaningful social change happen. We’re also excited to share new efforts in understanding Collective Impact and how it is, or isn’t moving the needle on systems change.

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Making planning actionable: lessons from the Colorado Farm to School Task Force

Farm to School Logo

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This is one of my favorite quotes from Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist known for her holistic understanding of human adaptation and the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life. Mead believed in our innate capacity to learn from each other to create change, viewing diversity as a resource that allows for greater exchange of ideas and experiences.

Farm to School LogoOne of the best parts of my job at Spark is the opportunity to partner with thoughtful, committed groups of people every day who create systems-level change to society’s most complex problems. One of those groups is the Colorado Farm to School Task Force. In its early stages, the Task Force teamed up with Spark and embarked on an intensive Strategic Roadmapping session. Strategic Roadmaps start with defining the change we want to see in the world and working backwards to define smaller changes that will lead to that big change. True to Mead’s observations of interconnectedness, Strategic Roadmaps consider the broader context within which a group is working and focus on the “why” of the work rather than the “how,” allowing for adaptation in a changing environment.

Colorado Farm to School RoadmapAt the end of the day, a Strategic Roadmap is not just a pretty picture (although they certainly look nice!) – it is actionable! In fact, the Task Force revisits their Roadmap quarterly to integrate new learning about the context and environment in which they are working, and to plan their shorter- and longer-term strategies moving forward. One of the most powerful ways the Task Force uses the Roadmap is to identify priorities and evaluate whether emerging opportunities are likely to influence the changes they hope to see in the world. It’s easy for a statewide body to get lost in the large and dynamic field of food systems; the Roadmap is one tool to facilitate strategic action within such an environment. Indeed, the Task Force is a diverse group of citizens committed to changing the world through strategic learning and thoughtful action.


Interested in learning more about adaptive planning like the Strategic Roadmap? Our Adaptive Planning Toolkit guides users through the roadmapping process and provides broader strategies for planning in dynamic environments.

Curious about farm to school and what it means for our students, local economies, and food systems? October is National Farm to School Month, a great time to learn about the organizations working to improve healthy eating in schools across the state and the nation.

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Planning for Adaptation

Logo 8I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade thinking about, experimenting with, and refining tools for planning in complex, adaptive settings. As we put together Spark’s Adaptive Planning Toolkit, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect back and think about the genesis of the tools and what we have learned over the years.

I have tremendous admiration for all of the partners I’ve worked with who have tackled complex problems with adaptive approaches. That they can work amid such great uncertainty is impressive in and of itself, but the fact that they are willing to approach solving the problems in ways that are, themselves, uncertain and untested is even more laudable.

The stakeholders who came together to prevent another tragedy like the Columbine school shooting not only didn’t know how to integrate the many different service systems to prevent a future shooting, they were also brand new to systems mapping, which was a critical part of developing a plan for change. I remember the walls covered with boxes and lines, as participants tried to break down how the system functioned today in order to figure out how it could function tomorrow.

DLPLogoFINALThe leaders who formed the core of the Daylight Project, focused on improving access to behavioral health services for deaf and hard of hearing consumers, similarly tackled a complex problem using tools that were untested and new to them. Consumer stories helped inform their work along the way, but so did real-time strategic learning, which included gathering data about their environment and forecasting the likelihood of success for each partner organization they invited to join the effort.

Scenario MappingRecently, The Colorado Health Foundation used an adaptive planning process to develop their Consumer Advocacy funding strategy. Using scenario planning tools, mapping of current funding, and even a post-mortem, they went all out with adaptive planning. Unlike the previous examples, by this point Spark, as their partners in crime, had a well-established repertoire of adaptive planning tools. However, similar to the experiences in the first two examples, this approach was still new and out of the comfort zone for the organization, yet they embraced it fully and developed a truly creative, results focused, and adaptive funding strategy.

I am personally very excited to share our adaptive planning tools. I believe in them. I have seen them help many different types of groups make a meaningful difference on truly difficult problems. I also believe this idea of adaptive planning is a work in progress – we have some pieces pulled together, but by no means is this the be all, end all of planning in complex settings. I am excited to learn how others are doing adaptive planning and hope you will participate by sharing your stories and building our common base of tools for how to do this difficult work.