Posted on

Community Navigator Work

Joby Schaffer, MA, Associate Researcher at Spark Policy Institute

This last month, in partnership with the Denver Foundation’s M. Julie Patiño, Barclay Jones, and LaDawn Sullivan; Joby Schaffer wrote an article featured in The Foundation Review.

The article, Community Navigation as a Field of Practice: Reframing Service Delivery to Meet the Needs of Communities’ Marginalized Populations, calls out lessons learned through the Basic Human Needs Navigator Learning Community to improve the work of community navigators in connecting underprivileged populations with service providers.

To learn more about community navigation, the Navigator Learning Community, and the lessons learned during the five-year journey, read the full article available here.

For more information on public health and education opportunities, visit

Posted on

Embracing Values in Evaluation Practice

Research has traditionally defined rigor as obtaining an unbiased estimate of impact, suggesting the need for experimental or quasi-experimental methods and objective, quantitative measures in order to obtain trustworthy results.

I’ve spent the past few months as a member of Colorado’s Equitable Evaluation Collaboratory, which aims to examine the role evaluation plays in supporting or inhibiting progress toward equity and identifying opportunities to integrate equitable evaluation principles into practice. In particular, I’ve reflected on how the research tradition has impacted evaluation’s working orthodoxies including the notion that “credible evidence comes from quantitative data and experimental research” and “evaluators are objective.”

On the surface, these statements don’t appear particularly problematic, but dig a little deeper and we begin to see how value judgments are an integral part of how we practice evaluation. The types of projects we take on, the questions we ask, the frameworks we use, the types of data we collect, and the ways we interpret results – are all deeply rooted in what we value. As an evaluator focused on use, I aim to make these practice decisions in partnership with my clients; however, suggesting that I, or any evaluator, does not play an active role in making these decisions discounts our inherent position of power.

Now that I’ve tuned into the orthodoxies, I see them everywhere, often dominating the conversation. In a meeting last week, a decision-maker was describing the path forward for making a controversial policy decision. He wanted to remove subjectivity and values from the conversation by developing guidelines rooted in “evidence-based practice” and turned to me to present the “facts.”

As a proponent of data-driven decision making, I value the role of evidence; however, there is a lot to unpack behind what we have declared – through traditional notions of rigor – “works” to improve health and social outcomes. Looking retrospectively at the evidence, and thinking prospectively about generating new knowledge, it’s time to ask ourselves some hard questions, including:

  • What interventions do we choose to study? Who developed them? Why did they develop them?
  • What have we (as a society) chosen not to investigate?
  • What population have we “tested” our interventions on? Have we looked for potentially differential impacts?
  • What outcomes do we examine? Who identified these impacts to be important?
  • Who reported the outcomes? Whose perspective do we value?
  • What time-period do we examine? Is that time-period meaningful to the target population?
  • Do we look for potentially unintended consequences?

As we begin to unpack the notion of “what works” we begin to see the decision-points, the values and the inherent power and privilege in what it means to be an evaluator. It is time that we owned the notion that what we choose to study and how we choose to measure success are not objective, rather, they are inherently subjective. And importantly, our choices communicate values.

So how do we begin to embrace our role? As a step forward, I have started including a discussion of values, both mine and my clients, at the beginning of a project and clarifying how those values will influence the evaluation scope and process. Explicitly naming the importance of equity during the evaluative process has helped keep the goals of social change and social justice front and center.  Naming values helps stakeholders acknowledge their power and provides a lens through which to make decisions.

Equitable evaluation is an expedition into the unknown, requiring a transformation in how we conceptualize our role as evaluator. Having taken my initial steps into the Upside Down, I look forward to the many unknowns.

In what way do you see values showing up in your evaluative work?


Posted on

Economic Growth

Alison McCarthy

In continuation of the dialogue on the Unintended Consequences of Systems Change, our July Social Innovators Breakfast focused on Colorado’s Economic Growth.

We had three amazing panelists that guided the discussion and that we owe our deepest appreciation:

Jake Williams: Healthier Colorado

Elizabeth Garner: State Demography Office, Department of Local Affairs

Lauren Ris: Colorado Water Conservation Board

They started by painting a picture of Colorado’s growth. Since 2010, Colorado’s population has grown by 578 thousand people, making it the 7th fastest growing state in 2017 and 2nd fastest in 2016. This growth will bring with it economic opportunities that have since been unheard of. The recreation industry is one of the largest in all of the United States. Furthermore, economic growth leads to more money in public coffers to do public interventions (public health, social interventions). We can expect great advances in creating equality through this. However, as expected, many challenges come with growth of this size. Of particular interest to the panel, water needs, housing, infrastructure, and unequal economic gain were all brought up.

The panel specifically focused in on a economic growth. While Colorado as a whole is growing, economic prosperity is not being equally divided among all groups. Instead, we are experiencing and expecting even more disparity between the largely white, upper class and mostly minority, lower class. It is evident that if steps aren’t taken to level the playing field, this gap will continue to group.

To tackle this problem and brainstorm solutions, we divided the room into small discussion groups. Each group generated ideas and then we met as a whole to share our findings. Of the ideas discussed, big ideas included raising money in public education for underserved areas, increasing entrepreneurship opportunity, making public transit more affordable and accessible, and highlighting Corporate Social Responsibility.

After the breakout discussion, it was clear to see big takeaways to help us move forward. First off, the value in engaging in these types of conversations are crucial to our growth as a community. Hearing diverse perspectives is the only way we reach our potential. Furthermore, even though one’s first reaction to projected roadblocks isn’t to jump up and down in joy, it is often through crisis and constraint that creativity and innovation take hold. We will see new ways of tackling economic inequality, water shortages, and energy. Lastly, while it isn’t a fix-all, education is a huge step in creating lasting social change.

We will continue to explore the interconnectivity of systems with the rest of our Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems change series. These include:

• August 29: Addressing Food Insecurity

• September 26: Transit-Oriented Development: How to Avoid Displacement

Posted on

Housing Affordability

Alison McCarthyOur Social Innovators Breakfast Series summer focus, Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems Change, continued in June with a panel discussion on housing affordability.

We are grateful to our three panelists for representing a range of perspectives and experiences, and for sharing their expertise and lessons learned:

When asked about how involving people who are most impacted by housing affordability (or lack thereof) in their work has made a difference, panelists pointed to the phenomenon of “you don’t know what you don’t know.” All three panelists talked about understanding the gaps between what exists and what a community needs: One talked about shifting focus to a specific population what was otherwise not part of the work (seniors on fixed income at risk of losing housing); another about integrating social equity into developments; and the third panelist talked of engaging community members in the design process of an affordable housing building so it is a trauma-informed space that can best meet the needs of the people it intends to serve.

One key point made during the discussion was about the range of ways people can experience homelessness. “We really need to keep in mind this affordability crisis, often, is invisible” and can weigh heavily on those living paycheck-to-paycheck because of the rent burden, those who are living doubled-up with relatives or couch surfing, or those staying in domestic violence situations for fear of being homeless if they leave. “We really need to keep in mind all of these invisible people who are holding it together, but they’re doing it at a real cost to themselves and their kids.” Nodding heads around the room suggested the panelists’ words rang true for many audience members.

Panelists discussed some of the most pressing issues regarding the current landscape of housing affordability, including the impact of interconnected systems that go along with housing (access to and affordability of healthy food, transit, the built environment) as well as policies that can impede or alleviate finding and keeping safe, affordable, stable housing. All three panelists explained how the social determinants of health play into housing insecurity, and how addressing upstream factors is important if we want to move beyond band-aid solutions to the housing crisis.

The interconnected nature of systems can make an issue like housing affordability feel even more complex and difficult to address. However, as panelists reminded the audience, interconnectivity also means multiple points of access into the issue, and multiple opportunities to affect change. “I urge you to think about how you can enter this sphere,” one panelist said in closing, as another added, “We need to address those other systems that accompany homelessness.”

You can view a recording of the panel discussion here.

We will continue to explore the interconnectivity of systems with the rest of our Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems change series. These include:

• July 31: Colorado’s Economic Growth
• August 29: Addressing Food Insecurity

Posted on

Moving from Equality to Equity

Alison McCarthyIn May 2018, our Social Innovators Breakfast Series launched a special summer focus: Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems Change. Though we anticipate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) will be an important component for all events in the series, we decided to kick things off with a DEI-specific topic: Navigating the Unintended Consequences of moving from Equality to Equity.

We are grateful to our three panelists for representing a range of perspectives and experiences, and for sharing their expertise and lessons learned:

  • Heather Chikoore, Policy & Equity Specialist with the Colorado Education Initiative;
  • Tara Manthey, Vice President of Advocacy and Communications with the Colorado Children’s Campaign; and
  • Nancy Csuti, Vice President of Research, Evaluation & Strategic Learning with the Colorado Trust.

Panelists discussed both internal and external shifts driven by an organizational focus on equity. Internal work includes making structural changes such as hiring, performance management, and evaluation practices as well as staff training and education. External work includes dedicating time and resources to foster a genuine relationship with diverse partners, supporting grantees to advance equity, and working with marginalized populations to elevate their key concerns and progress.

“It’s been life-changing for me,” one of the panelists reflected when asked about personal growth on the journey to furthering equity, recognizing privilege, dismantling systems of oppression, etc. “I just wish I’d learned this years ago… the fact that I am White has made all the difference and that recognition has been pretty eye-opening.” In fact, one of the lessons panelists shared was the realization of how they may have unknowingly perpetuated inequities by hiring based on existing relationships by not asking candidates about their experience tackling inequities, thinking this work exists within the 9am-5pm window as opposed to a constant effort, unwittingly asking staff of color to do the emotional labor of educating White staff, etc.

Audience members also contributed to the dialogue by posing thoughtful questions to our panelists, illuminating their own struggles, lessons, and hopes for championing equity in Colorado. We hope this event prompted important reflections and provided concrete ideas for advancing equity – and we hope it is one of many ways funders, advocates, and other professionals can leverage each others’ knowledge and shared values to continue this important work.

Other events as part of our Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems Change series include:

• July 31: Colorado’s Economic Growth
• August 29: Addressing Food Insecurity