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Strengthening Partnerships for Education Through Collaborative Community Action and Collective Impact

Current systems are not working to meet different community’s needs across the Denver Metro area, especially when it comes to our educational systems, such as the early identification of young learners’ needs to the persistence of equity gaps in educational attainment and completion.

In Colorado less than half of Colorado children receive developmental screenings to identify potential social, emotional or behavioral challenges or developmental delays; which if unidentified can result in serious challenges that affect all areas of their lives. College enrollment and completion rates in Colorado demonstrate that equity gaps remain, with degree attainment for Hispanic and African American adults in Denver remaining significantly lower than those of white adults: 29% and 39%, compared to 64%[1]. These issues, among so many others, lead us to the question: what would it take to change the stats and create a more equitable education system in Colorado?

During our  October Social Innovators Breakfast we had the opportunity to meet and learn from three great organizations, who shared their experiences and learnings in achieving their goals through collaborative community action (CCA) and collective impact (CI). The panelist included:

  • Diana Higuera, Executive Director and Founder of the Rocky Mountain Welcome Center (RMWC), whose mission is to foster intercultural learning, understanding and integration among immigrants, refugees and Colorado residents through different programs and partnerships.
  • Eileen Auer Bennet, Executive Director of Assuring Better Child and Health Development (ABCD), a statewide nonprofit focused on improving the lives of Colorado children through early identification of developmental needs.
  • Therese Ivancovich, Executive Director of The Denver Education Attainment Network (DEAN), a collective impact initiative focused on increasing educational attainment and closing the attainment gap for students in Denver.

The panelists shared what brought them to the CCA/CI space, talked about how CCA/CI has evolved their work, discussed how they measure impact, and gave advice on starting or growing a CCA/CI initiative. We are grateful to our three panelist and we a sharing a reflection of learnings we gathered from these organizations that you can use to drive your own Collective Impact initiative. No matter what stage an initiative is at, these are some skills we learned that an initiative must have:

Commitment – ensure leaders and partners are committed to the vision and overall goal of the initiative.

Be Nimble – change the initiative direction, if necessary, and be able to take partners along the way.

Build Trust – develop trust within an initiative to not only create partner buy-in, but also build confidence between partners if the direction has to shift.

Do Your Homework – know who is at the table and what their motivations are.

Do What You Are Best At – know what your strengths are and focus on those. Let other partners do what they are best at.

We are passionate about bringing a systems lens to all of our work and often share resources and ideas for how to find and act on leverage points, use systems mapping to help change the game, and how experimentation can help drive social change. Additionally, we have many free tools and resources available if you are considering or already involved in a collaborative community action or collective impact initiative, this includes our full report When Collective Impact Has an Impact.


Do you have other lessons to share? Is there a topic you would like to see us explore in this blog? Tell us in the comments! Stay up to date on Spark latest news by following us on social media and subscribe to our newsletter today!

[1] Erase Equity Gaps. (2017). Colorado Department of Higher Education. Available:

Related Publications: When Collective Impact Has an Impact

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May SparkNews: Transforming Health

Image of stakeholders

All of the rapid change in the health landscape allows for exciting opportunities to engage stakeholders and, therefore, create solutions that are as equitable as they are innovative. However, engaging these voices effectively requires a commitment to the process to ensure they aren’t just token representation, and that their perspectives and lived experiences truly inform the process. This level of engagement can be challenging, to be sure, but the effort is well worth it in improved outcomes.

This month, we are highlighting some of the work we’re doing with two health-related projects actively involving the stakeholder voice:Image of stakeholders

Both projects seek to improve health outcomes. To do this, these projects rely heavily on meaningfully engaging stakeholders in the process to inform the work, identify needed shifts, and ensure the work is driving toward high-impact outcomes.

We’re also highlighting:

  • Our “Tools for Engaging Nontraditional Voices” toolkit;
  • A blog that examines the stakeholder engagement process in the development of the Colorado Coordinated Chronic Disease State Framework; and
  • Some of the work our team members are doing outside the office to engage stakeholders to support equity.

Sound interesting? Check out the rest of the newsletter!

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Better Outcomes through Engagement

Having come from a field where collaboration and stakeholder engagement is just starting to catch on, I am astounded by the level of cooperation underway in the health field here in Colorado and throughout the country. I joined Spark in February after helping lead Colorado’s largest “open source” policy development process in the form of Colorado’s Water Plan. After a decade of engagement across eight regional groups and a statewide group involving 400 stakeholders, we were able to bring in over 30,000 more voices and complete Colorado’s first water plan by Coloradans and for Coloradans. This collaborative approach was not easily adopted; the natural resource word has traditionally been litigious due to competing objectives. The competing needs of the environment, industry, recreational enthusiasts, cities, and agriculture led to deep fissures that took leadership, money, time, and a careful planning process to close. In the end, however, we reached consensus across the stakeholders in Colorado, but without engaging stakeholders to develop the content and keep a balanced process, Colorado’s Water Plan would just be another document gathering dust.

While working on the water plan, bringing people together to form and believe in a common vision was difficult. In contrast, in the field of health it is often on the path to accomplish the work where the challenges truly begin. For instance, Spark is engaged in two projects with the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Finance. The purpose of the first project is to improve the quality of care for people with long-term disabilities and the elderly through the newly formed Community Living Quality Improvement Committee (CLQIC), which includes individuals who are disabled, the elderly, and parents of disabled young adults in addition to advocates, service providers, and experts. These voices, the “consumers” of health services, keep these conversations grounded in reality and bring a sense of urgency to solving the real and long standing issues facing these communities. Despite the myriad perspectives brought to the table by these voices, the vision for the project was unanimously adopted: With person and family centeredness as a foundation, the CLQIC envisions a Colorado where consumers and families have the necessary information, access to services, and quality of care needed to remove barriers that prohibit individuals from being able to embrace the life they choose. However, coming to consensus on how to achieve that vision is more difficult.

This might be a tad extreme, but you catch our drift.

The second project seeks to build an action strategy to implement telehealth across Colorado. Spark is reaching out to professionals (e.g., doctors, nurse practitioners, insurers, academics), as well as patients to determine how telehealth should be implemented. We will interview those currently receiving telehealth services, and those who are not, but are in great need. As with the CLQIC, everyone agrees on the need to expand telehealth, but not exactly how to do it.

In both examples, it is clear that the hard work starts not with finding a common purpose, but with exposing the differences that lie beneath the surface. As professionals, we each bring our own perspectives of what is possible and who should be doing the work. We each worry about the staffing and funding needed to support our respective organizations. We each hope to justify the hard work we’ve done throughout the years by continuing to keep that work going. We are vested in the current system, and the changes we would like to make are often incremental and safe. Consensus in this context can lead to the lowest common denominator, which results in little change. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, then we will get the same results!

In both of these projects, it is clear that the vested interests of professionals can only bring the dialogue so far. Oftentimes we struggle to bring the disabled, or elderly, or youth, or busy parents, or people who speak a different language, or so many other groups of people that can be hard to reach. However, it is the voice of those who receive or will receive services that can ensure that the work is patient centered and is truly aimed at making a positive difference in people’s lives. This is the binding agent that pulls the subsurface fissures back together. The outcomes that result from involving those on the ground are worth the effort it takes to bring them to the table. That is why when Spark takes on a project – whether it’s health, natural resources, education, nuclear security, or some other topic, we try to make sure this simple lesson is forefront in the design of the work. We developed an equity toolkit for us to turn to and have made it public so that everyone can have the practical tools to implement this simple lesson: If the people whose lives an initiative could truly effect are involved in developing solutions for a project, and those voices are wielded to help the professionals FEEL the potential and get re-connected to why they got involved in a particular field in the first place, then you will develop actions that will make a meaningful difference.

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April SparkNews: It’s about People

People in a community

Sometimes, it is all too easy to get caught up in the how of work that we forget the why. How do we identify the leverage points that will cause a systemic shift? How do we sustain change? These are important questions and they constitute the bulk of what we DO, but they don’t answer the WHY. Why do we engage in systems change work? At the end of the day, often the answer is: because of people. Because we want to make a meaningful difference that improves the lives of people in our communities. They are the heart of systems change, the reason behind it in the first place.

People in a communityAt Spark, we keep this focus by thinking through outcomes – the change we want to see in the world – and keeping these outcomes at the forefront of all of our work. For example, our work with Healthy Schools Collective Impact isn’t just to build a stronger system for school-based health and wellness in Colorado; it’s to better serve students and teachers, and to ultimately improve student outcomes. We have also developed a series of tools that help us keep this focus on people, such as the Tools for Engaging Nontraditional Voices and Tools for Integrating an Equity Lens toolkits, as well as other great resources such as this blog and brief on how advocates can use storytelling as a powerful tool for change. In addition, this newsletter includes a great new resource from Fourth Quadrant Partners on “emergent strategy”, which hinges on the idea of expanding agency – the capacity to act – to a greater number of players in a strategy, reminding us of the value of community in a strategy and the power of incorporating multiple insights to improve our work. This reminder of why we are here also drives us to identify ways outside of work to improve our communities through volunteerism, which is highlighted in a great blog this month by Laura Trent and Alison McCarthy, two project managers at Spark. Read more.

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Working in Fields

Yellow flowers in a field

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how different it looks to work in a field instead of alone. And no, I don’t mean out in a field of flowers (though that sounds lovely). Rather, I’m referring to a field of organizations trying to cause the same type of change, though not necessarily in collaboration or even cooperation.

We are all part of these fields: it’s the five other organizations who submitted nearly the same proposal as you did to a local funder; the three groups who knocked on the same policymaker’s door last week, talking about the same issue; the two partners you call when a quick turnaround opportunity comes up that you can’t pull off alone. The mix of all these types of organizations comprises our field (or fields, for multi-issue, multi-area organizations).

Years of emphasis on collaboration and collective impact have made sure we all recognize that we can’t get to the big wins without partners. However, we also deal with the competing reality that collaboration is hard, time consuming, and rarely exists across all the relevant organizations. So what if we thought about our work at a field level as more than just our collaborations? What would it take to influence how a field of organizations can achieve major wins together?

It turns out some folks out there have started to think about this and, in fact, have begun to define some dimensions of fields of advocates who are trying to advance a policy or systemic issue. Within each of these dimensions, there are concrete ways advocacy organizations, funders or even evaluators can help to strengthen the field:

Framing of the issue or issues

Effective fields share a common frame or core set of values underlying their work. For example, pursuing Healthy Eating, Active Living (HEAL) policy change in order to address inequities v. to address the lack of capacity in the healthcare system to meet the growing demand. While each of these frames is valid, one would approach the problem fairly differently and identify different solutions within each frame. Because of this, they might be different fields.

  • So what can you do with this? You can look for partners who share the same frame and identify common opportunities to act together. You can promote your frame to other organizations in the same space and work to change the overall framing around the issue. As a funder, you can invest resources to strengthen organizations that share your frame.

Resources and skills

Fields are composed of organizations with different resources and skills to influence an issue. Most fields have deficits, such as a lack of strong policy analysis/research capacity or insufficient community organizing. Alternatively, they may lack key skills that are rarely needed, but when needed they are critical, such as launching ballot initiative campaigns or leading litigation processes.

  • So what can you do about this? Explore the deficits and seek to grow your organization in that direction, rather than duplicating already available capacity. Build the skills of other organizations so they can engage in work that is complimentary to your own.


Fields have varying levels of relationships between organizations. Strong relationships allow for coordinated strategies, leveraging of capacities, and use of common messaging on specific policy opportunities, while weak relationships can make it difficult to work together at the right moments to achieve policy or systemic changes.

  • So what can you do about this? Seek out organizations that are traditionally not connected to your part of the field, particularly those that bring a different resource, skill, or voice to the work. Intentionally leverage old and new partners for concrete opportunities to move an issue together. If you’re a funder, provide resources and convening opportunities to organizations currently not connected to one another.


Composition refers to the representation of different types of stakeholders, from the inclusion of public/private partners to racial, ethnic, and economic diversity and more. Fields that represent a broad array of stakeholders carry more influence when policy opportunities arise and also help craft policy solutions that are more likely to achieve the desired outcomes than when only a couple perspectives dominate the field.

  • So what can you do about this? Identify which voices are missing from the field or are marginalized. Expand the perspectives or organizations you engage. If you’re a funder, consider bringing new voices into the field by funding direct service or community organizations who want to advocate.

Adaptive Capacity

When the context shifts in a policy campaign or systems building strategy, effective advocacy organizations shift their strategies as well. A strong field doesn’t shift in 10 different directions or miss key signals indicating a shift is needed. Rather, when part of the field identifies the need for change, the need is recognized throughout the field and the changes are aligned.

  • So what can you do about this? If your organization is skilled at monitoring the environment, share what you’re learning actively with other organizations. If you don’t have the capacity to do that monitoring, seek out partners who do and share what you learn from them. If you’re a funder, consider funding one or more organizations to engage in environmental assessments ongoing with the expectation that they will disseminate the learning actively and in a timely manner.

This might be the longest blog I’ve ever written, but I hope you find the ideas are worth the number of words on the screen. Working at a field level may lead to stronger collaborations in the future, but just as important is the way it will change how organizations respond and react to each other and the environment in order to advocate in ways that collectively contribute to the likelihood of success.

I will be joining thought leaders on this issue of working collectively (without having to work collaboratively) at the American Evaluation Association’s annual conference this year. If you’re attending, I hope you can join us and move this dialogue forward.