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Evaluating Collaboration in Place-based Initiatives: Can it Move the Needle?

On October 5th and 6th, I will have the opportunity to facilitate a session on how evaluation can help stakeholders understand and strengthen cross-sector partnerships and collaboration more broadly at the Art & Science of Place-Based Evaluation. The conference is hosted by Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, and the Neighborhood Funders Group and builds off of a series of on-going national conversations about the importance of “place” in philanthropic investments, including the Center of Philanthropy and Public Policy’s National Forum on Place-based Initiatives and the Aspen Institutes’ Promising Practices Conference.

If you Google “evaluate collaboration” you will see there is no shortage of tools for assessing the strength of a collaborative effort, but as I prepared for the session, I found myself asking: Is the quality of collaboration really the most important thing to investigate with your limited evaluation resources?

Effectively engaging partners in place-based work depends on more than good processes and practices. Among other things, it requires:

  • Meaningfully engaging different sectors to leverage the different motivations bringing each to the table (which requires surfacing and understanding those motivations!);
  • Tackling difficult power dynamics, sometimes evident in the room, but other times they play out in how strategies are implemented:
  • Recognizing and responding appropriately to the impact of the cultural assumptions participants bring to the process;
  • Managing the negative consequences of failed attempts to work collaboratively in the past;
  • Effectively leveraging large networks of organizations and leaders, often larger than the initiative has time to meaningfully engage and manage; and
  • Engaging with communities experiencing disparities in ways that are appropriate and lead to an impact on the work.

In addition, there is the fundamental issue of whether and how the structures and processes of collaboration are leading to something worthwhile – moving the needle on the issue that brought everyone together. Are collaboration and engagement managed in ways that advance the work or only in ways that advance the quality of collaboration?

If evaluation is going to play an role in helping place-based initiatives advance their collaboration processes, and get to the meaningful change, it needs to go beyond tools and become a real-time partner in uncovering motivations, power dynamics, and cultural assumptions; it needs to help pick apart how networks are functioning and where engagement might be most effective; and it should play a role in understanding how, and to what extent, nontraditional partners are influencing the decisions being made and contributing to shifts in the overall strategy and direction of the work.

These are the types of issues we’ll be exploring in the collaboration and cross-sector partnerships session at the convening. Don’t worry, you’ll leave with a list of evaluation tools that can be helpful if you want to focus on evaluating the effectiveness of your collaborative processes. But you’ll also leave with insights about how to engage evaluation in helping you tackle the fundamental issues standing between good collaboration and having an impact on the issues that matter.

Interested in learning more about the conference or attending? Visit the conference website: http://www.jacobscenter.org/placebased/

Want to hear from more facilitators?  Check out the blog from Meg Long of Equal Measure about connecting community change to systems change and Sonia Taddy-Sandino of Harder+Company about “getting ready” for place-based work. Interested in accessing new resources before the conference?  Check out our toolkits on engaging nontraditional voices and decision-making in complex, multi-stakeholder settings.

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Summertime, and the Thinking is Slow

JL in VII had the good fortune in June to find myself in the Virgin Islands facilitating a strategic roadmap session focused on addressing food systems issues, followed by a few days on the beaches with my family. The wonderful thing about a beach vacation, other than watching the absolute joy on your child’s face as they splash in the waves, is the space it creates for thought: unrushed, deadline free, wide open thinking. The combination of vacation and an inspiring conversation about the Virgin Islands food systems left me with a lot of room for deep thinking.

Thinking Fast and SlowHave you heard of the book “Thinking Fast and Slow”? It explores how our brains have two modes of thinking – instinctive, automatic thinking (fast) and deliberate thinking where you formulate arguments, solve problems, create plans, etc. (slow). Basically, slow thinking is where you exert mental energy. And because we are always operating at high speed these days, it can be easy to get caught up in fast thinking and avoid putting the energy into a more purposeful thinking process.

It’s not always a bad thing to do this though. Because we all have such rich experiences to draw from, we can intuitively read many situations quite well and act with confidence even if we haven’t had time to stop and assess more carefully. However, being away from the rush of getting things done created room for me to recommit to slow thinking, not just for major decisions or turning points in our work, but along the way to prepare for the many opportunities to catalyze meaningful change.

When we think too quickly, we make up patterns, see stories in what is otherwise random information. With slow thinking, we find underlying causes and investigate to find meaningful solutions. Have you ever watched a young child try to understand how something works? They use slow thinking, only without the benefit of all the technology and relationships we can use to track down new information. Instead, they puzzle over something new, pull it apart (and yes, occasionally break it in the process), sometimes manage to put it back together, and have the most entertaining observations along the way, like this interpretation of how to grow a pumpkin: “first dig a hole in dirt, cover the seed, then you have to water it, and wait for Halloween to come!”

Logo 1I want to bring that sense of openness, wonder and thoughtful investigation back into how we do our work every day, not just in approaching the major decisions. This might be why I’m such a fan of developmental evaluation, as it gives me an opportunity to wear the slow thinking hat when I’m working with innovative groups who are tackling important challenges.

So, here’s my summer 2015 resolution: I will take the slow, deliberative thinking that is core to developmental evaluation and integrate it more fully across many different types of change strategies. More importantly, I will help others create that same space for thinking, building our collective capacity to catalyze change based on more than just intuition, based on the best we can devise about how to improve the world. I hope you’ll all join me in a commitment to taking the time for slow-thinking this summer and go deeper and – hopefully further – in catalyzing change.

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Community Engagement: Nine Dos and a Don’t

HandsUpThere is power in voices coming together to protest a broken system or to heal communally after a system has hurt them, whether through hashtags on social media or through US Representatives raising their hands in protest on the floor of the House.

But there is greater power in listening to those who stand to be the most impacted to repair a broken system.

Without the perspective of those who stand to be most impacted, even well-meaning policies often do not have their intended effect because they fail to take into account the lived experience of the members of the community they are trying to affect.

Engaging these perspectives is not easy, but it is the only way to create sustainable and equitable change.

There is no one magic checklist for this work, no quick “how to” guide. If one existed, I would share it with you. However, Spark’s work engaging communities has generated some important lessons learned:

DO pre-work. Engaging marginalized persons is something that needs so much more than good intentions. Before you come in to a community, do your homework. Engage with key leaders who can be a partner and ensure the way you work with the community is respectful and appropriate. Learn about cultural norms and traditions. Learn about the history of the community, including other initiatives that were unsuccessful. What made them unsuccessful? What can you learn from and do differently? Additionally, do some internal work regarding your own potential biases. For example, do you hold preconceived notions about this community that may be a barrier to genuine interactions?

DO take your time. For people to share their stories, advice, and perspective with you, they need to know it’s worth their time. They need to know that you will really hear them rather than tokenize their participation by checking them off your to-do list. Put in the time to build relationships and set the foundation of mutual respect and joint action before diving into the specifics of your project.

DO listen. You learn more by listening than speaking, and isn’t learning what you’re there to do? Learn about what the community needs and what it’s going to take for the initiative to be successful and sustainable. You might hear unique and creative solutions that would have not occurred to you or seemed unrealistic without that community perspective.

DO build trust by making sure the work yields something actionable. Honor the relationships you’ve built by making sure you don’t just gather data and leave while some report collects dust on a shelf.

DO be flexible. The process of engaging nontraditional partners sometimes means holding meetings outside of normal business hours so that people who work or go to school can attend, or taking care not to use jargon and acronyms that may be unfamiliar. Adjust what you know and be open to unique aspects of a new situation – don’t assume what worked in one place will work in another!

DO invest in human capital. If possible, build your partners’ capacity to advocate for themselves and their community. It might be providing training on how to navigate a system, creating a space to practice skill-building, or sharing tools to facilitate a process. Just make sure that whatever you do acknowledges the community’s existing strengths.

DO practice humility. Arrogance is the death of progress. Recognize that you do not have all the answers and that your facts may be correct without your point being important. It’s not about coming into a community and telling its members what they need. It’s about checking your ego at the door and soliciting honest opinions that will help the partnership grow to make a meaningful and sustainable difference.

DO share the spotlight. When the hard work pays off, make sure you don’t claim credit solely for yourself and the agency you represent. Recognize the work the community has put in and celebrate the successes together. Highlighting the community’s achievement strengthens its voice and ensures it is seen as a valued part of the next project or initiative that comes along.

DO be accountable. The nature of this work means you’re likely to hit some bumps along the way. Address these bumps with accountability and humility, and work to make sure they don’t happen again.

And, finally,

DON’T ever stop growing. Meaningfully partnering with marginalized people to catalyze change can be challenging, but don’t give up! When time is limited, you may be tempted to just take the easier route and do your work without partnering with marginalized groups and it can get discouraging when results aren’t immediate. Be patient, with yourself and with the process. The payoff is worth it!

Flexibility

Interested in learning more about engaging nontraditional voices? Check out our toolkit!

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Reflections of a change agent: Sometimes you need to shut up and listen

Last summer, the Spark team was in one of our monthly all day team retreats. We use these conversations to ground ourselves in what matters about our work and stay true to our values.

To begin the day, we watched parts of two Ted talks:

  • The first talk helped us explore the concept of excellence, including how to define and understand excellence as something that is owned by everyone at every level: excellence cannot be imposed from the top nor independently generated from those on the ground.
  • The second talk reminded us to shut up and listen, which used a wonderful example about hippos and agriculture that will stick with you! It was a potent reminder that no matter how much you think you know, you don’t know all of the things that are critical to causing meaningful change.

The dialogue that followed has become part of the fabric of Spark, so much so that we keep a copy of the word cloud below at our desks as a daily reminder!

wordle

We explored the many ways that catalyzing change is different from implementing projects, preparing deliverables, facilitating meetings, doing the day-to-day work of a consultant. Here are some of our primary take-aways from that day:

  • Catalyzing change is about the process and the relationships, but it’s also about understanding that people need to have joy in that process, excitement, and opportunities to act on their passions. It’s about knowing that creating meaningful change is outside of our control as partners in many efforts, which means our best role is to lend our support to our partners, helping them be the leaders.
  • We explored how our own biases and assumptions get in the way, while also recognizing that they are a very human reality and we all have them.
  • We thought about the voices who most need to be part of a process and the reality of engaging them – listening, taking time to hear what they are saying, and the need to realize we are not the experts in the room, the community is.
  • We faced our egos head on and agreed that we need to not assume we know the answer, to know that even when our facts are right, they may not be important, and to listen more than speak. Arrogance is the death of progress.

These insights are not revolutionary, but together they reminded us what it takes to be catalytic without owning the change. They continue to remind me, day to day, and keep me grounded in what matters.

We hope they can also remind you of what it looks like when you are your best, creating an environment where meaningful change flourishes and your partners thrive amid the exciting uncertainties of making the world a better place.

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What Does Systems Building Really Mean?

Systems building. Partnerships. Collaboration. These are commonly-used words in the world of social change. They come from the realization that nothing exists in a vacuum – even nature’s most basic systems thrive on diversity and interconnectedness – but what does it really mean? And what does it look like on the ground?

Over the past few months, Spark has worked with the Early Childhood Councils Leadership Alliance (ECCLA), a nonprofit organization that works to improve access to quality services and supports for young children by developing a strong statewide network of early childhood council leaders and stakeholders. There are 31 Early Childhood Councils (ECC) that serve 58 of Colorado’s 64 counties, working together to build effective, quality, and responsive local early childhood systems, coordinating of partnerships across diverse agencies.

ECCLA Map

As in many social arenas, systemic work is crucial to building effective and efficient early childhood systems. Through collaboration, ECCs were better able to:

  • Streamline fundraising efforts between traditionally competitive entities, thereby leveraging each other’s strengths to better serve the community.
  • Enhance communication and strategic learning across silos to identify service gaps and reduce duplication of services.
  • Integrate services across early learning, health, mental health, family support, and parent education domains – and provide comprehensive support as a result!

SystemThese outcomes are impressive, but we wanted to know: how do these early childhood systems really work? So, we asked the Councils themselves. The stories we heard were inspiring and revealed what systems building work really means in practice. For example, we heard how:

  • The ECC of Larimer County has played a key role in helping families in the county access health insurance. The ECC trained staff on Medicaid/CHP Application Assistance and provided funds for to help cover associated fees, which made a big difference for one family. After hearing how much money she needed to apply for Medicaid/CHP, a woman expressed her concern to administrators at her daughter’s child care center. Because of the training provided by the ECC, the center was able to direct her to a Medicaid/CHP technician on site who was able to get her financial assistance to cover the fees and helped with the application itself.
  • First Impressions ECC in Routt County played an integral role in creating a cohesive early learning community where providers work together to increase everyone’s financial resources, leading to more preventive and comprehensive services for families with young children. The ECC supported the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program so the income eligibility ceiling could be raised from 130% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines to 185%.
  • Council members from the Arapahoe County ECC drafted SB 12-022, which is designed to mitigate the “cliff effect” many low-income families face by establishing more flexible guidelines for Colorado’s Childcare Assistance Program. This change has helped many low-income families across the state access quality childcare when they otherwise would have been ineligible.

These are just a few of the inspiring stories we heard through our work with the Councils. It is clear that systems building is more than just a catchphrase – it has real impacts on real people. And while this work isn’t easy, requiring thinking on a broad, comprehensive level, these efforts to create streamlined systems are improving outcomes for Colorado’s kids.

To learn more about the great work of ECCLA and the Councils, see the 2014 State of the Councils Report.