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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.

Connectivity

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

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.

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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.

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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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Working with the Faith Community to Spark Social Change

This month, we’ve looked at how to use the private sector to scale change.  Now I want to shift the focus outside of the public/private realm and look at the role other groups can plan in creating meaningful change: specifically, the role the faith community can play in bringing attention to and energizing people around an issue.

MLKFaith-based organizing has historically been integral in social justice movements, from women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery and in civil rights movement of the 60s in the US to ending apartheid in South Africa. More recently, the faith community has been an active partner in addressing issues such as climate change, immigration reform, access to contraceptives, economic justice, ending childhood obesity and many others.

The power of faith-based community mobilizing comes from:

  • Their focus on living an ethical life, with an emphasis on service to others and working towards a just society;
  • The transformative nature of faith, which orients people to the public good; and
  • Their ability to cross racial and economic lines and to bring new constituencies, such as recent immigrants, into the public sphere.

Recognizing the power of the faith community to achieve social reform through civic engagement, faith-based community organizations (FBCOs) began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s. These organizations helped build a mobilizing infrastructure that is more fully able to leverage the natural orientation of faith communities toward the public good, amplifying the voice and reach of their social justice efforts.

Together COIn our work with Project Health Colorado, we saw upfront how valuable faith leaders can be as part of a broader movement. PHC was a three-year effort designed to get people talking about access to health care and how it can be improved. The initiative worked with 14 organizational partners who helped spread the message of PHC through their networks and by recruiting volunteers.  One of the partners was Together Colorado, a member of the PICO National Network.

Together Colorado worked to engage faith leaders in PHC and our evaluation found that the leaders they recruited were some of the most active and engaged in the project. On average, faith leaders reported reaching over 70 people in-person and over 170 people when electronic outreach was included. There were some who had more extensive reach, engaging over 300 people through in-person events; one leader even had access to a congregation of 8,500 people!  The faith community was invaluable – extending the reach of PHCs message far beyond anything paid staff could have done.

Clearly, the faith community can be an important partner in a social movement – they have a trusted platform, an engaged constituency and the passion for making a difference in their community.  So how can we effectively connect with faith-based communities?

  • Be respectful, do your research and listen to their concerns, so you can frame your issue through their values and beliefs. Circle
  • Similarly, allow faith communities to connect to the issues that resonate with them, rather than creating an agenda they may not connect with.
  • Be strategic when engaging faith leaders – rather than asking them to join your work, work respect their leadership and support it.
  • Provide an organizing platform that allows them to easily move from concept to action and support them (and your cause) through training on messaging.  Check out the great approach Together Colorado uses to learn more about this!
  • Demonstrate results! Show that their voice matters to sustain engagement.

Creating meaningful change is a collaborative effort.  It takes people and programs from across the spectrum: public and private, faith-based and secular, and everything in between.  Each group has unique abilities and attributes that can – and should – be used to help scale change and help spark the change that makes the difference we’re all working toward.

To learn more about Together Colorado’s efforts and how to effectively engage faith leaders, check out our brief with The Colorado Trust.

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Scaling Change: Market Forces are Part of the Solution

LeverageI’ve been thinking about this issue of how to scale social innovation a lot lately. When I was at the D.C. Presidio Fellowship week, we talked with the Social Innovation Fund. Their focus is on mobilizing public and private resources to find and grow the best community solutions. They identify evidence-based strategies that can make a difference on issues like economic opportunity, healthy futures, and youth development and then fund those innovators to do a lot more of the same.  The Fund is a great model for leveraging the private sector with the public sector to scale change. It builds on what the non-profit sector has always done, focusing on services and supports that are working, and adds the actively engagement of the private sector as part of the solution.

I really appreciate their recognition of the important role the private sector. This recognition is growing – there are an increasing number of models for how public/private partnerships can solve some of the most pressing social issues. For example, the Omidyar Network  invests in a combination of for-profit and non-profit ventures that together can help solve complex problems, like government transparency and financial inclusion, throughout the world. One of their approaches is to combine funding with technical support for the early stages of innovative market solutions, helping expand the scale of social entrepreneurships.

For me, one of the more exciting examples of private sector investment in social change and evidence of the tremendous scaling potential of engaging corporations comes from PepsiCo’s recent work with the Clinton Global Initiative.  They took the following inputs:

PepsiCo’s juice products in India + Clinton Global Initiative’s capacity + small cashew farmers living below the poverty line + highly nutritional cashew fruits + modern agricultural techniques

and created:

A value-added supply chain of over 2,000 small farmers (soon to be over 15,000) who previously could only sell the cashew nut, but are now able to efficiently grow and sell the fruit to PepsiCo where it is used to increase the nutritional value of existing juice products.

CashewTalk about a win-win. It made me want to fly to India to try one of the juices!

The takeaway from this great public/private partnership is to remember that the for-profit sector is built around the concept of scaling in a way the public and non-profit sector just isn’t. We need to leverage that! Businesses seek growth – new markets, new customers, new products. That means they have an ever expanding reach and when we can work with businesses to balance profit with social good, what we care about can grow along with their bottom line.

Next time we start a social change strategy, I propose we start asking questions from day one to help us identify the for-profit partners who have a business reason to be part of the change:

  • Who is already making profit related to the issue we care about and how do they make it?
  • What changes to current for-profit models could change outcomes on this social issue?  Who would benefit from thosePPP changes? How small of a change would make a difference?
  • Where is there potential for profit not yet tapped by anyone?

Just like any other type of social change, engaging a for-profit in a market-based solution to the problem may benefit from starting small and piloting the change. But once you can demonstrate the bottom line benefit, both in profit and in social good, just imagine the scaling potential!

Want more resources on scaling?  Check out the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s special supplement on scaling.