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Summer Spark News: Making the Commitment

All gender restroom equity

All gender restroom equityOur mission at Spark has long been to develop innovative and research-based solutions to society’s complex problems. After a summer that has seen devastating violence and expressions of xenophobia and hate across the country – as well as outpourings of generosity and stories of strength – we see more than ever the need to address racial and structural inequities head-on in order to create meaningful systems change. A few years ago, Spark developed our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. Since then, we have worked to actualize this commitment, ensuring it is not just words, but that it is embedded in our actions, deeds, and culture. To this end, we have developed an organizational statement on equity and inclusion, which you can read in full here.

This month’s newsletter focuses on what we are doing to keep equity and inclusion front and center in all we do. One example is our new all-gender restroom, which became official this month, in an effort to create a more welcoming space for all persons. The newsletter includes actionable and accessible tools to help support that work, including toolkits on equity, using data, and complex decision-making, as well as blogs on mapping tools to support place-based work.

Read the rest of the newsletter. Want to receive more updates like this? You can subscribe to our newsletter here.

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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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Presenting Data Effectively

XKCD Convincing Comic

In my job as a Policy and Communication Manager for Spark, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can translate the great research we do here into actionable products. When not presented effectively, data can be mostly noise – too much information to remember, interpret and use to make decisions. But, when data is presented effectively and at the right time, it can be a powerful tool for change. Here are some of the key things we use to guide our work here at Spark:

Be Clear on the Purpose: Is your primary goal to improve a strategy? To define a problem? To persuade? To educate? To call people to action? The same data can be presented in multiple different ways, which vary depending on why you are sharing the information. For example, if you’re looking to examine whether your strategy needs a refresh, you will need to focus on the data that is most actionable, whereas if you are looking to educate, there may be a need to provide additional context.

Know Your Audience: Does your audience have a depth of knowledge on the topic at hand or are they relatively new to the issue? Are you preparing a single document or presentation for an audience with varying levels of knowledge, interest, and/or education? Is their time limited? Do they need the facts quickly? Or will they have the time to digest the information more fully before taking action? Think about what is important to your audience and what they need to know the most. All of this will factor into determining how best to present information, e.g. an informal or formal presentation, a facilitated dialogue, or written, such as a brief, check-list, report, or white paper. These considerations will also influence the structure of the information and your tone.

Tell the Story: Stories make information more relatable, which makes your findings more actionable. Even if you don’t have a “traditional” story, it can be helpful to think of how you present your information using the elements of a story: characters (who is affected and who are the key players?), the setting (describe the context), plot (there should be a beginning, middle, and end), conflict (what is the central problem to be addressed and why is it important?), and resolution (what are some potential solutions, where do we go from here?). We tend to only remember one or two key things after a presentation or reading a document. If you present a series of findings, your reader will remember a couple of those findings, but will lose the rest. If you present a story, your reader will remember the overall picture of what the findings collectively mean.

Be Visual: Most of us are, by our nature, visual creatures. Often, showing is more effective than telling at conveying information, which means you’re increasing the likelihood your findings are used! Visuals can include charts, graphs, tables, maps, infographics, even pictures. Taking the time to think through which type of visual is the most appropriate for your audience, as well as what results are most worth highlighting, can help ensure your visuals have the most impact.

 

XKCD ConvincingActively Engage: Sometimes you don’t have direct access to your audience in-person or by phone. Instead, you’re sending documents, posting them online, etc. When you do have access to the audience, however, you can take the use of data to the next level. When we are presenting information, whether virtually or in the room, we don’t do half hour long PowerPoint presentations. We talk for 10 minutes, discuss and debrief for more than 10 minutes and repeat. We put the data up on the walls and let people walk around the room and talk with each other. We put visuals and stories on the tables and have small groups explore the meaning. We find ways to make sure that more time is spent digesting and thinking about how to act on the findings than spent absorbing the new information. When people integrate new information into how they are thinking about a problem or a solution, they are more likely to use it than when they simply learn the new information.

There are many great online resources out there for presenting data effectively, including our recently-released toolkit in our Tools for Social Innovators series, Data as a Tool for Change. We’d love to hear how you incorporate data into your work, and tips and tricks you have for presenting information effectively. Share in the comments or click here to contribute to the toolkit!

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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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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.