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Five Years in the Life of a Backbone

The Colorado General Assembly created the Colorado Farm to School Task Force (Task Force), an unfunded entity composed of 13 (now 15) appointed seats to “develop regional farm-to-school networks across the state” in 2010. Today, the Task Force is not only poised to sunset itself ahead of schedule but Food Tank has  recognized it in their “116 Orgs You Might Not Have Heard About, But Should Know in 2016,” a list of organizations from around the world “deserving of the spotlight because of their vital contributions to creating a better food system.”

At their first meeting, the diverse set of members were raring to go. None of them had a full understanding of farm to school (FTS) in Colorado; yet, each had a wealth of knowledge of particular aspects that directly or indirectly touched on FTS. Two major “ah-ha’s” came out of that initial meeting:

  • One, that there were literally over a hundred people or organizations identified as important to fostering FTS in Colorado; and
  • Two, that a task force – composed of appointed members required to meet quarterly – could not possibly do this work without dedicated staff.

Colorado Farm to School RoadmapSpark was selected to support the Task Force and got down to the nitty gritty work of figuring out how to harness the energy, skills, and passion in a way that would allow the task force to reach their end goal of statewide FTS in Colorado. Our first step was to help the Task Force create a strategic roadmap to both understand and find their unique contribution to FTS within the complex, messy intersecting systems of school food procurement, local food systems, public health, public education and all the local, state, and federal laws and regulations governing each sector. After five hours of hard work and hundreds of sticky notes the FTS roadmap took shape, thus setting the framework for five years of systematically pursing the Task Force’s end of the road “collaborative, sustainable, farm to school statewide.” As the backbone, Spark was integral to the journey.

Is backbone just a fancy name for staff?

In short, no! Backbones often do much of what a staff would do for an organization – coordinate and facilitate meetings, pull together materials, outreach to key stakeholders – but backbones are central to the work of an initiative, ensuring the sum is far greater than its collective parts. Among the key skills backbones provide are:

How has the backbone work contributed to the growth of FTS in Colorado? We’ve pulled together some great examples of Spark’s work as the backbone over the years, including examples of how we’ve:

  • Guided vision and strategy;
  • Supported aligned activities;
  • Established shared measurement practices;
  • Built public will;
  • Advanced policy; and
  • Mobilized funding.

FTSColorado is now a national leader in FTS in terms of the Task Force model, the innovative practices being implemented, and the sheer growth in the number of school districts engaged in FTS. Since 2010, FTS in Colorado has grown nearly five-fold: from 22 districts in 2010 to 105 districts in 2014. Schools are now spending nearly $18 million dollars on local food, supporting local economies and local farmers!

Messy, complex systems work like FTS needs a backbone to support all the moving parts – from crafting a vision, working with aligned stakeholders, establishing shared methods of measurement, building public will, advancing policy, and mobilizing funding. And a backbone – like the amazing partners surrounding it – is in it for the long haul! Backbones are critical to any systems change initiative.

Are you working on a multi-system or collective impact initiative and want to learn more about how Spark can support you? Check us out and get in touch – we love challenges that will make the world a better place!

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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.