Posted on

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: http://masterplan.highered.colorado.gov/goal-2-erase-equity-gaps/

Related Publications: When Collective Impact Has an Impact

Posted on

Integrating Lenses for a Systems Approach

Systems thinking is often considered a broad view of all the pieces required to make meaningful change happen. It’s essential to making real change – but when we equate the system with the change, we overlook the individual players. These individual players are crucial to making change happen, and can get lost in the complexity. In a reversal of roles, we lose the trees for the forest.

A systems lens is most effective when it results in recognizing and leveraging individual contributors. In fact, if you neglect to see and recognize individuals, you aren’t really using a systems lens. True systems thinking shifts between and integrates a 50,000-foot view with a 5,000-foot view, a five-foot view, and every degree in-between. No view alone is any more complete than the other.

Take for example, Ella Baker. When people learn about the civil rights era, they are often directed to the 50,000-foot view: large, systems changes and movements that occurred. This would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which for the first time prohibited discrimination in employment and public accommodation on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

At the 5,000-foot view, the focus is often on Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contribution to the larger movement. The same year that congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize. He became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and it can be easy to equate the movement and outcomes with King himself or the Act his efforts contributed to passing.

However, when we get down to the five-foot view, we see the crucial importance of Ella Baker. In a time without the internet and texting, Baker organized rallies, created and printed brochures, and generated interest from communities in advance of organized events. Without her efforts and many like hers, the movement that Martin Luther King, Jr. championed would not have advanced as it did.

Ella Baker is an example of someone who enabled change to happen, by being present on the ground. She is an inspiration for any individual working toward a larger, meaningful change – proof that each one of us does make a difference, and that we each add incredible value to the bigger picture.

People like Ella Baker help us as individuals see that regardless of how visible our role in change might be, it matters. They also remind us that we must shift between and integrate a variety of lenses for a systems approach. This ability to explore, engage, and integrate views is crucial for positive impacts.

There are some great tools available to us to explore, engage with, and integrate various systems views. To explore and access some of these, see our Tools for Social Innovators.


You’re Invited: In-Person Lunch & Learn

On Thursday November 2 at 11:30am MST, Kyle Brost, CEO of Spark Policy Institute will host a Lunch & Learn about “Integrating Lenses for a Systems Approach” at Spark’s offices. Registration is limited to the first 20 people and a light lunch will be provided.

RSVP to the in-person event, or attend our live webinar hosted by GoToMeeting.

Webinar Option

Please join my meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone.

https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/233138165

You can also dial in using your phone.

United States: +1 (571) 317-3122

Access Code: 233-138-165

First GoToMeeting? Let’s do a quick system check: https://link.gotomeeting.com/system-check

Posted on

Three Tips for Making Network Analysis Actionable for Your Social Impact Project

Three Tips for making network analysis actionable for your social impact project

Joby Schaffer, MA, Associate Researcher at Spark Policy InstituteMany of our partners have adopted what Jed Miller and Rob Stuart called “Network-Centric Thinking.” They recognize that long-term sustainable progress on today’s social problems rarely comes from the efforts of a single organization. Rather, progress requires a strategy involving networks of organizations with the aim of producing network effects.

However, the strategist and evaluator’s task of connecting network strategy to network effects to final outcomes is often difficult, not least because networks are embedded in complex, adaptive systems in which cause and effect relationships are rarely straightforward. Moreover, because quantitative social network analysis (SNA) is often new to many social impact organizations, it is easy to get bogged down in superficial findings to the determinant of more actionable insights.

Three Tips for making network analysis actionable for your social impact projectThere are now a large number of resources on designing network analyses for complex evaluations (see some of our favorites below), but we’ve found three tips particularly useful for ensuring a network analysis yields actionable insights. In short, a design for evaluating a network should:

  • Start by adopting a framework for how network structure leads to network effects;
  • Avoid the lure of only using quantitative SNA; and  
  • Design your network analysis with future data collections in mind: connecting change in the network to outcomes is one of the most powerful insights you’ll uncover.  

Get a Framework

Our partners often make use of theories of change, systems maps, scenario mapping, power analyses, and other tools to frame the nature of the problem they want to address and to develop strategies to guide their work. For learning partners like us, these tools are often a key part of developing and shaping evaluation questions and hypotheses. However, because network theory is relatively new to most people, the expected impact of network strategies is often underspecified in these documents.

For example:

An initiative may agree that the presence of working relationships among cross-sector partners is an important interim outcome…

       …with the expectation these partnerships will help address an upstream driver of a problem…

       …but they may not fully consider how the strengths and weaknesses of the current network structure alters
their chances of activating this “network effect”…

      …which in turn limits their understanding of which actions are needed to advance the network strategy.

Frameworks help to address these problems because they relate network structure to network effects. For example, Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor describe three networks [pdf] on the basis of the depth of their connections – connectivity, alignment, and production. If an initiative aims for cross-sector collaboration (production), but the initial network analysis reveals little connectivity between organizations, it’s best to engage in more connectivity-related and alignment-related network building tasks before encouraging project collaboration.

Choose a Multi-method Approach

When most people think about network analysis, they think of network maps or strange-sounding network statistics like density or centrality. This is quantitative SNA, and it is an essential tool for describing structural properties of a network. Among other things, an SNA will reveal gaps in the network (e.g. perhaps organizations from a certain sector are underrepresented), show areas of deep or shallow connections (e.g connectivity among one subset and alignment among another subset), and identify which organizations play important roles in the network (e.g. bring unique partners to the network).

However, if used alone, SNA may mask a lot of the network information leaders need to make effective decisions. For example, network strategy often involves developing structures for coordination, including convenings, working groups, and shared measurement systems. While it’s possible to use SNA to wrangle some insights about whether these coordinating efforts lead to more effective partnerships, it’s often more meaningful to hear from participants how these structures influenced their work. In short, interviews are much better at capturing the organizational and inter-organizational effects of the network – innovations, greater efficiencies realized, knowledge and information shared, etc.

Design with the Future in Mind

It is good practice to design any evaluation with pre- and post-interventions in mind. Especially for quantitative SNA, it is worth the upfront time to identify what you hope your network will look like in the future, not just examine it today. Repeated network maps can show how the network is evolving over time, which is a great way to identify how coordinating efforts are producing network-level effects (e.g., better representation of certain sectors at convening events, connections made between subsets of the networks, etc.). Again, adopting a framework can be very useful. Many frameworks explicitly describe the stages of network evolution and provide guidance on how to identify and manage a network in transition.

The more social change agents adopt network-centric thinking, the better the chances we’ll make real progress on today’s social problems. We can support this mindset by ensuring our network analyses produce actionable insights. We’ve found these three tips are useful to our work. Based on your experiences, what other tips do you recommend?

New to network thinking or network analysis? Here’s a few of our favorite resources.

Posted on

August Spark News: Getting Unstuck – Equity, Advocacy, and Collective Impact

Spark Policy Institute

Are We Getting Anywhere?

Spark Policy InstituteAt Spark, we’re experts at developing actionable strategies to achieve meaningful, measurable outcomes. But in today’s complex environment, it’s sometimes challenging for our partners to see the progress they’ve made. In our August newsletter, we’re sharing resources you can apply in real-life settings to measure your progress and take positive steps forward, no matter where you are in the process of making meaningful social change happen. We’re also excited to share new efforts in understanding Collective Impact and how it is, or isn’t moving the needle on systems change.

Want to receive more updates like this? You can also subscribe to our newsletter to receive monthly updates.

Posted on

For the Good of the Group: Be Nice, Respond in Kind, Be Forgiving

When working to change complex systems it can be difficult for individual stakeholders to engage in authentic collaboration. This is neuroscience. We are all motivated to move away from perceived threats and toward perceived reward. Bringing multiple actors together to work toward a common goal can create conflict between doing what is best for the individual organization and doing what is best for the system.

In the latest issue of The Foundation Review, we’ve shared tools on how to navigate this difficult terrain using an on-the-ground example: The Colorado Health Foundation’s (TCHF) Creating Healthy Schools funding strategy. TCHF engaged Spark, as well as Harder+Company and The Civic Canopy to support an emergent approach to design and implement the strategy.

Here are some highlights on how to help stakeholders align their work and build inclusive engagement and partnership:

  • Lead stakeholders to a shared understanding of systems thinking and how it translates to systems acting.
  • Leverage a neutral facilitator.
  • Engage on-the-ground perspectives to involve those who will be most impacted by the change.
  • Support increased communication between systems-level and on-the-ground groups.
  • Develop clear function-group goals.
  • Be transparent about what you are doing, how you are approaching the problem, and how decisions are made.

Read more about TCHF’s implementation of an emergent philanthropy philosophy in Insights from Deploying a Collaborative Process for Funding Systems Change.