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New Year, New Name, and New Website!

For more than ten years, we have been at the forefront of using and creating new approaches and tools to address systems change and, more importantly, helping others learn to use them. As Spark has grown, we have built the skills and expertise needed to tackle complex problems throughout the country in a wide variety of areas. These include, but are not limited to: human services, food security, health, behavioral health, natural resources, agriculture, housing, juvenile justice, criminal justice, education, early childhood, entrepreneurship, and diversity/disparities.

With that in mind we are working to develop and support social innovators in equally new and visionary ways to make a meaningful difference. This means you will see some immediate and exciting changes at Spark.

In 2006, Spark started as the Center for Systems Integration. In time, we transitioned to be known as Spark Policy Institute. It is now time to align our name with our work of sharing actionable insights and partnering with you – Spark Policy Institute is now Spark Insight Partners.

Additionally, over the past two years, we have refined the values and practices that are core to Spark. These include Systems and Strategic Thinking, Equity, and Learning for Action. Throughout our work we have emphasized Systems and Strategic Thinking, as well as, Equity. This year, we aim to strengthen the connection across these values with new and improved Learning for Action tools.

To start, we are thrilled to announce the launch of two new services, the Learning Catalyst System© and the Action Builder Series©. These are new services to develop deep individual expertise and ensure that all organizations at all stages have access to tools for success. Stayed tuned over the next four days to learn all about what we’ve been building and how these new services, and the tools that sit within them, will help more organizations and individuals create meaningful impact.

These are truly enhancements to our portfolio of services, designed to better serve you, our partners. And, we are confident you will love your experience with them.

Spark Insight Partners will continue to partner with stakeholders throughout the country to develop innovative, research-based solutions to complex societal problems. We combine community and stakeholder-driven research with practical, hands-on experience and best practices, allowing for solutions that bridge sectors, issues, beliefs, and values.

Visit our new website and learn more about how we can help you Do Good Even Better™ today!

Contact information: Kyle Brost,, 303-455-1740 Spark Insight Partners, 2717 Welton St., Denver CO 80205

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Join Us at AEA 2019!

With the American Evaluation Association (AEA) coming up November 11-16 in Minneapolis, M.N., our team has been thinking about the theme of the conference “Paths to the Future of Evaluation.” We constantly challenge ourselves to ensure our values are present in our work; our practices produce actionable learning; and that we share our experiences to build the evaluation field, and more importantly, to test our perspectives.

We’re excited to present with our evaluation colleagues and share innovative practices that lead to meaningful change in ever-changing contexts. See below for an overview our 3 sessions, and check out the AEA website to find more sessions.

First Spark-Facilitated Session

Date & Time: Thursday November 14, 2019 | 5pm – 5:45pm

Title: Managing Complexities of Community Development: A Spotlight on Evaluators’ Creativity

Spark Staff: Rebecca Ochtera, Former Associate Director

Session Colleagues: Cheryl Kelly, Kaiser Permanente Colorado; Stanley Varnhagen, University of Alberta; Timothy Marc Pearson, Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center

The Partners in Evaluation & Research Center is evaluating 9 agencies funded to reduce health disparities transform places through social, economic, political, and physical changes. The evaluation uses a logic model approach guided by an established equity-oriented framework that emphasizes the importance of addressing upstream determinants of health using comprehensive, multi-sectoral, and systems-level approaches. The evaluation is assessing if the policy, system, and environmental changes increased availability (e.g., more affordable housing), accessibility (e.g., access to vouchers), and acceptability of social and economic resources (e.g., increase residents with quality housing). Because the impacts on individual factors will not be fully realized until several years after the changes occur, the evaluators are creating evidence tables that document the likely impact the social change will have on individuals. This session will discuss their findings of how this evaluation is using an equity-oriented framework to assess the potential impact on health disparities.

Second Spark-Facilitated Session

Date & Time: Friday November 15, 2019 | 11:30am – 12:15pm

Title: Tracking Policymaker Champion Development: A New Tool to Support Policy Advocacy Evaluation and Capacity Building

Spark Staff: Joby Schaffer, Senior Researcher

Session Colleagues: Nathan Madden, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; Cherie Collins Sims, MEDA

Direct policymaker engagement is a key feature of many advocacy strategies, and evaluators often aim to assess whether and how an advocacy organization contributed to a policymaker’s development into an issue champion. While various tracking tools are available, many are difficult to implement, do not provide detailed insights that enable strategic learning, or lack a means of rolling up detailed tracking to tell the story of an organization’s policymaker engagement efforts. This session will showcase a new tool developed with support from the Entrepreneur’s Policy Network (EPN), an initiative led by the Ewing and Marion Kauffman Foundation to help entrepreneur support organizations (ESO’s) engage in advocacy. Through a series of user-design sessions with the ESO’s participating in the EPN, the tool for tracking policymaker engagement was refined to better meet the needs of advocacy organizations while preserving features needed to enable the evaluation to capture insights about their policymaker engagement for reporting purposes.

This panel will provide attendees with a diverse set of perspectives on this new tool, offering them insights into how their respective groups are likely to respond to similar tracking tools. Each panelist will present on their experiences with the tool, including what it enables, what challenges arouse in either implementing or developing the tool, and what supports were essential to their continued use of the tool. The panelist will be available to answer questions from the audience, provide attendees a unique opportunity to engage not only other evaluators but a funder and an advocacy organization using the tool.

Third Spark-Facilitated Session

Date & Time: Friday November 15, 2019 | 5:45pm – 6:30pm

Title: Evaluating community engagement with a lens towards adaptive learning: Lessons drawn from two multi-site, state-wide initiatives addressing health equity

Spark Staff: Rebecca Ochtera, Former Associate Director

Session Colleagues: Veena Pankaj, Innovation Network, Inc.

There’s a growing desire among philanthropy to change policies and systems that promote inequities within society. As a result, foundations are increasingly funding initiatives that involve community members in the problem-solving process. While this involvement is more likely to generate sustainable and innovative solutions, it also underpins the importance of integrating adaptive approaches into evaluation practice to ensure we capture the process and the lessons emerging from the work.

Facilitators will present two multi-site initiatives addressing health inequity through community engagement and use these examples to generate discussion around adaptive evaluation approaches. Facilitators will highlight methods used for emergent learning and demonstrate how data collected through these approaches influenced work at both the community and funder level. Through dialogue, participants will gain insights on community engagement evaluation practices and how to strengthen their evaluation strategy to fit the changing nature of complex community engagement initiatives.

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Embracing Values in Evaluation Practice

Research has traditionally defined rigor as obtaining an unbiased estimate of impact, suggesting the need for experimental or quasi-experimental methods and objective, quantitative measures in order to obtain trustworthy results.

I’ve spent the past few months as a member of Colorado’s Equitable Evaluation Collaboratory, which aims to examine the role evaluation plays in supporting or inhibiting progress toward equity and identifying opportunities to integrate equitable evaluation principles into practice. In particular, I’ve reflected on how the research tradition has impacted evaluation’s working orthodoxies including the notion that “credible evidence comes from quantitative data and experimental research” and “evaluators are objective.”

On the surface, these statements don’t appear particularly problematic, but dig a little deeper and we begin to see how value judgments are an integral part of how we practice evaluation. The types of projects we take on, the questions we ask, the frameworks we use, the types of data we collect, and the ways we interpret results – are all deeply rooted in what we value. As an evaluator focused on use, I aim to make these practice decisions in partnership with my clients; however, suggesting that I, or any evaluator, does not play an active role in making these decisions discounts our inherent position of power.

Now that I’ve tuned into the orthodoxies, I see them everywhere, often dominating the conversation. In a meeting last week, a decision-maker was describing the path forward for making a controversial policy decision. He wanted to remove subjectivity and values from the conversation by developing guidelines rooted in “evidence-based practice” and turned to me to present the “facts.”

As a proponent of data-driven decision making, I value the role of evidence; however, there is a lot to unpack behind what we have declared – through traditional notions of rigor – “works” to improve health and social outcomes. Looking retrospectively at the evidence, and thinking prospectively about generating new knowledge, it’s time to ask ourselves some hard questions, including:

  • What interventions do we choose to study? Who developed them? Why did they develop them?
  • What have we (as a society) chosen not to investigate?
  • What population have we “tested” our interventions on? Have we looked for potentially differential impacts?
  • What outcomes do we examine? Who identified these impacts to be important?
  • Who reported the outcomes? Whose perspective do we value?
  • What time-period do we examine? Is that time-period meaningful to the target population?
  • Do we look for potentially unintended consequences?

As we begin to unpack the notion of “what works” we begin to see the decision-points, the values and the inherent power and privilege in what it means to be an evaluator. It is time that we owned the notion that what we choose to study and how we choose to measure success are not objective, rather, they are inherently subjective. And importantly, our choices communicate values.

So how do we begin to embrace our role? As a step forward, I have started including a discussion of values, both mine and my clients, at the beginning of a project and clarifying how those values will influence the evaluation scope and process. Explicitly naming the importance of equity during the evaluative process has helped keep the goals of social change and social justice front and center.  Naming values helps stakeholders acknowledge their power and provides a lens through which to make decisions.

Equitable evaluation is an expedition into the unknown, requiring a transformation in how we conceptualize our role as evaluator. Having taken my initial steps into the Upside Down, I look forward to the many unknowns.

In what way do you see values showing up in your evaluative work?


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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Spark

“I raise my voice not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.”

― Malala Yousafzai

Dear partners and friends,

Spark Policy Institute was founded with a core belief that diverse perspectives are key to achieving meaningful change. Each of our conference rooms are named after leaders who made a difference because they spoke up and spoke out: Malala Yousafzai, Rodolpho “Corky” Gonzales, Hattie McDaniel, Maya Angelou, Dolores Huerta, and Sojourner Truth.

Our role as a bridge between nonprofits, communities, and funders brings with it a great responsibility to ensure all voices are heard in strategy design, implementation, research, evaluation, and interpretation. With the mark of the new year, we are committed to assessing how we are doing and where we need to improve. One of the ways we are doing that, is by renewing our focus on the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Our team is taking on the hard work to make this vision reality – we have assembled not just a committee, but a working group, whose key charges are to develop goals for improving our work and our internal culture to more truly and demonstrably respect diversity, value equity, and foster inclusion.

We are committed to sharing our journey with specifics about the steps we are taking to reach our goals. You can read an introduction to our reinforced effort in our latest blog post Journey to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which includes a link to our DEI Commitment, and our 2018 DEI Plan. We will continue to update our website and newsletter with all of our efforts.

I am sincerely humbled by the skill and perseverance of my colleagues who continually seek to improve our work and challenge our assumptions. Together in this process we are capable of remarkable change.

As always, we at Spark welcome your questions, suggestions, or reactions. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me, or any of our staff as we move forward with this critical work.

Kyle Brost
Spark Policy Institute