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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!

When Backbone Organizations Become the Funder- The Use of Fiscal Intermediaries

This new article from The Foundation Review, by Jewlya Lynn, Kirsten Breckenridge, Ashley Denault, and Chris Marvin looks at the challenges and opportunities that arise when backbone organizations become fiscal intermediaries in the collective impact context. It uses examples from the Social Innovation Fund, a White House initiative, and Got Your 6, a collective-impact campaign that seeks to bridge the civilian-military divide and draws on learning from funders of the initiatives, backbone organizations, and the initiatives’ partners.”

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Healthy Schools Collective Impact: Reaching the Bold Goal, Together

One of the things that has become clear in our work with systems change broadly and collective impact specifically is that no one program or organization can address large-scale issues on its own. Put another way, our impact goes further when we work together toward a common agenda.

Over the past nine months, Spark has been serving as the backbone for the Healthy Schools Collective Impact (HSCI) initiative. HSCI’s bold goal is for all Colorado K-12 public schools to provide an environment and culture that integrates health and wellness equitably for all students and staff by 2025.

Talk about creating meaningful change!

School systems work hard to address needs of all students; however, many do not have the capacity or resources to address student health and wellness consistently. This go-it-alone approach can often result in inequitable, duplicative, and siloed approaches and resources.

This is where collective impact comes in.

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Healthy Schools Collective Impact is changing how schools in Colorado approach school-based health and wellness by bringing stakeholders together in a structured way to support schools and get them the health and wellness resources they need to engage the whole child and, in turn, bolster academic achievement.

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With the support of Spark as the backbone, HSCI members have been working hard to lay the foundation for change, including:

  • Engaging stakeholders from statewide systems that impact health and wellness in schools and districts, including policy, professional development, research, and marketing/communications/engagement.
  • Working with diverse stakeholders, including work groups (focused on nutrition, physical activity, behavioral health, and student health services), to create the HSCI Theory of Change, a living document that serves as a plan for the work.
  • Informing The Colorado Health Foundation’s Creating Healthy Schools funding opportunities, to address equity and align funding with the Theory of Change.
  • Establishing a new structure for HSCI that emphasizes the inclusion of voices of a diverse set of key stakeholders, with a specific focus on ensuring end-users (students, educators and families) have a seat at the table.
Moving from planning to action

With this solid foundation, our next step is to take the group from planning to doing by instilling a sense of trust and urgency, and providing the tools, data, and space for innovation that HSCI needs to achieve their bold goal. For many groups, even those that aren’t working in a collaborative context, this can be the hardest step. However, from our work with other collaborative initiatives we have found it can be helpful to keep the following in mind:

  • Remember that “partnerships move at the speed of trust”: Building a truly collaborative effort takes trust and building trust can take time. That said, groups can take steps to build authentic partnerships by developing mutual respect, fostering active and inclusive participation as well as equity, sharing power, and finding mutual benefits.
  • Experiment – find the small wins: Often, groups can be so focused on the big win they lose momentum because that big win seems so far away. Finding opportunities to experiment and achieve small wins allows groups to see the incremental change they are making in the world, often with a smaller investment of time and resources, so they can move from “oh dear, that didn’t work” to “yes, we can do it (one little piece at a time)”.
  • Evaluate, learn, adjust, repeat: Leveraging real-time data, making the time for learning from that data, and then collectively interpreting the learning can help organizations steadily shift their strategies in response to changes in their environment, thereby improving outcomes.

Systems change can be daunting – but achievable – particularly when stakeholders come together around a common agenda, and then trust, experiment, learn, and adjust as they move forward.

Do you have any tips for moving collaborative work forward? What are your experiences with finding small wins in a collective impact setting? Share with us in the comments or click here to share a case study, tip, trick, or tool!

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Leaving the Abstract Behind: What Collective Impact Really Means

Collective ImpactFrom reducing infant mortality to addressing climate change, Collective Impact work seems to be everywhere these days.  At Spark, we’ve been excited to get involved with Collective Impact efforts at all levels, from facilitating the planning process to being the backbone to providing evaluation support early in initiatives and in the later years as well.

Many of our partners are embracing the concept – in the most basic terms, Collective Impact is big picture cooperation that results in smarter efforts to get at the root of complex problems. More broadly, Collective Impact recognizes that, as we become ever-more-connected, isolated approaches to problems may not be enough to create true change.

Yet, is it just me or does Collective Impact continue to feel pretty abstract until you’re in the thick of it?

I recently had the opportunity to be a table facilitator at an event hosted by The Civic Canopy where a lot of the discussion centered on how Collective Impact could be used by organizations looking to create sustainable and meaningful change. It got me thinking about how to talk about Collective Impact and the elements that are necessary for success in more concrete ways…

Collective Impact is not a new project.

  • It’s engaging organizations in a collective effort to take their existing work and align it around a shared agenda. For example, organizations may identify that they are all serving the same set of kids, but if they are more strategic in how they recruit new kids into their programs, they can collectively extend their reach and decrease the duplication of effort.

Collective Impact is not top down.

  • It only works when the organization(s) providing support, such as convening partners and keeping track of progress, are responding to the needs of others, rather than driving the direction themselves. That means all the rest of us who are participating have to be very active at joining in the dialogue and shaping the direction. For new backbone organizations, there is usually a lot of capacity building that needs to happen as staff switch from being doers and leaders to supporters and facilitators.

Collective Impact has small wins before it has big ones.

  • Systemic change is a great goal and it is often the reason we come together in a Collective Impact effort. But if we wait to declare success until we fix the system, we’re going to run out of steam! Small wins matter too – did we advocate for passage of a bill that will direct new resources into our system?  That’s a win!  Did we experiment with a new approach in one community and evaluate to see if it’s scalable?  That’s a win!

In Collective Impact, we get it wrong before we get it right.

  • Because of the multidimensional nature of both Collective Impact and the problems it is employed to address, there is no singular “right” approach or recipe that guarantees success every time.  That means every time we plan, at best we’re going to get it only partially right and sometimes we might be flat out wrong. It takes a mindset shift to realize that’s okay. It also takes an adaptive, flexible evaluation to help figure out why we didn’t get it right and design our next step.

Packing up at the end of the Civic Canopy day, reflecting back on conversations about Spark’s work in Collective Impact, I thought about how powerful this framework can be and how it speaks to Spark’s core mission of creating meaningful change.  There is still so much work to be done in this arena, and we’re excited to be along for the ride!

Click here to learn more about Collective Impact and Spark’s approach.