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Exciting changes at Spark: New CEO, Eval Director, and Learning Officer

Jewlya Lynn

Jewlya LynnDear Spark partners,

Today is a big day for all of us at Spark and for me personally. After 13 years of leading this organization, bringing together an amazing team of thought leaders and changemakers, I am excited to transition into a different role, creating room for new leadership to take Spark into the future. I’d like to introduce Kyle Brost, Spark’s new CEO, and Laura Pinsoneault, Spark’s new Evaluation Director. Both are bringing deep expertise in systems thinking and an understanding of how to support, expand and advance Spark in the coming years.

I am committed to working with Spark in a new role (Chief Learning Officer), one that allows me to engage in what I enjoy most and do best: facilitating learning internally and with clients and partners, with a focus on systemic change. I am looking forward to spending my days supporting changemakers to do good, even better.

More information about what is coming next for Spark can be found in Kyle’s first blog as Spark’s CEO.

Thank you for your continued support and engagement with us. Together, we can solve problems and change the world for the better.

Jewlya Lynn
Founder and Chief Learning Officer
Spark Policy Institute

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Making planning actionable: lessons from the Colorado Farm to School Task Force

Farm to School Logo

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This is one of my favorite quotes from Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist known for her holistic understanding of human adaptation and the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life. Mead believed in our innate capacity to learn from each other to create change, viewing diversity as a resource that allows for greater exchange of ideas and experiences.

Farm to School LogoOne of the best parts of my job at Spark is the opportunity to partner with thoughtful, committed groups of people every day who create systems-level change to society’s most complex problems. One of those groups is the Colorado Farm to School Task Force. In its early stages, the Task Force teamed up with Spark and embarked on an intensive Strategic Roadmapping session. Strategic Roadmaps start with defining the change we want to see in the world and working backwards to define smaller changes that will lead to that big change. True to Mead’s observations of interconnectedness, Strategic Roadmaps consider the broader context within which a group is working and focus on the “why” of the work rather than the “how,” allowing for adaptation in a changing environment.

Colorado Farm to School RoadmapAt the end of the day, a Strategic Roadmap is not just a pretty picture (although they certainly look nice!) – it is actionable! In fact, the Task Force revisits their Roadmap quarterly to integrate new learning about the context and environment in which they are working, and to plan their shorter- and longer-term strategies moving forward. One of the most powerful ways the Task Force uses the Roadmap is to identify priorities and evaluate whether emerging opportunities are likely to influence the changes they hope to see in the world. It’s easy for a statewide body to get lost in the large and dynamic field of food systems; the Roadmap is one tool to facilitate strategic action within such an environment. Indeed, the Task Force is a diverse group of citizens committed to changing the world through strategic learning and thoughtful action.


Interested in learning more about adaptive planning like the Strategic Roadmap? Our Adaptive Planning Toolkit guides users through the roadmapping process and provides broader strategies for planning in dynamic environments.

Curious about farm to school and what it means for our students, local economies, and food systems? October is National Farm to School Month, a great time to learn about the organizations working to improve healthy eating in schools across the state and the nation.

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Using Data for Decision-Making

When you get in the morning, how do you decide what the weather is likely to be? Often, we look up the weather forecast on our phones. But we also look out the window. After all, sometimes the weather report tells us there is a 10% chance of rain at the same time as the rain is falling down all around us. You’re making the decision off a mix of someone else’s data and analysis (thanks!) and our own experiential knowledge as we rush to close the windows before the rain gets in.

I have a family member who is a Ph.D. and loves fantasy baseball. I think if you asked him, he’d tell you he crunches the numbers, looks at the data, and assembles the best possible team. But fantasy baseball is a predictive game – you can’t really know what will happen – which means you rely on a mix of the numbers and your “gut” about what is likely to happen, for example, what you believe about each individual player, the game itself, or the teams playing. He’s making his decisions off a mix of someone else’s data that he analyzes along with his intuition about what is possible.

Fantasy Baseball Perception v Reality


I’m a thrifty person. When I go to the grocery store, I compare brands, taking time to look at the price per unit and assess sales, before putting something in my cart. But I do not always pick the lowest price because I also consider things like brand, flavor, and how I might want to cook with the item. Then I make my choice. That garlic hummus may be less expensive, but if I’m planning to eat a hummus wrap in close quarters, I may decide to go with the more expensive roasted red pepper version. I’m making my decisions off an informal return on investment analysis – I’m paying attention to the quantitative (the price), while considering the quality of the experience I’m going to have and its impact (in this case, on those around me!).

What’s the point of all these examples? We are all very good at using data for decision-making. We do it constantly. We also know how to combine data with intuition and experiential knowledge. Most of the change agents we work with have the core skills already in place to leverage data for decision-making. But, often, we lack two critical things in our jobs to make this happen:

  • The right data at the right time.
  • The right process for applying the data to the decision we’re making.

Our new toolkit on using Data as a Tool for Change is designed to take what we are all already good at and bring it into our work as agents for change. It gives concrete advice about how to find and collect the right data given the decision you are making and provides some specific processes to incorporate that data into your decision-making process.

Next month we are going quite a bit deeper, exploring how to engage in real-time strategic learning as an ongoing, comprehensive approach to integrating data into the DNA of your program, project, organization, or collaborative. Sometimes, however, you just need data for a specific decision. Do you have one of those decisions coming up soon?

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Summertime, and the Thinking is Slow

JL in VII had the good fortune in June to find myself in the Virgin Islands facilitating a strategic roadmap session focused on addressing food systems issues, followed by a few days on the beaches with my family. The wonderful thing about a beach vacation, other than watching the absolute joy on your child’s face as they splash in the waves, is the space it creates for thought: unrushed, deadline free, wide open thinking. The combination of vacation and an inspiring conversation about the Virgin Islands food systems left me with a lot of room for deep thinking.

Thinking Fast and SlowHave you heard of the book “Thinking Fast and Slow”? It explores how our brains have two modes of thinking – instinctive, automatic thinking (fast) and deliberate thinking where you formulate arguments, solve problems, create plans, etc. (slow). Basically, slow thinking is where you exert mental energy. And because we are always operating at high speed these days, it can be easy to get caught up in fast thinking and avoid putting the energy into a more purposeful thinking process.

It’s not always a bad thing to do this though. Because we all have such rich experiences to draw from, we can intuitively read many situations quite well and act with confidence even if we haven’t had time to stop and assess more carefully. However, being away from the rush of getting things done created room for me to recommit to slow thinking, not just for major decisions or turning points in our work, but along the way to prepare for the many opportunities to catalyze meaningful change.

When we think too quickly, we make up patterns, see stories in what is otherwise random information. With slow thinking, we find underlying causes and investigate to find meaningful solutions. Have you ever watched a young child try to understand how something works? They use slow thinking, only without the benefit of all the technology and relationships we can use to track down new information. Instead, they puzzle over something new, pull it apart (and yes, occasionally break it in the process), sometimes manage to put it back together, and have the most entertaining observations along the way, like this interpretation of how to grow a pumpkin: “first dig a hole in dirt, cover the seed, then you have to water it, and wait for Halloween to come!”

Logo 1I want to bring that sense of openness, wonder and thoughtful investigation back into how we do our work every day, not just in approaching the major decisions. This might be why I’m such a fan of developmental evaluation, as it gives me an opportunity to wear the slow thinking hat when I’m working with innovative groups who are tackling important challenges.

So, here’s my summer 2015 resolution: I will take the slow, deliberative thinking that is core to developmental evaluation and integrate it more fully across many different types of change strategies. More importantly, I will help others create that same space for thinking, building our collective capacity to catalyze change based on more than just intuition, based on the best we can devise about how to improve the world. I hope you’ll all join me in a commitment to taking the time for slow-thinking this summer and go deeper and – hopefully further – in catalyzing change.

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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!


Interested in learning more about engaging nontraditional voices? Check out our toolkit!