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September SparkNews: Better, Together

Like a good book and a rainy day, cookies and milk, road trips and your best playlist, some things are just better together. Why? Because they are able to bring out the best in their partners. It’s often the same in systems change work: when we strategically partner with each other, the whole is better than the sum of its parts because of the synergy created from the collaboration.

This is not to say good collaborations just happen. As anybody who is in a relationship can tell you, they take work and commitment; sometimes they take compromises; and almost always they take introspection and honest assessments. This month, we’re taking a look at how to do just that. We’re featuring blogs and actionable tools around strengthening collaborative efforts, as well as taking a look at what collaboration and collective impact really mean in practice, in an effort to help us get to better, together.

Read the rest of the newsletter. Want to receive more updates like this? You can subscribe to our newsletter here.

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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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Evaluating Collaboration in Place-based Initiatives: Can it Move the Needle?

On October 5th and 6th, I will have the opportunity to facilitate a session on how evaluation can help stakeholders understand and strengthen cross-sector partnerships and collaboration more broadly at the Art & Science of Place-Based Evaluation. The conference is hosted by Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, and the Neighborhood Funders Group and builds off of a series of on-going national conversations about the importance of “place” in philanthropic investments, including the Center of Philanthropy and Public Policy’s National Forum on Place-based Initiatives and the Aspen Institutes’ Promising Practices Conference.

If you Google “evaluate collaboration” you will see there is no shortage of tools for assessing the strength of a collaborative effort, but as I prepared for the session, I found myself asking: Is the quality of collaboration really the most important thing to investigate with your limited evaluation resources?

Effectively engaging partners in place-based work depends on more than good processes and practices. Among other things, it requires:

  • Meaningfully engaging different sectors to leverage the different motivations bringing each to the table (which requires surfacing and understanding those motivations!);
  • Tackling difficult power dynamics, sometimes evident in the room, but other times they play out in how strategies are implemented:
  • Recognizing and responding appropriately to the impact of the cultural assumptions participants bring to the process;
  • Managing the negative consequences of failed attempts to work collaboratively in the past;
  • Effectively leveraging large networks of organizations and leaders, often larger than the initiative has time to meaningfully engage and manage; and
  • Engaging with communities experiencing disparities in ways that are appropriate and lead to an impact on the work.

In addition, there is the fundamental issue of whether and how the structures and processes of collaboration are leading to something worthwhile – moving the needle on the issue that brought everyone together. Are collaboration and engagement managed in ways that advance the work or only in ways that advance the quality of collaboration?

If evaluation is going to play an role in helping place-based initiatives advance their collaboration processes, and get to the meaningful change, it needs to go beyond tools and become a real-time partner in uncovering motivations, power dynamics, and cultural assumptions; it needs to help pick apart how networks are functioning and where engagement might be most effective; and it should play a role in understanding how, and to what extent, nontraditional partners are influencing the decisions being made and contributing to shifts in the overall strategy and direction of the work.

These are the types of issues we’ll be exploring in the collaboration and cross-sector partnerships session at the convening. Don’t worry, you’ll leave with a list of evaluation tools that can be helpful if you want to focus on evaluating the effectiveness of your collaborative processes. But you’ll also leave with insights about how to engage evaluation in helping you tackle the fundamental issues standing between good collaboration and having an impact on the issues that matter.

Interested in learning more about the conference or attending? Visit the conference website: http://www.jacobscenter.org/placebased/

Want to hear from more facilitators?  Check out the blog from Meg Long of Equal Measure about connecting community change to systems change and Sonia Taddy-Sandino of Harder+Company about “getting ready” for place-based work. Interested in accessing new resources before the conference?  Check out our toolkits on engaging nontraditional voices and decision-making in complex, multi-stakeholder settings.

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What Does Systems Building Really Mean?

Systems building. Partnerships. Collaboration. These are commonly-used words in the world of social change. They come from the realization that nothing exists in a vacuum – even nature’s most basic systems thrive on diversity and interconnectedness – but what does it really mean? And what does it look like on the ground?

Over the past few months, Spark has worked with the Early Childhood Councils Leadership Alliance (ECCLA), a nonprofit organization that works to improve access to quality services and supports for young children by developing a strong statewide network of early childhood council leaders and stakeholders. There are 31 Early Childhood Councils (ECC) that serve 58 of Colorado’s 64 counties, working together to build effective, quality, and responsive local early childhood systems, coordinating of partnerships across diverse agencies.

ECCLA Map

As in many social arenas, systemic work is crucial to building effective and efficient early childhood systems. Through collaboration, ECCs were better able to:

  • Streamline fundraising efforts between traditionally competitive entities, thereby leveraging each other’s strengths to better serve the community.
  • Enhance communication and strategic learning across silos to identify service gaps and reduce duplication of services.
  • Integrate services across early learning, health, mental health, family support, and parent education domains – and provide comprehensive support as a result!

SystemThese outcomes are impressive, but we wanted to know: how do these early childhood systems really work? So, we asked the Councils themselves. The stories we heard were inspiring and revealed what systems building work really means in practice. For example, we heard how:

  • The ECC of Larimer County has played a key role in helping families in the county access health insurance. The ECC trained staff on Medicaid/CHP Application Assistance and provided funds for to help cover associated fees, which made a big difference for one family. After hearing how much money she needed to apply for Medicaid/CHP, a woman expressed her concern to administrators at her daughter’s child care center. Because of the training provided by the ECC, the center was able to direct her to a Medicaid/CHP technician on site who was able to get her financial assistance to cover the fees and helped with the application itself.
  • First Impressions ECC in Routt County played an integral role in creating a cohesive early learning community where providers work together to increase everyone’s financial resources, leading to more preventive and comprehensive services for families with young children. The ECC supported the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program so the income eligibility ceiling could be raised from 130% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines to 185%.
  • Council members from the Arapahoe County ECC drafted SB 12-022, which is designed to mitigate the “cliff effect” many low-income families face by establishing more flexible guidelines for Colorado’s Childcare Assistance Program. This change has helped many low-income families across the state access quality childcare when they otherwise would have been ineligible.

These are just a few of the inspiring stories we heard through our work with the Councils. It is clear that systems building is more than just a catchphrase – it has real impacts on real people. And while this work isn’t easy, requiring thinking on a broad, comprehensive level, these efforts to create streamlined systems are improving outcomes for Colorado’s kids.

To learn more about the great work of ECCLA and the Councils, see the 2014 State of the Councils Report.

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Working with the Faith Community to Spark Social Change

This month, we’ve looked at how to use the private sector to scale change.  Now I want to shift the focus outside of the public/private realm and look at the role other groups can plan in creating meaningful change: specifically, the role the faith community can play in bringing attention to and energizing people around an issue.

MLKFaith-based organizing has historically been integral in social justice movements, from women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery and in civil rights movement of the 60s in the US to ending apartheid in South Africa. More recently, the faith community has been an active partner in addressing issues such as climate change, immigration reform, access to contraceptives, economic justice, ending childhood obesity and many others.

The power of faith-based community mobilizing comes from:

  • Their focus on living an ethical life, with an emphasis on service to others and working towards a just society;
  • The transformative nature of faith, which orients people to the public good; and
  • Their ability to cross racial and economic lines and to bring new constituencies, such as recent immigrants, into the public sphere.

Recognizing the power of the faith community to achieve social reform through civic engagement, faith-based community organizations (FBCOs) began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s. These organizations helped build a mobilizing infrastructure that is more fully able to leverage the natural orientation of faith communities toward the public good, amplifying the voice and reach of their social justice efforts.

Together COIn our work with Project Health Colorado, we saw upfront how valuable faith leaders can be as part of a broader movement. PHC was a three-year effort designed to get people talking about access to health care and how it can be improved. The initiative worked with 14 organizational partners who helped spread the message of PHC through their networks and by recruiting volunteers.  One of the partners was Together Colorado, a member of the PICO National Network.

Together Colorado worked to engage faith leaders in PHC and our evaluation found that the leaders they recruited were some of the most active and engaged in the project. On average, faith leaders reported reaching over 70 people in-person and over 170 people when electronic outreach was included. There were some who had more extensive reach, engaging over 300 people through in-person events; one leader even had access to a congregation of 8,500 people!  The faith community was invaluable – extending the reach of PHCs message far beyond anything paid staff could have done.

Clearly, the faith community can be an important partner in a social movement – they have a trusted platform, an engaged constituency and the passion for making a difference in their community.  So how can we effectively connect with faith-based communities?

  • Be respectful, do your research and listen to their concerns, so you can frame your issue through their values and beliefs. Circle
  • Similarly, allow faith communities to connect to the issues that resonate with them, rather than creating an agenda they may not connect with.
  • Be strategic when engaging faith leaders – rather than asking them to join your work, work respect their leadership and support it.
  • Provide an organizing platform that allows them to easily move from concept to action and support them (and your cause) through training on messaging.  Check out the great approach Together Colorado uses to learn more about this!
  • Demonstrate results! Show that their voice matters to sustain engagement.

Creating meaningful change is a collaborative effort.  It takes people and programs from across the spectrum: public and private, faith-based and secular, and everything in between.  Each group has unique abilities and attributes that can – and should – be used to help scale change and help spark the change that makes the difference we’re all working toward.

To learn more about Together Colorado’s efforts and how to effectively engage faith leaders, check out our brief with The Colorado Trust.