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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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We’re all in this together: Why partnership makes advocacy work better

We recently wrapped up an evaluation of a national advocacy campaign, where advocacy organizations were funded in states throughout the country to push forward a common agenda. The evaluation findings highlighted how different advocacy organizations bring different capacities to the table. While technical assistance can expand that capacity, it can’t change the reality that no organization can be the expert in everything!

In other words – most organizations are not experts at policy analysis, coalition building, lobbying, media engagement, grassroots organizing, AND grasstops organizing. Usually, our organizations only have expertise in a few of these areas.

Yet, how many funders can raise their hands when you ask,

“When is the last time you released an RFP that asked grantees to have three, four, or even five distinct types of advocacy skills?”

And, how many advocacy organizations can raise their hands when you ask,

“When is the last time you responded to a RFP that asked you to be good at more things than your organization normally takes on?”

 

Alright, so what should we do differently?

Some funders are already tackling this issue through funding a field of advocates. In other words, they are funding multiple advocacy organizations within the same advocacy environment (such as a state) to work collectively on a common advocacy campaign or even just on a broad advocacy goal. If you’re a funder, the question becomes – what capacity do you need in that field? And, is it enough to fund a field, or do you also need to require them to come together and work in active coordination? These are important questions for funders to tackle together, along with their advocacy partners.

If you’re an advocacy organization, the opportunity is the same. We all partner with other advocacy organizations regularly, but do we partner to seek funding? What would look different if the organization down the street that does an amazing job at grassroots organizing had a grant funding the same policy priorities as our grant that pays for policy analysis and coalition building? Starting the conversation with funders as a team, with two or more organizations collectively providing a diverse set of advocacy skills, not only has potential to make your advocacy efforts more appealing to funders, it may also make them more successful!

 

What capacities really matter ~ do we need everything?

Advocacy organizations don’t have to start from scratch to answer this question. National leaders in advocacy evaluation have done the legwork to find out what really matters – what does effective media capacity look like, and what about grassroots capacity? Check out:

 

[info_box style=”note” icon=”none”]Alliance for Justice’s Advocacy Evaluation website. They identified the most important advocacy capacities and turned them into an assessment tool. Also, you can use their evaluation design tool to think about how you might evaluate the impact of your work.[/info_box]

 

[info_box style=”note” icon=”none”]The Aspen Institute’s Advocacy Progress Planner. This tool is helpful in planning your advocacy campaign, identifying advocacy capacity benchmarks you want to meet, and evaluating the work.[/info_box]

 

Regardless of whether you use a formal tool or go through an internal process of assessing your advocacy strengths and gaps, by the end of your process, you should have a clear sense of what is missing from your capacity. What’s next? Finding the right partners! But that’s a whole different blog… (stay tuned!)

 

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Blend or Braid

The terms blending and braiding are used frequently, often together, and generally with little definition.  However, they refer to two very different approaches to fiscal coordination.   Rather than lump them together, let’s pull them apart and identify the settings where each is most useful.  Next week, we’ll explore some tips on how to develop your blending and braiding models.

 

Defining Blending

Blending funding involves co-mingling the funds into one “pot” where case managers can draw down service dollars, personnel expenses can be paid, or other program needs can be met.

Water In BucketIn order words, blending is a lot like a family’s bank account.  Each month, my husband and I deposit our paychecks into one bank account.  When we go to write a check for the mortgage, we can’t tell whether his paycheck or my paycheck paid for the mortgage.

So, if you can’t tell which funding stream’s dollars paid for a given expense, when can you do this type of funding?

  • When all of the services/expenses that are part of your program are allowable under all of your funding streams.
  • When you are able to track the eligibility of all of your clients, to make sure each funding stream has a sufficient number of eligible clients being served.

 

Defining Braiding

Braided funding involves multiple funding streams utilized to pay for all of the services needed by a given population, with careful accounting of how every dollar from each funding stream is spent.

BraidingTo simplify this concept, let’s use the visual of a braid.  If each funding stream is one rope in your braid, you initially have separate ropes.  In order to meet the needs of your client and pay for a variety of services, you bring those ropes of funding together.  However, your funders aren’t interested in paying for all of the services your client needs, so when you are done providing services, you pull those funding ropes apart and report back to your clients in the services each funding stream independently paid for.

Complicated, isn’t it?  Unfortunately, this is the approach we usually have to use.  Many of our funding streams are only permitted to cover specific services or may have time limits on the length of services.  By bringing multiple funding streams together, we can be more comprehensive in the services we provide, but we also need to be careful in how we track those services, so we can report back to our funders.

 

Which One Should You Use

A few signs that you need to use a braided funding model include:

Tip 1: Using federal government funding? You will probably have to braid your funding streams, unless you have explicit permission from your funder.
  • One or more of your funding streams cannot pay for one or more of the services you provide.  For example, if your services include screening for health issues and  one of your funding streams does not allow anything related to primary healthcare, you may need to braid.  Or, if your services include stipends for participation and one of your funding streams disallows any direct financial payment to client, you may need to use a braided model.
  • Tip 2: Using contracted federal funds that did NOT go through a grant process? Make sure you are designated a “vendor” – this decreases the complexity of the auditing requirements for some of the more complicated funding streams.

    One or more of your funding streams requires detailed accounting of the number of clients who received services paid for by that funding stream AND the services they received.  This has to be directly tied to the reimbursement request.  For example, you have to enter the client and their services into a database developed by the funder, which generates the payment amount.

  • One or more of your funding streams has frequent and in-depth audits, where auditors want to see how each dollar was spent, separate from all other programs and funding streams.

A few signs that you can use a blended funding model (less paperwork!):

  • You are largely using funding streams that come as lump sums, such as foundation grants, and have discussed your plan to blend funding with your funders (or included it in your grant proposal).
  • Tip 3: Using foundation funding? Most foundations allow their funds to be blended, but don’t forget to share your model with them and make sure it meets their needs!

    All of your funding streams are appropriate for all of your expenses.  For example, any funding stream you are using could pay for your curriculum expenses, stipends, and food for a youth leadership training seminar.

  • Your funders are interested in seeing the number of clients eligible for their funding who were served, the outcomes of those clients, and your overall program budget.  They are less interested in seeing exactly how many services their funding paid for, separate from all other funding.
  • You have open and frequent communication with your funder and can share your plan for how you will blend, get feedback, and move forward as partners.

Regardless of which model you use, talk to your funders and make sure they are comfortable with your choices, make sure you understand their contracting and auditing requirements, and be ready to solve problems together!

 

Reminder: Blending and Braiding are Just a Means to an End

One of the big downsides to the complexity of public/private funding models is how easily the funding can take over your mission.  The last thing we want to do as we work on blending and braiding funding is make decisions about programs, services, and clients based on the funding alone.  Funding is just a means to an end!  Ultimately, we want to make a difference with the funding, not just spend it.  Open communication with your funder is important because at the end of the day, even if they want to see the evidence that the money was spent appropriately, they chiefly want to know it made a difference.

For more information, visit Spark Policy Institute’s Blending & Braiding resources at: http://sparkpolicy.com/fiscalsolutions.htm.