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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:

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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Sparking Change for the Better: Why We Don’t Need to Wait for a Visionary Leader

SparksPeople ask me why the “Spark” in Spark Policy Institute on a regular basis. The answer, in short, is that change has to be triggered – there has to be that moment where inspiration meets commitment. As I’ve delved deeper into causing change through cross-sector partnerships, I am increasingly aware of the importance of that SPARK.

In a meeting with Jennifer Bradley from the Brookings Institute, she boldly stated that change doesn’t happen just because of a visionary leader and that it’s time to stop waiting around for that leader to show up. I couldn’t agree more. There are so many things that will SPARK a change for the better – we just need to be ready to act.

  • Sometimes the SPARK is the intensity of the need, such as the hunger issues arising from the great recession, leading the Denver Foundation and its cross-sector partners to look for a new way to meet Denver’s hunger needs.  That spark led to Hunger Free Colorado.
  • Sometimes the SPARK is a mandate, such as the Affordable Care Act. When the ACA passed, new organizations were formed at the state and local level to help implement and to ensure the consumer voice was part of the process.  At the same time, many existing organizations shifted their work to dive deep into advocating for successful implementation. Collectively, these groups moved the needle on access to health coverage and care.
  • Sometimes the SPARK is the resources that are available. The White House’s initiative known as the Social Innovation Fund has a new strategy for funding and scaling change: they are investing significant resources into non-profits like Year Up, giving them the funding to spark growth not only into new cities and with new partners, but also in thinking about how to better serve the youth who need them the most.
  • Sometimes the SPARK IS the visionary leader, but often that leader is backed up by a team of incredible people with deep passion. Dr. Carl Clark at the Mental Health Center of Denver has led his organization into the future, pioneering a Recovery model that has been recognized nationally for its exceptional outcomes. But he wouldn’t have accomplished this without the team he assembled, composed of passionate, smart people who thought about how to build public will for mental health, how to engage communities and youth in understanding mental health, and how to drive systemic change to make services more accessible for those most in need.

These are all ways to spark change, but here’s what I think the real SPARK is:Circle

Sparks-psd46817It’s when these different factors come together and bring people across different sectors and communities together.

Sparks-psd46817It’s when necessity meets an influx of resources of any type and a leader and team of people decide they are ready to act.

Sparks-psd46817It’s when a new mandate is a game-changer and the stakeholders decide to treat it as an opportunity, not a problem.

Sparks-psd46817It’s when an influx of new resources are directly related to an intense need and the stakeholders come together to make decisions instead of competing with each other for the resources.

Sparks-psd46817It’s any combination that creates sufficient motivation to cause people to commit to the change.

As someone always committed to being an agent for change, I’m going to keep my eyes open for these convergences and add whatever element is needed to move from a SPARK to an inferno of innovation, passion, commitment and change for the better.