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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!

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Better Outcomes through Engagement

Having come from a field where collaboration and stakeholder engagement is just starting to catch on, I am astounded by the level of cooperation underway in the health field here in Colorado and throughout the country. I joined Spark in February after helping lead Colorado’s largest “open source” policy development process in the form of Colorado’s Water Plan. After a decade of engagement across eight regional groups and a statewide group involving 400 stakeholders, we were able to bring in over 30,000 more voices and complete Colorado’s first water plan by Coloradans and for Coloradans. This collaborative approach was not easily adopted; the natural resource word has traditionally been litigious due to competing objectives. The competing needs of the environment, industry, recreational enthusiasts, cities, and agriculture led to deep fissures that took leadership, money, time, and a careful planning process to close. In the end, however, we reached consensus across the stakeholders in Colorado, but without engaging stakeholders to develop the content and keep a balanced process, Colorado’s Water Plan would just be another document gathering dust.

While working on the water plan, bringing people together to form and believe in a common vision was difficult. In contrast, in the field of health it is often on the path to accomplish the work where the challenges truly begin. For instance, Spark is engaged in two projects with the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Finance. The purpose of the first project is to improve the quality of care for people with long-term disabilities and the elderly through the newly formed Community Living Quality Improvement Committee (CLQIC), which includes individuals who are disabled, the elderly, and parents of disabled young adults in addition to advocates, service providers, and experts. These voices, the “consumers” of health services, keep these conversations grounded in reality and bring a sense of urgency to solving the real and long standing issues facing these communities. Despite the myriad perspectives brought to the table by these voices, the vision for the project was unanimously adopted: With person and family centeredness as a foundation, the CLQIC envisions a Colorado where consumers and families have the necessary information, access to services, and quality of care needed to remove barriers that prohibit individuals from being able to embrace the life they choose. However, coming to consensus on how to achieve that vision is more difficult.

This might be a tad extreme, but you catch our drift.

The second project seeks to build an action strategy to implement telehealth across Colorado. Spark is reaching out to professionals (e.g., doctors, nurse practitioners, insurers, academics), as well as patients to determine how telehealth should be implemented. We will interview those currently receiving telehealth services, and those who are not, but are in great need. As with the CLQIC, everyone agrees on the need to expand telehealth, but not exactly how to do it.

In both examples, it is clear that the hard work starts not with finding a common purpose, but with exposing the differences that lie beneath the surface. As professionals, we each bring our own perspectives of what is possible and who should be doing the work. We each worry about the staffing and funding needed to support our respective organizations. We each hope to justify the hard work we’ve done throughout the years by continuing to keep that work going. We are vested in the current system, and the changes we would like to make are often incremental and safe. Consensus in this context can lead to the lowest common denominator, which results in little change. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, then we will get the same results!

In both of these projects, it is clear that the vested interests of professionals can only bring the dialogue so far. Oftentimes we struggle to bring the disabled, or elderly, or youth, or busy parents, or people who speak a different language, or so many other groups of people that can be hard to reach. However, it is the voice of those who receive or will receive services that can ensure that the work is patient centered and is truly aimed at making a positive difference in people’s lives. This is the binding agent that pulls the subsurface fissures back together. The outcomes that result from involving those on the ground are worth the effort it takes to bring them to the table. That is why when Spark takes on a project – whether it’s health, natural resources, education, nuclear security, or some other topic, we try to make sure this simple lesson is forefront in the design of the work. We developed an equity toolkit for us to turn to and have made it public so that everyone can have the practical tools to implement this simple lesson: If the people whose lives an initiative could truly effect are involved in developing solutions for a project, and those voices are wielded to help the professionals FEEL the potential and get re-connected to why they got involved in a particular field in the first place, then you will develop actions that will make a meaningful difference.

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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.

CI

 

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.

HSCI2

 

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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Presenting Data Effectively

XKCD Convincing Comic

In my job as a Policy and Communication Manager for Spark, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can translate the great research we do here into actionable products. When not presented effectively, data can be mostly noise – too much information to remember, interpret and use to make decisions. But, when data is presented effectively and at the right time, it can be a powerful tool for change. Here are some of the key things we use to guide our work here at Spark:

Be Clear on the Purpose: Is your primary goal to improve a strategy? To define a problem? To persuade? To educate? To call people to action? The same data can be presented in multiple different ways, which vary depending on why you are sharing the information. For example, if you’re looking to examine whether your strategy needs a refresh, you will need to focus on the data that is most actionable, whereas if you are looking to educate, there may be a need to provide additional context.

Know Your Audience: Does your audience have a depth of knowledge on the topic at hand or are they relatively new to the issue? Are you preparing a single document or presentation for an audience with varying levels of knowledge, interest, and/or education? Is their time limited? Do they need the facts quickly? Or will they have the time to digest the information more fully before taking action? Think about what is important to your audience and what they need to know the most. All of this will factor into determining how best to present information, e.g. an informal or formal presentation, a facilitated dialogue, or written, such as a brief, check-list, report, or white paper. These considerations will also influence the structure of the information and your tone.

Tell the Story: Stories make information more relatable, which makes your findings more actionable. Even if you don’t have a “traditional” story, it can be helpful to think of how you present your information using the elements of a story: characters (who is affected and who are the key players?), the setting (describe the context), plot (there should be a beginning, middle, and end), conflict (what is the central problem to be addressed and why is it important?), and resolution (what are some potential solutions, where do we go from here?). We tend to only remember one or two key things after a presentation or reading a document. If you present a series of findings, your reader will remember a couple of those findings, but will lose the rest. If you present a story, your reader will remember the overall picture of what the findings collectively mean.

Be Visual: Most of us are, by our nature, visual creatures. Often, showing is more effective than telling at conveying information, which means you’re increasing the likelihood your findings are used! Visuals can include charts, graphs, tables, maps, infographics, even pictures. Taking the time to think through which type of visual is the most appropriate for your audience, as well as what results are most worth highlighting, can help ensure your visuals have the most impact.

 

XKCD ConvincingActively Engage: Sometimes you don’t have direct access to your audience in-person or by phone. Instead, you’re sending documents, posting them online, etc. When you do have access to the audience, however, you can take the use of data to the next level. When we are presenting information, whether virtually or in the room, we don’t do half hour long PowerPoint presentations. We talk for 10 minutes, discuss and debrief for more than 10 minutes and repeat. We put the data up on the walls and let people walk around the room and talk with each other. We put visuals and stories on the tables and have small groups explore the meaning. We find ways to make sure that more time is spent digesting and thinking about how to act on the findings than spent absorbing the new information. When people integrate new information into how they are thinking about a problem or a solution, they are more likely to use it than when they simply learn the new information.

There are many great online resources out there for presenting data effectively, including our recently-released toolkit in our Tools for Social Innovators series, Data as a Tool for Change. We’d love to hear how you incorporate data into your work, and tips and tricks you have for presenting information effectively. Share in the comments or click here to contribute to the toolkit!