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Measuring the Impact of Communications

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Many of us have fond memories of PBS, whether it be watching a documentary with family or engaging with development programs in school. PBS is continuing its mission to serve the American public with high-quality programming and services by launching the New Generation Initiative (NGI). The 18-month collaborative pilot spans six PBS stations across the U.S., and encourages child caregivers (including families, friends, and neighbors) to sign up for a text messaging service provided by the Colorado nonprofit, Bright by Three. This initiative has funding from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The David & Lucile Packard Foundation.

Bright by Three provides an innovative texting program that combines expert child development tips, activities, and local events to adults caring for young children in Arizona, Colorado, Fresno, Indianapolis, New York City, North Carolina, and San Antonio with the goals of:

  • Increasing parent and caregiver engagement; and
  • Strengthening parenting and caregiving skills.

Rocky Mountain PBS is leading the initiative, and has engaged Spark Policy Institute to learn how the different PBS sites collectively had an impact in early childhood education in their communities, and on the parents in the communities.

But how do you measure the impact of a public awareness campaign?

Because the pilot must demonstrate accountability to its funders and organizational leaders as well as improving and adapting as it is implemented, Spark Policy Institute is using a strategic learning approach. This means finding the balance between what is easy to measure (such as text sign-ups) and what is most useful (whether caretakers had a shift in the attitudes, strategies, actions, etc.). A systematic review of qualitative data can help surface rich and compelling information. We’re also using a collective interpretation of data collected in real-time, to inform the campaign regularly and enable the greatest outcome in child development.

We look forward to sharing what we learn through this project, and invite you to apply strategic learning in your own work by exploring our Tools for Social Innovators: Strategic Learning Toolkit.

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Reflections of a change agent: Sometimes you need to shut up and listen

Last summer, the Spark team was in one of our monthly all day team retreats. We use these conversations to ground ourselves in what matters about our work and stay true to our values.

To begin the day, we watched parts of two Ted talks:

  • The first talk helped us explore the concept of excellence, including how to define and understand excellence as something that is owned by everyone at every level: excellence cannot be imposed from the top nor independently generated from those on the ground.
  • The second talk reminded us to shut up and listen, which used a wonderful example about hippos and agriculture that will stick with you! It was a potent reminder that no matter how much you think you know, you don’t know all of the things that are critical to causing meaningful change.

The dialogue that followed has become part of the fabric of Spark, so much so that we keep a copy of the word cloud below at our desks as a daily reminder!


We explored the many ways that catalyzing change is different from implementing projects, preparing deliverables, facilitating meetings, doing the day-to-day work of a consultant. Here are some of our primary take-aways from that day:

  • Catalyzing change is about the process and the relationships, but it’s also about understanding that people need to have joy in that process, excitement, and opportunities to act on their passions. It’s about knowing that creating meaningful change is outside of our control as partners in many efforts, which means our best role is to lend our support to our partners, helping them be the leaders.
  • We explored how our own biases and assumptions get in the way, while also recognizing that they are a very human reality and we all have them.
  • We thought about the voices who most need to be part of a process and the reality of engaging them – listening, taking time to hear what they are saying, and the need to realize we are not the experts in the room, the community is.
  • We faced our egos head on and agreed that we need to not assume we know the answer, to know that even when our facts are right, they may not be important, and to listen more than speak. Arrogance is the death of progress.

These insights are not revolutionary, but together they reminded us what it takes to be catalytic without owning the change. They continue to remind me, day to day, and keep me grounded in what matters.

We hope they can also remind you of what it looks like when you are your best, creating an environment where meaningful change flourishes and your partners thrive amid the exciting uncertainties of making the world a better place.

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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.

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Leaving the Abstract Behind: What Collective Impact Really Means

Collective ImpactFrom reducing infant mortality to addressing climate change, Collective Impact work seems to be everywhere these days.  At Spark, we’ve been excited to get involved with Collective Impact efforts at all levels, from facilitating the planning process to being the backbone to providing evaluation support early in initiatives and in the later years as well.

Many of our partners are embracing the concept – in the most basic terms, Collective Impact is big picture cooperation that results in smarter efforts to get at the root of complex problems. More broadly, Collective Impact recognizes that, as we become ever-more-connected, isolated approaches to problems may not be enough to create true change.

Yet, is it just me or does Collective Impact continue to feel pretty abstract until you’re in the thick of it?

I recently had the opportunity to be a table facilitator at an event hosted by The Civic Canopy where a lot of the discussion centered on how Collective Impact could be used by organizations looking to create sustainable and meaningful change. It got me thinking about how to talk about Collective Impact and the elements that are necessary for success in more concrete ways…

Collective Impact is not a new project.

  • It’s engaging organizations in a collective effort to take their existing work and align it around a shared agenda. For example, organizations may identify that they are all serving the same set of kids, but if they are more strategic in how they recruit new kids into their programs, they can collectively extend their reach and decrease the duplication of effort.

Collective Impact is not top down.

  • It only works when the organization(s) providing support, such as convening partners and keeping track of progress, are responding to the needs of others, rather than driving the direction themselves. That means all the rest of us who are participating have to be very active at joining in the dialogue and shaping the direction. For new backbone organizations, there is usually a lot of capacity building that needs to happen as staff switch from being doers and leaders to supporters and facilitators.

Collective Impact has small wins before it has big ones.

  • Systemic change is a great goal and it is often the reason we come together in a Collective Impact effort. But if we wait to declare success until we fix the system, we’re going to run out of steam! Small wins matter too – did we advocate for passage of a bill that will direct new resources into our system?  That’s a win!  Did we experiment with a new approach in one community and evaluate to see if it’s scalable?  That’s a win!

In Collective Impact, we get it wrong before we get it right.

  • Because of the multidimensional nature of both Collective Impact and the problems it is employed to address, there is no singular “right” approach or recipe that guarantees success every time.  That means every time we plan, at best we’re going to get it only partially right and sometimes we might be flat out wrong. It takes a mindset shift to realize that’s okay. It also takes an adaptive, flexible evaluation to help figure out why we didn’t get it right and design our next step.

Packing up at the end of the Civic Canopy day, reflecting back on conversations about Spark’s work in Collective Impact, I thought about how powerful this framework can be and how it speaks to Spark’s core mission of creating meaningful change.  There is still so much work to be done in this arena, and we’re excited to be along for the ride!

Click here to learn more about Collective Impact and Spark’s approach.

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Spark’s New Year’s Resolutions to Support Sustainable Change

Spark Policy InstituteDon’t you just love thinking up New Year’s resolutions? I know I do – they’re so full of the rich promise of that makes Change, capital C, so alluring. A fresh start – an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and say, “On the other side of this line, things will be different!” No matter how difficult to solve, no matter how complex the problem, making and owning a resolution is, literally, to renew your resolve to solve that complex problem. That in itself is an important step towards meaningful and sustainable change. And that’s why we at Spark are making a few resolutions for 2013 – to remind ourselves why we’re here with you on the front lines of the battle to create change in our communities.


Six Resolutions for Making a Meaningful Difference

So here are Spark’s Resolutions for 2013 . . .

Spark Policy Institute

  1. We will embrace meaningful change even when it’s hard for us.
    • We try to do this every day, but it isn’t easy! So we enforce upon ourselves regular pauses for reflection. We ask ourselves “Is this strategy moving us towards the change we desire?” “Is that change meaningful?” “What can we do to make sure we’re on the right track?”


  1. We will use data to guide our decisions, along with intuition and experience.Spark Policy Institute
    • For example, we’re planning some changes to our monthly webinar series in 2013, based on your feedback. More expert advice, more real-world examples to illustrate our points, and more interactivity. You spoke, and we listened.


  1.  We will engage all stakeholders, including those most affected by policies and services. Critique helps us do good, even better!
    • So please keep that feedback coming – informed change is better than arbitrary change! Comment on our blogs, attend and critique our monthly webinars, email us to tell us what you think of the resources in our Igniting Change website, and most of all, tell us how we’re doing in our projects with you – morning, noon, and night.
  1. We will keep learning, even when it means giving up our old ways of doing things.Spark Policy Institute
    • We’re all about learning, so we engage in regular quality assurance check-ins on our projects. And we’re always refining our quality assurance methods so that we can help create high-quality, customized solutions to our clients’ problems.
  1. We will work on the things we love, because passion gets results.
    • Our clients get the best outcomes when we have passion for the topic. We’re always focused on outcomes, but in 2013 we’re making sure to bring the passions of our team to bear on every project.
  1. We will be healthy! Research says dark chocolate is good for you, so we’re going for it!Spark Policy Institute


Spark Policy Institute

Got any New Year’s Resolutions of your own? We’d love to hear about them! And best wishes for a sparkling new year from all of us at Spark!