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Integrating Lenses for a Systems Approach

Systems thinking is often considered a broad view of all the pieces required to make meaningful change happen. It’s essential to making real change – but when we equate the system with the change, we overlook the individual players. These individual players are crucial to making change happen, and can get lost in the complexity. In a reversal of roles, we lose the trees for the forest.

A systems lens is most effective when it results in recognizing and leveraging individual contributors. In fact, if you neglect to see and recognize individuals, you aren’t really using a systems lens. True systems thinking shifts between and integrates a 50,000-foot view with a 5,000-foot view, a five-foot view, and every degree in-between. No view alone is any more complete than the other.

Take for example, Ella Baker. When people learn about the civil rights era, they are often directed to the 50,000-foot view: large, systems changes and movements that occurred. This would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which for the first time prohibited discrimination in employment and public accommodation on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

At the 5,000-foot view, the focus is often on Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contribution to the larger movement. The same year that congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize. He became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and it can be easy to equate the movement and outcomes with King himself or the Act his efforts contributed to passing.

However, when we get down to the five-foot view, we see the crucial importance of Ella Baker. In a time without the internet and texting, Baker organized rallies, created and printed brochures, and generated interest from communities in advance of organized events. Without her efforts and many like hers, the movement that Martin Luther King, Jr. championed would not have advanced as it did.

Ella Baker is an example of someone who enabled change to happen, by being present on the ground. She is an inspiration for any individual working toward a larger, meaningful change – proof that each one of us does make a difference, and that we each add incredible value to the bigger picture.

People like Ella Baker help us as individuals see that regardless of how visible our role in change might be, it matters. They also remind us that we must shift between and integrate a variety of lenses for a systems approach. This ability to explore, engage, and integrate views is crucial for positive impacts.

There are some great tools available to us to explore, engage with, and integrate various systems views. To explore and access some of these, see our Tools for Social Innovators.

You’re Invited: In-Person Lunch & Learn

On Thursday November 2 at 11:30am MST, Kyle Brost, CEO of Spark Policy Institute will host a Lunch & Learn about “Integrating Lenses for a Systems Approach” at Spark’s offices. Registration is limited to the first 20 people and a light lunch will be provided.

RSVP to the in-person event, or attend our live webinar hosted by GoToMeeting.

Webinar Option

Please join my meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone.

You can also dial in using your phone.

United States: +1 (571) 317-3122

Access Code: 233-138-165

First GoToMeeting? Let’s do a quick system check:

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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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Cross-sector Collaboration Lessons Learned: Implementing a Powerful Tool for Social Change

I was fortunate to spend the last week with 23 other cross-sector leaders who are doing amazing things – everything from changing how PepsiCo sources its fruits in order to benefit local economies and increase the nutritional content of their drinks, to scaling an evidence-based afterschool program throughout the country, to developing and disseminating an exciting model for community organizing to build resilience. We are all part of the inaugural class of Cross-Sector Leadership Fellows, a partnership of the Presidio Trust and the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. After a week’s worth of collaborating and learning with this team of innovators, my brain is overflowing with lessons learned about cross-sector collaboration and I wanted to share a few. Mailbox

  • People’s attention is seriously divided. Getting access to the attention of your partners keeps getting harder and harder. Email inboxes are overflowing with messages we should have read, twitter is feeding us more messages then we will ever read and most of us never get around to opening email attachments. Yet, cross-sector work depends on good communication. This means when we’re convening a cross-sector partnership we need to be prepared to spend face time and phone time catching people up and making sure we hear their needs.
  • A neutral party who can help surface competing agendas and needs is critical. This can be the facilitator, a developmental evaluator, a cross-sector coach, etc. Whatever their title, this neutral third party is a critical part of the process.  All of the partners need a confidential, unbiased partner, someone they can talk to – including some venting – and begin to break down the problem and figure out how they can be part of the solution.
  • UntitledSolutions aren’t created in one big swoop, but piece by piece over time. When’s the last time someone developed a big visionary plan to solve a truly complex problem, implemented it, and said at the end of the day, “Yes, we nailed it!  No changes needed!”?  Never.  Because tough problems wouldn’t be tough if we knew how to solve them. Testing out different ideas, trying to fix pieces of the problem, and evaluating the impact are all part of tackling the complex problems facing society. However, we need to make sure the small tests along the way are directly related to where we want to go in the big picture.
  • Never lose focus on the change you’re trying to cause in the world. Every meeting with partners, one-on-one conversation, email, and newsletter needs to keep the meaningful difference that is driving the work front and center. Not only does it inspire us, but it helps us figure out how to make it through all the competing demands on our resources and conflicting expectations. After all, we wouldn’t be doing the tough work of cross-sector collaboration if we weren’t passionate about changing the world to be a better place.

I will continue to blog about the lessons I’m learning on this cross-sector journey, including what we learned spending a day with some of the federal government’s most innovative leaders, our lessons from visiting the DC Central Kitchen, and what one can learn from watching cross-sector work in action that is triggered by leaders in corporations, non-profits, local government, federal government, and small businesses.

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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!

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Tips to Ensuring Your Evaluation is a Learning Tool

It used to be that evaluation was something that happened occasionally, was sometimes required by funders, and could sometimes be useful. Not anymore. When you ask a room full of people who are trying to make a meaningful difference whether they have been part of an evaluation, almost everyone raises their hand. But what that means – being part of an evaluation – differs greatly from person to person.

Evaluation can be about accountability, meeting a funder requirement, or even providing information back to your board. At its best, though, evaluation is about learning – learning what worked, what didn’t, why it didn’t, what to do better next time.


Focusing your evaluation on learning

The earlier you decide to use your evaluation as a learning process, the more likely it is that it will work out that way. As your evaluator is planning the evaluation design, talk to them about what you want to know, what will help you to do good, even better. Try exploring some of the questions below with your evaluator – each of these question may bubble up an important area for learning!

  • Are we implementing a strategy that is new to us, something we’ve never tried before?
  • Is there a strategy we’re implementing in a new way or with a new target population?
  • Is there a strategy we’ve been implementing for years, but never assessed to see if it really makes a difference?
  • Is there information about our external environment that will help us to tailor our strategies and better achieve our outcomes?
  • Is there information about our own organization’s internal capacity that will help us know if we’re ready to implement a strategy?

If these questions do not help you narrow your learning, try filling in the blank on this statement instead:

  • Unless we know ____________________________, we won’t know how to improve our strategy.

Focus your evaluation on both Strategies and Outcomes

This may sound obvious to some of you, but it bears repeating. When we want to learn from our evaluation, we need to understand the relationship between the strategy we are implementing and the outcomes we are achieving. Let’s use some definitions:

Strategy: A defined approach to implementing multiple smaller actions (tactics), which are collectively intended to achieve a particular outcome. Strategies are completely within your control to implement or not implement as you choose.


Outcome: The change you hope to influence as a result of your strategies. It may be a change in people (yourself, your target audience, community members) or even a change in the environment (built environment, health of habitats, etc.). You cannot control whether it occurs, only do your best to influence the change.

Work with your evaluator to make sure that they are capturing the relationship between decisions and actions that are within your control and the outcomes they achieve, those things you can only hope to influence. When your evaluator presents results, telling you whether or not you’ve achieved your outcomes, nothing is worse than not being able to figure out what to change to improve your outcomes.


Intuitive learning matters too!

We’ll talk more about this in another blog coming soon, but here’s the teaser: Your evaluator, no matter how amazing, does not have the intuitive and on-the-ground knowledge of the people implementing the program. Understanding what an evaluation is really telling you means taking into account your intuitive knowledge of what is happening in your program. To learn from an evaluation, you need high quality evaluation results, but you also need to explore what the evaluation results mean with the people who understand your program best, including staff, volunteers, and even consumers.