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Using frameworks to communicate systems level insights

Collaborative Framework to improve school attendance

Laura Trent, Esq., Senior Consultant at Spark Policy InstituteThe Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Council has a tall order – prevent youth from entering the justice system or from penetrating deeper into the justice system. The goal cannot be met through program implementation alone. The systems serving the youth must change how they work together (or begin working together) in order to meet the needs of “at-risk” youth.

In 2013, the JJDP Council recognized the need for an alternative approach to addressing “status offenses” (only a crime because of a youth’s age) like truancy (missing too much school). They funded four truancy demonstration pilots in Colorado to work across systems in order to prevent and intervene in truant behavior.

Our new report, Evaluation of Truancy Prevention and Early Intervention takes a retrospective look at the four pilots and includes reflections from stakeholders in schools, courts and the justice system. This led to our Collaborative Framework to Improve Educational Attainment (below), which identifies critical areas and components Colorado’s broader juvenile field must address to work together to improve school engagement.

Collaborative Framework to improve school attendance
This framework outlines the importance of partnerships, prevention, and intervention approaches, and sustainability in supporting Colorado youth and families in the education and justice systems.

At Spark, we understand the importance of connecting theoretical frameworks with on-the-ground  perspectives to ensure our work is actionable.

We facilitated a dialogue with the JJDP Council on the evaluative findings and asked whether it resonated, what was missing, and how it could be built upon. We were able to map the framework to the reality of the stakeholders needs because of our participatory approach (see Spark’s toolkit on Tools for Engaging Nontraditional Voices). Their input made clear that there is room for the framework to not only serve as a guide to improving school engagement, but more broadly to meet the needs of at-risk youth through a collaborative approach.

For more about the work of the truancy demonstration pilots and truancy in Colorado visit the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice website.

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Case Study: Emergent Philanthropy

A new article in the Foundation Review describes the tools we used in partnership with Harder+Company and The Civic Canopy to support an adaptable design for The Colorado Health Foundation’s (TCHF) Creating Healthy Schools funding strategy.

The article dives deep into the principles of emergent philanthropy, and how TCHF worked to co-create their strategy, funding and process with key stakeholders and grantees in Colorado’s school system.

One important lesson learned? When one funder shifts its funding approach to be more emergent, it can put a burden on grantees who are still responding to the more traditional expectations of their other funders. It’s also really hard for one funder to solve all the shifting issues in a complex system.

Enter collective emergent philanthropy – a process where multiple funders combine efforts to help solve a problem through an emergent approach guided by a systems-level collaborative.

By collaborating with other funding partners interested in addressing a systems issue at the outset, funders can:

  1. Better focus a complex field by pooling and leveraging resources;
  2. Disperse power and mitigate vested interests; and
  3. Further strengthen and build partnerships to adapt to new challenges and continuously improve efforts.

Read more about TCHF’s implementation of an emergent philanthropy philosophy in Insights from Deploying a Collaborative Process for Funding Systems Change.

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For the Good of the Group: Be Nice, Respond in Kind, Be Forgiving

When working to change complex systems it can be difficult for individual stakeholders to engage in authentic collaboration. This is neuroscience. We are all motivated to move away from perceived threats and toward perceived reward. Bringing multiple actors together to work toward a common goal can create conflict between doing what is best for the individual organization and doing what is best for the system.

In the latest issue of The Foundation Review, we’ve shared tools on how to navigate this difficult terrain using an on-the-ground example: The Colorado Health Foundation’s (TCHF) Creating Healthy Schools funding strategy. TCHF engaged Spark, as well as Harder+Company and The Civic Canopy to support an emergent approach to design and implement the strategy.

Here are some highlights on how to help stakeholders align their work and build inclusive engagement and partnership:

  • Lead stakeholders to a shared understanding of systems thinking and how it translates to systems acting.
  • Leverage a neutral facilitator.
  • Engage on-the-ground perspectives to involve those who will be most impacted by the change.
  • Support increased communication between systems-level and on-the-ground groups.
  • Develop clear function-group goals.
  • Be transparent about what you are doing, how you are approaching the problem, and how decisions are made.

Read more about TCHF’s implementation of an emergent philanthropy philosophy in Insights from Deploying a Collaborative Process for Funding Systems Change.

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The Collective Impact Research Study: What is all this really going to mean, anyway?

By Jewlya Lynn, CEO, Spark Policy Institute; Sarah Stachowiak, CEO, ORS Impact

It’s easy for evaluators to sometimes get tied up in the technical terms around our work, leaving lay people unclear on what some of our decisions and choices mean.  Without care, we can also risk being opaque about what a particular design can and can’t do.  With this blog, we want to untangle what we think our design will tell us, and what it won’t do.

With this research study, ORS Impact and Spark Policy Institute are seeking to understand the degree to which the collective impact approach contributed meaningfully to observed positive changes in people’s’ lives (or, in some cases, species or ecosystems).  In other words, when and under what conditions did collective impact make a difference where we’re seeing positive changes, or are there other explanations or more significant contributors to identified changes?  While we’ll learn a lot more than just that, at its heart, that’s what this study will do.  

Our primary approach to understand the core question around contribution and causal relationships will be to use process tracing.  Process tracing provides a rigorous and structured way to identify and explore competing explanations for why change happens and to determine the necessity and sufficiency of different kinds of evidence to support different explanations that we’ll find through our data collection efforts.

To implement the process tracing, we will dig deeply into data around successful changes—a population change or set of changes plausibly linked to the CI efforts—within six sites.  We’ll explore these changes and their contributing factors with data from existing documents, interviews with site informants, focus groups with engaged individuals, and a participatory process to review and engage in sense-making with stakeholders around the ways in which we understand change to have happened.  We’ll try and untangle the links between implementation of the collective impact approach and early outcomes, the links between early outcomes and systems changes, and the links between systems changes and ultimate impacts.

Figure:  Diagram of “Process” for Tracing

Note:  Future blogs will provide more information on the different rubrics we’ve developed and are using.

Using a process tracing approach also means that we’ll explicitly explore alternate hypotheses for why change happened—was there another more impactful initiative?  Was there a federal funding stream that supported important related work?  Was there state policy that paved the way that was unconnected to stakeholders’ work?  Would these changes have occurred whether collective impact was around or not?

Additionally, we’ll look at two sites where we would expect to see change but don’t, with the expectation that these sites can help us understand if the patterns we’re seeing at successful sites are absent or showing up differently, findings that would help give us more confidence that the patterns we’re seeing are meaningful.

Process tracing as our approach does mean that our unit of analysis—the sphere within which we will be exploring change and causal relationships—is going to be approximately eight sites.  While we hope to find sites where a cluster of impact outcomes result from a specific set of activities (or “process”), we are choosing to go deeply in a few sites with an approach that will provide rigor around how we develop and confirm our understanding of the relationships between activities and changes.  And because we are looking across diverse sites, working on varied issue areas (e.g., food systems, education, environmental issues, etc.) and at different scales (e.g., cities, multiple counties, entire states), identifying patterns across diverse contexts will increase our confidence around what collective impact conditions, principles and other contextual factors are most related to these successes.

With more data around if and when we find causal relationships, we will also go back to our data set of 22 sites that we are also engaging with early to see if we can, likewise, find similar patterns to those found through the process tracings.  For these sites, we’ll use data we will have collected on their fidelity to collective impact, efforts around equity, successes with different types of systems changes, and types of ultimate impacts.  Are we seeing similar patterns around the necessity of fidelity to certain conditions?  Are we seeing similar patterns in the relationship between certain types of systems changes and impacts?

Despite the strengths we believe this study has, it will not be the end-all-be-all, final say on the efficacy of collective impact.  All studies have limitations, and we want to be clear about those as well.  Given time and resources, we can’t conduct in-depth evaluations of the full range of efforts and activities any given collective impact site is undertaking.  Our unit of analysis isn’t a full site; it won’t take in the full complexity of the history of the initiative, or the full array of activities and efforts.  For example, it’s likely that a site that we engage with around a particular success has also experienced areas with no discernable progress.  We also are not comparing collective impact to other change models.  That doesn’t make the exploration of causality around successful changes less meaningful, but it does mean that we’ll understand contribution to specific changes well rather than understanding and judging the success of collective impact at a community-level or comparing collective impact to other models of driving systemic change.

We do believe that this study will fill a gap in the growing body of research, evaluation and evidence around collective impact by deeply understanding contribution in particular cases and by looking at a diverse and varied set of cases.  The social sector will benefit from continued interrogation of collective impact using many methods, units of analysis and approaches.  In the end, the more we learn, the better we can make meaningful progress on the gnarly issues that face vulnerable places and populations.

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June Spark News: Changing the World, One System at a Time

Spark Policy Institute

Spark-notext-highresThis month, we’re looking at how organizations can support large-scale systems change, either as a backbone, partner, evaluator, fiscal intermediary, or through many other roles. But we would be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to talk about what happened in Orlando. Earlier in June, we witnessed the worst mass shooting in our country’s modern history. In the wake of the shooting, there has been a lot of discussion about how we got here and where we go.

As some of you may know, Spark was originally conceived to replicate, improve on, and expand the types of systems change work that one of the founders helped to lead in response to the Columbine High School shooting. During that process, over a hundred leaders from across the system, community and private sector came together to try to find a systemic solution. They found some small changes, but it took years before anything significant shifted. Spark was created to help catalyze, accelerate, learn from, and scale systems change efforts across issues and needs. It was born of a recognition that meaningful change doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it requires a cross-system, cross-sector approach.

The why of what happened at Pulse on June 12 is complex and there is no easy – or singular – way to prevent similar incidents happening in the future. But we can work toward achieving a solution together by recognizing the complexity of the situation and the ways in which we all play a part in creating, implementing, and continuing to improve that solution.

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