Posted on

Using Learning To Do Good, Even Better

One of the best parts of my job is helping organizations use learning to do good, even better. Recently, we worked with Project Health Colorado, a strategy funded by The Colorado Trust with support from The Colorado Health Foundation, focused on building public will to achieve access to health for all Coloradans by fostering a statewide discussion about health care and how it can be improved. The strategy included fourteen grantees and a communications campaign working independently and together to build public will. It also combined an impact evaluation with coaching on engaging in real-time, data-driven strategic learning to help grantees and The Trust test and adapt their strategies to improve outcomes.

Lessons learned about strategic learning:

So, how can organizations use real time learning to tackle a complex strategy in a complex environment – building will around a highly politicized issue? Our strategic learning model built the capacity of The Trust and grantees to engage in systematic data collection, along with collective interpretation and use of information to improve strategies. As a result, grantees shifted strategies in real time, increasing their ability to influence audience awareness of access to health issues and willingness to take action.

As a result of the learning, The Trust made major changes to the overarching strategy including shifting from asking grantees to use a prepackaged message to using the “intent” of the message with training on how to adapt it. This was particularly important for grantees working with predominately minority communities, who reported the original message did not resonate in their communities.

The real-time learning was effective because it allowed grantees and the Trust to practice interpreting and using the results of systematic data collection, applying what they learned to improve their strategies. The evaluation also supported adaptation over accountability to pre-defined plans, creating a culture of adaptation and helping participants strategize how to be effective at building will.

Lessons learned about evaluation:

The evaluation focused learning at the portfolio level, looking at the collective impact on public will across all grantee strategies. As the evaluator charged with figuring out the impact of this strategy, where everyone was encouraged to constantly adapt and improve, we learned that having multiple in-depth data collection methods, tailored to the ways different audiences engaged in the strategy, and explicitly planning for how to capture emergent outcomes allowed the evaluation to stay relevant even as the strategy shifted.

Rad Resources:

Want to learn more?

This post originally appeared September 14, 2015 on AEA365, the American Evaluation Association blog. The American Evaluation Association is an international professional association of evaluators devoted to the application and exploration of program evaluation, personnel evaluation, technology, and many other forms of evaluation. The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Nonprofits and Foundations Topical Interest Group (NPFTIG) Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our NPFTIG members. 

Posted on

Planning for Adaptation

Logo 8I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade thinking about, experimenting with, and refining tools for planning in complex, adaptive settings. As we put together Spark’s Adaptive Planning Toolkit, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect back and think about the genesis of the tools and what we have learned over the years.

I have tremendous admiration for all of the partners I’ve worked with who have tackled complex problems with adaptive approaches. That they can work amid such great uncertainty is impressive in and of itself, but the fact that they are willing to approach solving the problems in ways that are, themselves, uncertain and untested is even more laudable.

The stakeholders who came together to prevent another tragedy like the Columbine school shooting not only didn’t know how to integrate the many different service systems to prevent a future shooting, they were also brand new to systems mapping, which was a critical part of developing a plan for change. I remember the walls covered with boxes and lines, as participants tried to break down how the system functioned today in order to figure out how it could function tomorrow.

DLPLogoFINALThe leaders who formed the core of the Daylight Project, focused on improving access to behavioral health services for deaf and hard of hearing consumers, similarly tackled a complex problem using tools that were untested and new to them. Consumer stories helped inform their work along the way, but so did real-time strategic learning, which included gathering data about their environment and forecasting the likelihood of success for each partner organization they invited to join the effort.

Scenario MappingRecently, The Colorado Health Foundation used an adaptive planning process to develop their Consumer Advocacy funding strategy. Using scenario planning tools, mapping of current funding, and even a post-mortem, they went all out with adaptive planning. Unlike the previous examples, by this point Spark, as their partners in crime, had a well-established repertoire of adaptive planning tools. However, similar to the experiences in the first two examples, this approach was still new and out of the comfort zone for the organization, yet they embraced it fully and developed a truly creative, results focused, and adaptive funding strategy.

I am personally very excited to share our adaptive planning tools. I believe in them. I have seen them help many different types of groups make a meaningful difference on truly difficult problems. I also believe this idea of adaptive planning is a work in progress – we have some pieces pulled together, but by no means is this the be all, end all of planning in complex settings. I am excited to learn how others are doing adaptive planning and hope you will participate by sharing your stories and building our common base of tools for how to do this difficult work.