Consider CI for our youth violence prevention consortium

Posted 2 months ago at 9:42 am

I work with a county health department that got a grant in 2014 to develop a youth violence prevention initiative. The grant ended last year and I've been brought in to help create sustainability and build capacity, particularly with the community consortium that was formed. We began a strategic planning process in May and are beginning to think about setting establishing objectives when I came across the CI model. I think it would be a great process to integrate but we have no funding committed -- I'm working as a VISTA and my assignment ends in November.  From what I've learned, I don't think we're ready for this but I would like to get a handle on how we can be.  Are there tools we can use to prepare ourselves?

Lessons Learned from our Conversations with Experienced Backbone Leaders

Posted Monday, August 1, 2016 at 10:22 pm

Over the past two months, we published seven interviews with experienced backbone leaders. Although we approached these interviews with a loose agenda (“How have their initiatives evolved and been sustained?” “What can experienced backbone leaders teach newer initiatives”, etc.), the interviewees provided a treasure trove of nuanced advice, stories of success, and (yes) stories of failure. Instead of sticking to talking points, each interviewee gave us the real story. Lastly, our interviewees were incredibly generous with their time (and backbone leaders are busy folks!). For all of these reasons, we are very indebted to the interviewees.

Interviewees included:

The interviewees’ collective impact initiatives vary by:

  • Geographical footprint: 2 statewide initiatives (LiveWell Colorado, Vermont Farm to Plate), 5 regional initiatives (Communities that Care, KConnect, Project U-Turn, San Diego County Childhood Obesity, Road Map Project)
     
  • Urban vs. rural: 4 initiatives encompass rural areas (Communities that Care, KConnect, LiveWell Colorado, Vermont Farm to Plate)
     
  • Experience: The newest of the initiatives (KConnect) has been around since 2012, while the most experienced (Communities that Care) has been going strong since 2002
     
  • Issue area: Education (3), health and well-being (3), food systems (1)

Top Themes and Takeaways

This blog concludes the interview series by summarizing themes from the interviews. In the comments section, we would love to hear from you – what are the most important things you learned from this blog series? What do you disagree with? What would you like to hear more about?

If you would like to share your own lessons with collective impact, we invite you to post on the CI Forum’s community forum page or add your own collective impact initiative to the growing Initiative Directory.

Keys to sustaining a CI initiative

  • Evolve scope to address the right problem and to be financially sustainable. Each initiative has evolved over time. For example, as Project U-Turn’s scope broadened, they included more and more diverse stakeholders to address different parts of the dropout crisis. Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend notes that “As we understand the system young people must navigate after they complete high school, we’re increasingly involving those parts of the system.” In order to obtain funds needed to sustain itself, Communities that Care Coalition expanded its focus to include nutrition and physical activity (in addition to its original focus on substance use prevention). Kat Allen notes this broadening is in-line with CTC’s focus on youth health and wellbeing. Lastly, while LiveWell Colorado initially tackled low-hanging fruit, they have transitioned to addressing root causes of obesity. As Gabriel Guillaume states, “We came to understand that we’ll only make incremental change [by going after low-hanging fruit] and as a result we decided to focus on harder, more systemic issues.”
     
  • Diversify funding sources, seek long-term funding. We heard from multiple interviewees about the vulnerability caused by a single, large funding source, and the importance of diversifying. “The chief sustainability challenge is having consistent, long term funding commitments,” notes Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend of Project U-Turn. “This is not a 2 or 3-year problem, and the investment needs to match the type of change you are seeking.” Many interviewees expressed frustration that funders often don’t understand the need to fund collaboration (e.g., the backbone and the supports it provides), and this remains an ongoing challenge.
     
  • Build capacity of others. Good backbone leaders build the capacity of others to continue the work in light of uncertainties such as elected officials’ coming and going, funding fluctuations, and personnel turnover in partner organizations. According to Kat Allen at Communities that Care Coalition, “the reality is that funding can go away at any time and we have to be prepared to leave a legacy of effective strategies and population-level change. When we set up a new strategy, we are thinking about long term sustainability from the get-go… we have built buy-in and capacity so that our stakeholders are doing the work themselves.” Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend at Project U-Turn concurs, noting “To sustain the initiative, it can’t be just my job. In Philadelphia, there is a real sense of communal ownership around moving the needle.”
     
  • Know how to speak the language of different types of funders. Gabriel Guillaume at LiveWell Colorado captured this sentiment well by saying “knowing how to speak to different types of funders is really important. Some funders want to hear the ‘collective’ side of collective impact, such as how partnerships are forming. But, others want to hear the ‘impact’ side, such as what are you accomplishing and your return on investment.”
     
  • Share credit. Cheryl Moder of San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative cites the challenge of “recognizing the work of the partners, and getting partners comfortable talking about their work in context of the larger collective efforts. The more successful you are, more people want to be a part of the effort, and more you need to bend over backwards to give credit to your partners. It’s very easy to make mistakes regarding partner recognition.”
     
  • Build trust. Trusting relationships can be built by carving out time (e.g., having a non-working lunch at each meeting), taking action together, and setting reasonable and understood expectations.
     
  • Engage the community in authentic ways to foster community ownership. According to Paul Doyle of KConnect, “You have to be proactive and mindful of the rules of engagement [with the community]. We have more work to do around engagement, but we try to give individuals in the community the opportunity to be part of the initiative; this creates an atmosphere of ownership.” CI initiatives are putting their money where their mouth is by recognizing the sacrifices community members make through their participation.
     
  • Focus on the benefits of partnerships. Partners will be more inclined to support the initiative if they understand what they are receiving from their involvement.
     
  • Produce convenings that people want to attend. We are all busy individuals, and meetings increasingly crowd our calendars. Experienced backbone leaders know this, and invest in high-quality convenings.


Character traits and skills we observed about our interviewees (all experienced backbone leaders)

  • Experienced backbone leaders celebrate successes while embodying urgency to do more. Remarkably, each interviewee followed statements of accomplishment (“we’re proud of our equity work to date”) with statements of sincere urgency (“but we have so much more to do”). Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend from Project U-Turn exemplified this when she said “I’m excited to see progress, but it’s energizing to see how much more work we have to do.” Notice how she is excited and not daunted by the remaining work!
     
  • Experienced backbone leaders have an exceptional instinct for managing interpersonal dynamics. For example, Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend makes sure to include key stakeholders before reports are released: “We vet the data with leaders in the system [before releasing important reports]. Of all the things we do to advance partnerships and align to the common goal, vetting reports with system leaders prior to publication is the most powerful approach we have.”
     
  • Experienced backbone leaders are open about their personal and organizational shortcomings. All CI initiatives are works in progress, and even in effective initiatives CI leaders acknowledge that missteps happen. As Gabriel Guillaume of LiveWell Colorado noted, “Something always true about collective impact work is that mistakes are inevitable. Learning from them is your most important responsibility.”


Note: Backbone leaders often embody “system leadership.” To dig deeper into traits of a system leader, I recommend reading The Dawn of System Leadership by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania.

Ideas worth considering 

  • Given the size of their key roles, compensate working group chairs for their time. Vermont Farm to Plate invests in working group chairs as a key part of the network. Their four working groups with co-chairs receive $5,000 each, the working group with one chair receives $7,500, and chairs of cross-cutting teams may receive stipends if needed. Vermont Farm to Plate also provides chairs with leadership development opportunities, such as project management and facilitation training. Ellen Kahler claims that “this not only helps the working groups, but also the chairs’ own organizations. Investing in working group chairs allows us to have a lean backbone of 4.5 full-time equivalent staff.” (note that Vermont Farm to Plate is a state-wide initiative)
     
  • Compensate community members for their participation, but in a thoughtful way. According to Lynda Petersen at the Road Map Project, “some people get paid to go to meetings all day, but parents don’t, and we need that perspective at the table.” A legitimate point of view (held by some community organizers and others) is that there may be risks in compensating community members, as it could reinforce power dynamics or incentivize community members to say what others want to hear. Thus, this approach should be done thoughtfully.
     
  • Create an Equity & Inclusion Workgroup to help the whole initiative embed equity in its work. It is essential to design and implement CI initiatives with a priority placed on equity (see Collective Impact Principles of Practice). Paul Doyle at KConnect comments that their Equity & Inclusion Workgroup “will help the other workgroups utilize an ‘inclusion filter’ approach to insure we consider the factors that impact all children in their strategy development process. By doing this, we can create an opportunity for individuals who are not close with equity work to increase their competency and understanding.” In a similar vein, the Road Map Project uses a racial equity template when planning strategies.
     
  • Support programs and system-level reforms. “What we’ve found is that people don’t organize around the word ‘policy,’ at least initially,” says Gabriel Guillaume at LiveWell Colorado. “That’s why programs and more tangible terms and outcomes are so critical. I’m not going to knock on doors for ‘policy change.’ But, if a group of parents want to start a ‘walking school bus,’ which is highly programmatic, then people will get involved in that. Programs are important in their own right, but they also reveal systemic barriers that programs themselves will rarely overcome.” Note: this topic is also addressed in Collective Impact Principles of Practice.
     
  • Reinforce a collaborative culture through communication protocols and high-quality deliverables. Ellen Kahler at Vermont Farm to Plate gave us this excellent example: “It took time for people to understand that they can show what their organization is doing while being part of a larger effort to strengthen Vermont’s food system. To reinforce this message, my Communications Director has built a community of practice with communications specialists in network members’ organizations. They coordinate with each other so that when individual organizations create a press release, they include two sentences that situates their organization within the larger Farm to Plate context.” Additionally, Vermont Farm to Plate is very intentional about their deliverables (e.g., strategic plan, website) having a consistent look and feel and using consistent messaging and a common language. For network members, this creates awareness that they’re exiting their own organization’s space, and entering a collaborative space.

Additional thought-provoking comments from our interviewees

  • To reinforce a collaborative culture, don’t have every organization on the Steering Committee. According to Vermont Farm to Plate’s Ellen Kahler, “Perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, with our steering committee it’s not about having every key organization at the table. Rather, we wanted our steering committee to reflect the structure of the Network. If you have the expectation that every interest group needs to have a seat at the table, then everyone will speak from their own organization’s perspective rather than from the larger system perspective.”
     
  • We live in a unique moment where the time is ripe to push for equity. If we don’t push, the moment may be lost. As powerfully stated by Angela Glover Blackwell in a recent CI Forum convening (see video here), the U.S. faces a turning point regarding equity. A number of our interviewees are stepping into this moment by having difficult equity conversations. “Equity has always been part of the Project U-Turn conversation, but the national conversation around equity gives Project U-Turn and its partners permission to discuss it more directly than before,” says Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend. Lynda Petersen concurs, stating “across our country there's a real focus on racial equity, and this year we've had so many conversations about what that looks like in the Road Map Project. We're far from figuring it out, but I've appreciated the courageous conversations that we and many in our communities are having.” At the same time, Lynne Ferrell of KConnect posits that addressing equity requires getting comfortable with ambiguity: “We may not fully know how all of this [will] unfold, but we [do know] that the status quo [is] unacceptable.”
     
  • To build relationships, you have to sincerely care about people. “I think fundamentally you have to care about people,” says Cheryl Moder at San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative. “You have to care about why they’re there. You have to care about their motivations, who they are as people, partners, and individuals. You don’t have to like everyone, but you do have to care about them to a certain degree. And it can’t be superficial. You’ll have difficult times, but at end of the day, they’re people! Ask about their families! Know enough about them to know that they’re real people.”
     
  • Backbones are not “neutral facilitators,” but “transparent facilitators.” According to Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend at Project U-Turn, “we have gone from a neutral facilitator to a transparent facilitator. We have a perspective, and we can still facilitate without hiding that. That was a huge shift for us.” See this blog by my colleague Chris Carlson on why “neutral” may not be the right word to describe backbones.
     
  • Acting together can create just as much (or more) alignment than planning together. “A lot of collective impact leaders I speak with struggle with how to get collective efforts to stop the process of spin – they focus on the ‘collective’ for too long and never get to the ‘impact,’” according to Gabriel Guillaume from LiveWell Colorado. “This happens a lot because the planning process can take a very long time. But I think a lot of people forget that action creates alignment more than process does.” Similarly, Lynda Petersen at the Road Map Project contends that “If all we're doing is ‘problem gazing’ at the data, what impact are we having?”


In the comments section below, we’d love to hear from you: what can you apply to your CI initiative? Where do you disagree? What do you want to learn more about?

No Switzerland: Why “Neutrality” May Not Be the Right Way to Describe Backbone Leaders

Posted Friday, July 22, 2016 at 7:02 pm

The notion of “neutrality” is sometimes used to describe one of the defining features of backbone leaders in collective impact, with phrases such as “perceived neutrality” or “neutral conveners” often coming up when describing the role. However, as the collective impact approach continues to reach a broader audience, some have astutely pointed out shortcomings of the word “neutrality” in describing the ideal role of backbone leaders.

For example, Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, President and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, in discussing the facilitative leadership role that she and her colleagues play in their community agrees that neutrality isn’t the right term. In fact, she said that her organization plays the role of a “fair and honest broker, not a neutral convener.”

Similarly, Alicia Dicks, President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Herkimer & Oneida Counties in New York state, said that “we used to use the word ‘neutral broker,’ but we don’t use it anymore.” Dicks said she no longer uses “neutral” because she and her colleagues recognized the need to bring an active voice to encourage buy-in and ownership among other cross-sector partners, and so now describe themselves as a “community convener.”

Another to raise the inadequacy of “neutrality” to describe the backbone, Michael McAfee, Vice President for Programs at PolicyLink, notes, “if equity is to be front and center in collective impact efforts, then achieving it requires a point of view, proactive leadership, and honest brokers. If we’re clear that neutrality means we are in authentic service of the population that we’re privileged to be in partnership with, and indifferent about where the data, and best available evidence takes us in terms of strategies… then I’m all for neutrality.” Clearly, if “neutrality” requires such qualification it is probably not the right word to describe a backbone leader.

As part of the ongoing maturation of collective impact it’s important to unpack the language we use to make sure we are precise in how we talk about the approach. Additionally, the act of examining our language leads us to revisit implicit assumptions, slow down, and think through what we really mean when we talk about collective impact. In that spirit, let’s examine some of the ways in which “neutrality” might not be quite right in describing the unique positioning of the backbone:

  • One concern is that neutrality can imply dispassion or ambivalence towards the outcomes a collective impact effort is working toward. This is not an intentional implication; in fact many backbone leaders are among the most passionately committed to achieving impact through the work of the CI initiatives they support as an open process of co-creating solutions. Nevertheless, to people new to the collective impact approach or new to a given initiative, this interpretation could lead to an unintended negative association.
     
  • To some, describing backbones as neutral ignores the fact that many backbones come into being with the financial and political support of institutions of historical power and privilege. Foundations, large nonprofits, and government agencies that often support backbones are themselves rarely seen as neutral by members of the communities in which they work, and so there can be an inextricable association between the backbone and the “power class” that belies their neutrality
    .
  • Thirdly, and related to the above two, is the fact that being neutral can mean to favor the status quo, and by extension, the conditions that have created the problem that a collective impact initiative seeks to address. We are not the first to take notice of the association of neutrality and the status quo. Perhaps most notably, Desmond Tutu observed that, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Despite these important shortcomings of the word neutrality to adequately describe the posture of a backbone, many of the intentions behind using this word still ring true. Some of the aspects of neutrality that are still relevant to the role of the backbone include:

  • Maintaining a focus on achieving outcomes and impact identified collaboratively by the effort, not serving the specific interests of individual funders or organizations.
     
  • Favoring the interests of the collaboration and community as a whole, rather than the priorities of individuals or organizations
    .
  • Serving as an honest broker and transparent facilitator that actively guides the collaboration toward outcomes in a way that is open, humble, and fair.
     
  • Being willing to be an advocate who can productively call out and help address problematic dynamics in collaboration.


What do you think?

What are some other ways in which the word neutrality doesn’t accurately capture the positioning of a backbone? What are other aspects of backbone “neutrality” that still resonate with you? What other words might better describe this role?

Conversations with Experienced Backbone Leaders: Road Map Project

Posted Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 7:36 pm

Hello CI enthusiasts! This is our sixth in a series of interviews with experienced backbone leaders. In this chat, we’ll hear from Lynda Petersen, Associate Director at the Community Center for Education Results (CCER).

Founded in 2010, CCER is the backbone for the Road Map Project (RMP), a large collective impact initiative in South King County and South Seattle (Washington) aimed at improving education to drive dramatic improvement in student achievement from cradle to college and career. In 2013 FSG wrote this short case study on the RMP’s origins, structure, and results. Additionally, CCER’s Executive Director, Mary Jean Ryan, wrote an excellent piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on Power Dynamics in Collective Impact. We at FSG have long-admired the RMP for the way in which they use data to highlight not only what works, but also where opportunity gaps exist. 

I recently spoke with Lynda to check in on the RMP’s progress. If you have questions for Lynda, please pose them in the comment box below, and she will do her best to respond. Thanks, and enjoy!

Highlights from my conversation with Lynda

  • Like many other collective impact leaders we speak with, Lynda celebrates successes, but always reminds us that there is much more to do. Collective impact leaders are always balancing wins with a drive to improve.
     
  • The Road Map Project is remarkably transparent with their data. For example, they publish side-by-side data comparing each of the seven school districts in their region. They also publish data disaggregated by race. This keeps the focus on reducing opportunity gaps. See the Road Map Project’s annual reports for how they display data.
     
  • CCER faces challenges when supporting working group members and partners during the implementation phase, including the voices of parents and youth, and using data to change practice.
     
  • Like many other collective impact initiatives, the Road Map Project strives to translate data into concrete actions that close gaps. According to Lynda, “If all we're doing is ‘problem gazing’ at the data, what impact are we having?”
     
  • To respect parents’ time, Lynda believes they should be compensated for participation in meetings. As Lynda notes, “Some people get paid to go to meetings all day, but parents don’t, and we need that perspective at the table.”
     
  • Four years into the work, RMP has seen many system-level changes, such as policy changes (some of which Lynda believes can have a big and rapid impact), signups for a statewide scholarship program, and stronger relationships as a result of people working together.


Robert: What are you most excited about regarding the Road Map Project’s work?

Lynda: Many things! Four years into this work, in many cases relationships are strong, which has been a result of people working together on very challenging work.

Additionally, our data team is breaking ground all the time and uncovering new insights. We're gaining access to new sources of data and thinking innovatively about what we measure and track. CCER plays a role in analyzing data and helping others to use the data meaningfully in their work.

Across our country there's a real focus on racial equity, and this year we've had so many conversations about what that looks like in the RMP, how CCER plays a role. We're far from figuring it out, but I've appreciated the courageous conversations that we and many in our communities are having. The challenge is then “what do we do differently to see the change we want to see?”


What are some of the main systems-level changes you’ve seen, and what’s been driving those changes?

We’ve seen many system-level changes, and I’ll speak to a few.

First, there have been policy changes that can then have a really big and rapid impact. For example, we track percentage of students attending full-day Kindergarten. Full-day Kindergarten is a critical access point, and an equity issue. Even before the state of Washington adopted this priority, our districts were already prioritizing funding for this. I can say the same thing about student discipline policies. As a result of increasing public pressure to reassess those policies, we’ve seen districts change policies, which has led to rapidly-improving outcomes. Yet, there is so much more to do!

9th Graders with a Suspension or Expulsion (Source: Road Map Project 2014 Results Report)

Kindergarten Students Attending Full-Day Kindergarten (Source: Road Map Project 2014 Results Report)

As a region, we’ve also made progress in the signup rate for College Bound scholarships, which significantly helps Washington students cover the costs of college. When the policy establishing the scholarship  was passed, there was no system to sign eligible students up for the scholarship, and only about half of them did. So, we worked together on a signup campaign, and have also made some progress in improving the college-going culture in our high schools. There’s certainly a lot more to do, but we are seeing progress in improving college access for low-income students.

Lastly, we’ve been pushing for increases in rigorous course taking and FAFSA filings, which are really important. It has involved a lot of people working from different angles.


What are the main evolutions the Road Map Project has gone through?

Leadership turnover is a big issue. We work across 7 school districts, and none of the superintendents who were there in 2011 (when we started) are still there. In some cases, we’ve been through 3 superintendents in a district. In addition, we’ve seen turnover in the postsecondary space. While in some cases the turnover is a challenge, it can also be an opportunity.


What challenges do you face?

Supporting working group members and partners in implementation is challenging. CCER supports work groups to convene and create an action plan – that’s hard work in and of itself. But, supporting and tracking progress during implementation continues to be a huge challenge.  We are working to improve student-level outcomes, but we know that we must be tracking the system-level indicators and adult behavior change that is required to better support all children.  For example, to improve 3rd grade reading for ELL children, one system-level indicator that should improve is the number of early elementary teachers certified to teach ELL children.


Can you tell me more about how you embed equity into your activities?

This is a journey for individuals, individual organizations, and the collective. We've always had a big focus on closing the opportunity gap for children of color, and we have targets that show us if we’re on or off-track to closing the gaps (see the Road Map Project’s annual reports for how they track progress). But, if all we're doing is “problem gazing” at the data, what impact are we having? So, we try to tailor strategies to impact those students and families who need it most. For example, we include racial equity in any template when planning strategies or implementation plans.

We are always thinking about the best ways to include the voices of those we most want to support. How do we include the parents and caregivers and youth in a way that's respectful of them and their time? Some people get paid to go to meetings all day, but low-income parents don’t, and we need that perspective at the table. We will continue to work on this and we have a lot of great organizations that work with parents, and we work with those organizations. We're all figuring it out together.


Do you have any reflections on challenges and successes with community engagement?

We've tried many different things. We have a group of small, grassroots CBOs playing a leadership role on equity, specifically racial equity. But, there's so much more we could do. We've done community results roundtables with different groups where we bring data and work with organizers to have those conversations. That's been successful to some extent, but in a region as large and diverse as this, we always need to do more.


What tips do you have for other communities for how to make collective impact effective?

I think data remains the way to bring people to common ground in a meeting – it can be very powerful.  But who you’re bringing to the table and how the data is framed is very important. And we must all hold the tension of addressing the short-term improvements for children and youth today and the long-term cultural shifts and system-change we need to achieve our goal.


What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.

View more in this interview series

Conversations with Experienced Backbone Leaders: LiveWell Colorado

Posted Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 5:31 pm

We hope you’re enjoying our conversations with experienced backbone leaders. In this installment, we had the pleasure of sitting down recently with Gabriel Guillaume, Executive Vice President of Local Initiatives and Strategy at LiveWell Colorado. LiveWell Colorado, launched in 2008, is a nonprofit organization committed to reducing obesity in Colorado by promoting healthy eating and active living. LiveWell is a statewide collective impact initiative that supports local collaborative efforts.

LiveWell’s story is one of evolution. Over time, they’ve adjusted their scope (by focusing it more intentionally on priorities and programs most likely to have impact), activities (by transitioning from low-hanging fruit to tackling the root causes of obesity), and program/system interaction (by beginning with programs to build support for system-change).

Gabriel’s insights are an engaging read for any backbone leader. If you have questions or comments for Gabriel, please leave them in the “comments” section below and he will do his best to reply.

We hope you enjoy our conversation with Gabriel!

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • Last year, LiveWell revised its primary goals to be more focused and systemic in nature. This included significant changes in how it approached early childhood work and worksite wellness. Gabriel notes the difficulties of this narrower focus, but believes it has helped maximize impact while acknowledging and supporting differently the work of other organizations
     
  • While initially tackling low-hanging fruit helped build LiveWell’s brand, they have transitioned to addressing root causes of obesity. As Gabriel states, “We came to understand that we’ll only make incremental change [by going after low-hanging fruit] and as a result we decided to focus on harder, more systemic issues.”
     
  • Gabriel relates program and system-level changes as follows: “Programs are important in their own right, but they also reveal systemic barriers that programs themselves rarely overcome”
     
  • At the CI Forum, we truly appreciate it when backbone leaders speak openly about their challenges. See below for the 2013 story of when LiveWell made a misstep by advocating for statewide policy without effectively understanding the perspective provided by those who would be most impacted (school district food service staff) 
     
  • Gabriel cites three keys for sustaining a CI initiative: diversify funding, learn how to speak to different types of funders, and devote backbone resources to raising funds for partners
     
  • Gabriel emphasizes the importance of not getting stuck in a perpetual planning phase. Rather, he advises CI initiatives to take action together on something, which will then create alignment


Hollie: Last year, LiveWell re-focused its common agenda and primary goals. Why?

Gabriel:  I have seen two ways to develop the common agenda and they both have tradeoffs. One way is to develop a broad scope so that everyone sees themselves in the work. The other way is to state a specific direction and make tough decisions about prioritizing certain things and excluding others.

In 2014 we surveyed our partners and one message from that process was that people were glad to be part of the effort, but that they weren’t certain of the ultimate direction. In response to that and other conversations, we gathered a diverse group of stakeholders in February 2015 to reframe the discussion around setting goals for the common agenda. We now have five very clear goals, which provide clarity on priorities and how all of our programs and work align. If you’re engaged in this collective impact effort, then you know what you’re part of.


What were the implications of the greater clarity?

The clarity came with tough scoping decisions. For example, we decided to remove early childhood as a specific goal. We reasoned that there were other organizations doing a great job in the early childhood space and that LiveWell could provide more of a background role, being brought in as those partners saw fit. It was a tough decision for us, but we figured out a scope specific to LiveWell’s mission (to reduce obesity in Colorado by removing barriers to healthy eating and active living). If we had continued to pursue a broad scope of “wellness,” early childhood could reasonably be included, as it’s a conduit to wellness outcomes in childhood and later in life. The question for us was whether we continue to grow our efforts around early childhood, which could potentially move us away from our more specific mission and intent.

To get clarity, we not only had individual conversations with partners, but also facilitated a group discussion where we rotated to different stations with “strawman” goals. When participants rotated to the early childhood station, they consistently said, “This is beyond our scope. There are other groups improving the health environment of early childhood settings, and given that we’re trying to find the right scope, we’ll deemphasize early childhood efforts.”

Initially LiveWell wasn’t particularly clear about the reasons the partners had made this decision, but, that’s what comes with being a backbone of a collective impact effort. As a backbone, you support the work, but don’t control it; you have to respond to and support what motivates and drives your partners.


How have your activities evolved over time?

In the past, LiveWell had a goal of all Coloradans being engaged in healthy and active living; this included everyone, from the wealthy and privileged to those facing real health disparities. Frankly, this broad focus spread us out and more importantly removed us from where the greatest need was. Gravitating to lower-hanging fruit, such as getting middle-income, white moms to eat more fruit, builds reach but can limit impact. Questions about scope can be difficult strategic decisions to make for an organization until it finally fully understands how important and impactful having an equity focus is to reaching outcomes so impacted by racism and poverty. It took a while but we have come to understand that we’ll only make incremental change when we have the strategy and capacity to focus on the systemic and more complicated issues surrounding obesity. We are now focused on the root causes of obesity.


Did you have to tackle the low-hanging fruit to get to the more difficult stuff?

It’s hard to say. The low-hanging fruit allowed us to grow our brand, which has been a powerful tool for us. But it’s also created an identity issue. Much of that low-hanging fruit focused on white, affluent populations because that was the population we knew was likely to make changes in their own healthy behaviors, in large part because they live in environments where that choice is easier to make. We’ve had to do a lot of work more recently to strengthen our capacity to build partnerships in low income communities and communities of color and change the systems within which people live.  Big strides have been made, and we continue to work on this dynamic.


How do you think about the relationship between program-level and system-level change?

A major component of our work is making the distinction between program and system change. I think of it as an evolution: we want to create many collective impact efforts across the state trying to tackle highly-systemic issues locally. But, we want to avoid just having institutional leaders around a table making policy without hearing from communities because that usually leads to weak or inaccurate assumptions and therefore poor policy. So how do we create grassroots and grasstops coalitions?

What we’ve found is that people don’t organize around the word “policy,” at least initially. That’s why programs and more tangible terms and outcomes are so critical. I’m not going to knock on doors for “policy change.” But, if a group of parents want to start a “walking school bus,” which is highly programmatic, then people will get involved in that. Programs are important in their own right, but they also reveal systemic barriers that programs themselves will rarely overcome. So LiveWell designs its efforts around combining programs and policy/communications to ensure the evolution of individual engagement to community-wide. For example, the parents in that “walking school bus” might not be able to walk to school because the sidewalks are terrible or it’s dangerous. That realization takes time, but good programs will result in systemic policy changes.

That said, not every program can reveal a policy barrier, and that’s where LiveWell draws the line – we want to only be involved in those programs that will lead to policy changes because ultimately we want to improve the health of an entire community. We used to fund local communities for over nine years because the process takes time. Today we focus on supporting local coalitions with a broad range of technical assistance and networking building. Local leadership with strong skills can be an accelerator.

We are trying to get clear on our statewide policy agenda and then support local efforts and local champions; this is the building block of any movement. So, we start with a policy agenda that’s very informed by and responsive to local leaders. But, we also understand that the local leaders aren’t going to be able to help us until they’ve built a local constituency.


Can you give an example of when you got ahead of yourself regarding policy?

There was a policy effort at the state level in partnership with a few other organizations interested in school nutrition. Some of our partners had a policy idea to ensure school districts provide universal breakfast to students in the classroom, which can be an important change to address hunger and nutrition deficits. The approach focused on districts with higher free and reduced lunch (FRL) rates. Initial analysis indicated that the program would be fiscally neutral for those high FRL rate districts and so presumed that there wouldn’t be significant resistance.

While working on that policy, we started to hear rumblings from school districts that didn’t want anything mandated (not an uncommon reaction), even if it was cost-neutral. Behind these rumblings were both local capacity issues and political issues. We work with more than 90 school districts, but didn’t do a very good job of reaching out to them and developing a policy that they could own or support. We took a position on a policy proposal without first hearing from out network of community and school-based partners.

This resulted in a diminished partnership with some of the districts, and a few were fairly active in the community and with the media regarding their resistance to the policy. What happened was largely our fault because, while many partners were engaged in the policy itself, LiveWell had the strongest opportunity to get input from districts and failed to effectively do so. Bringing districts into the policy discussion much earlier would have been much more effective. We also could have reached out to community members to talk about the purpose. It was an example of a great concept at the state level, but the ability to implement locally was difficult. Fortunately we have learned a lot from this experience.  Much of our policy work now engages a wide range of local and state partners to advance agendas that have merit and capacity to implement in diverse communities, and we always apply an equity lens to consider how a policy will impact those with the highest need. Something always true about collective impact work: mistakes are inevitable, learning from them is your most important responsibility.


What challenges have you faced when financially sustaining LiveWell?

Diversity of funding is critical. For example, the Colorado Health Foundation (CHF) is a major funder of ours and should remain one. However, CHF’s simple existence here in Colorado (3rd largest health foundation in the nation serving a state of only 5 million people) sometimes discourages other out-of-state and smaller funders to invest in Colorado or with LiveWell.  This is the beauty and the challenge of having such a resource here in Colorado. This has required LiveWell to get new funders connected with more specific areas of the organization (such as our school food initiative or a finite communications campaign). Diversification of funding is largely about identifying the many parts of your organization that create their own meaningful outcomes. 

Also, knowing how to speak to different types of funders is really important. Some funders want to hear the “collective” side of collective impact, such as how partnerships are forming. But, others want to hear the “impact” side, such as what are you accomplishing and your return on investment. Many funders aren’t as interested in what makes the work complex; typically, their passion lies in how the problem is solved and what you’re going to do about it. So, my advice is to calibrate your message to the audience, and that means spending the necessary time understanding what drives the audience.

The other challenge I’ve seen is when partners compete for funds. I wrote an article in 2014 pointing out the importance for LiveWell to put more energy in raising money for its partners. That’s often a mindset shift for the nonprofit sector, but one that is beginning to become more common. The backbone has to be able to raise money for themselves, but also for partners.


What other advice do you have for collective impact efforts?

A lot of collective impact leaders I speak with struggle with how to get collective efforts to stop the process of spin – they focus on “the collective” for too long and never get to “the impact.” This happens a lot because the planning process can take a very long time. But I think a lot of people forget that action creates alignment more than process does. My advice is to take a step forward, even if it’s not perfect, and that will help to unify people. You can always go back and fix some of the process pieces later. Collective impact isn’t a linear process, so don’t get stuck.


What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.

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Conversations with Experienced Backbone Leaders: KConnect

Posted Friday, July 1, 2016 at 7:15 pm

Here at the Forum we’ve been having amazing discussions about equity in collective impact. As part of the discussion series with experienced backbone leaders, I had the chance to catch up with a three key members of KConnect to talk about the role of equity in their work. KConnect is the backbone of a collective impact initiative focused on providing all children in Kent County, Michigan a path to economic prosperity through family, education, and community opportunities.

Representing KConnect are Pamela Parriott, Executive Director of KConnect; Lynne Ferrell, co-chair of the KConnect Board of Trustees; and Paul Doyle, consultant for KConnect’s Equity & Inclusion Workgroup and focus.

Speaking with Pam, Lynne, and Paul was especially meaningful for me because in 2012 I helped KConnect’s Steering Committee write their common agenda. In those early days, I’ll admit that we had a lot to learn about the role of equity and what it meant for Kent County. Kent County is anchored by the city of Grand Rapids, but also includes many rural areas. Across the county, there are stark disparities in youth outcomes across racial, economic, and geographic lines. Even though KConnect’s leadership made equity as a centerpiece of the initiative, they knew that they had to be patient, and bring the community along at the right pace.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • When it comes to equity discussions, people will come with varying degrees of knowledge and energy. KConnect has made an effort to meet people where they are and employ different tools to increase awareness and build capacity. As Lynne said, “we are constantly trying to strike a balance between doing it well, and doing it at a pace where people stay engaged.”
     
  • Disaggregated data are a critical tool to illuminate disparities, which can lead to differentiated strategies and “aha” moments.
     
  • Working toward equity is ambiguous, and it takes patience and commitment.
     
  • KConnect’s Equity & Inclusion Workgroup supports other workgroups by identifying key performance indicators, suggesting discussion tools, and employing “inclusion filters” to ensure strategies work toward equity.


David: What are you excited about regarding KConnect’s work on equity?

Lynne: I am feeling like equity might just be the tipping point for us to really achieve something substantive. Our community has spent substantial time and energy in understanding and embracing diversity and inclusion. KConnect is entering this conversation after years and years of this work. Now we feel we are in a great place to advance the conversation beyond diversity and inclusion to equity; the community is ready to expand the conversation.

Paul: I agree. We are now using data to move towards equity. We are creating a learning platform for our stakeholders where they can understand what is involved in achieving equity. That will have great impact.

Pam: When I think about the equity work, it’s some of the most authentic and difficult work related to KConnect. To tell the full story, we need to pair qualitative and quantitative data. This allows us to create a more accurate narrative about where resources are most needed.


How did your initial conversations around equity go?

Lynne: When we first started KConnect, we knew we wanted to be reliant on data. In the early days, we were presented with data that showed the disparities in the community, and it was an “a-ha moment” for us. We did not proactively ask for disaggregated data [from our consultants], but that’s what we found ourselves with as we were forming our vision statement. That data helped us see the enormity of the problem and we came to a courageous decision to try and embed equity in everything we do rather than making it an add-on. But we’ve needed to get comfortable with ambiguity. We realized that we may not fully know how all of this would unfold, but we did know that the status quo was unacceptable.


What is KConnect’s overall approach to equity?

Paul: We have a diverse group of individuals that make up the Equity & Inclusion Workgroup in terms of sector, grassroots, and grasstops. This allows us to have broad perspectives and knowledge at the table. The Equity & Inclusion Workgroup members will help the other workgroups utilize an “inclusion filter” approach to insure we consider the factors that impact all children in their strategy development process. By doing this, we can create an opportunity for individuals who are not close with equity work to increase their competency and understanding.

What we are grappling with right now is really a key question for us: how do we infuse equity and inclusion within the fabric of KConnect so it’s the air we breathe and the water we drink? We don’t want to be reactive, but rather make equity be a proactive part of our behavior. We continue to work through what this means for KConnect.


Can you give me an example of how the E&I Workgroup supports other workgroups?

Paul: Although working toward equity is a continuous journey and you’re never “there,” we essentially want to:

  • Establish performance indicators around equity across workgroups
  • Look at data stratified across demographics
  • Enhance their capacity for intentional community engagement

We’re also looking at targeted universalism as a tool, in which we have a universal goal, but are creating targeted strategies that help different groups achieve that universal goal.

Pam: Embedding equity has been a difficult journey, but one of great learning.

In terms of operationalizing, we are focused on how we prepare and equip the Equity & Inclusion Workgroup to support equity conversations within the 3 “domain” workgroup. For example, we explore how best to use tools (such as intercultural development inventory) in a group format to foster multi-cultural thinking.

Four members of the Equity & Inclusion Workgroup serve on an “advisory team,” which advises the other workgroups. They help our working group members understand, for instance, what it means to look at data with an equity lens. We’ve had incredibly rich conversations as a result, adding depth and understanding to a group who is supposed to look at systems change in a new way and be innovative.


What has been challenging for you?

Lynne: Devoting the time and empathy to do this work well is a challenge. We are constantly trying to strike a balance between doing it well, and doing it at a pace where people stay engaged. We lean toward doing it well, but that will be hard as we go forward.

Paul: You have to meet people where they are at in terms of understanding equity and inclusion and get them to see the role they need to play. That’s not easy. KConnect’s value is providing intentional opportunities for everyone to feel they are stakeholders.


What advice do you have for other collective impact practitioners?

Lynne: I would recommend having an equity expert at the Steering Committee level in the early stages when you are forming the ideas around your work. We had that person in the room and that helped us think broadly about equity out of the gate.

Paul: You have to be proactive and mindful of the rules of engagement [with the community]. We have more work to do around engagement, but we try to give individuals in the community the opportunity to be part of the initiative; this creates an atmosphere of ownership.


What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.

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Conversations with Experienced Backbone Leaders: Communities that Care

Posted Friday, July 1, 2016 at 6:30 pm

Our conversation series with experienced backbone leaders continues with a conversation with Kat Allen, co-chair of Communities that Care Coalition (CTC).

CTC focuses on supporting the health and well-being of young people in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region of Massachusetts. CTC has been operating since 2002, and much can be learned from their experience and evolution. For more information on CTC, see this 6-minute video of Kat’s “practitioner insights” and a brief case study.

Over time, CTC’s results have been impressive, as summarized below (source: Kat Allen, Communities that Care Coalition).

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • CTC’s sustainability (they have been operating for almost 15 years) is enviable. To obtain funds needed to sustain itself, CTC expanded its focus to include nutrition and physical activity (in addition to its original focus on substance use prevention). Kat notes this broadening is in-line with CTC’s focus on youth health and wellbeing. The need to shift focus to obtain funds (while attempting to be true to the initiative’s mission) is something we hear experienced backbone leaders grapple with.
     
  • Kat acknowledges that funding can “go away at any second.” To guard against such a disruption, CTC is very intentional about building others’ capacity and buy-in. For example, CTC focuses on building relationships by carving out part of meetings for non-working lunches.
     
  • CTC has plans to involve youth in their strategic decisions. Kat believes youth can be tremendously powerful at the school and municipal levels.


David: Your initiative has been in place for over ten years. I think the question that most people will have for you is about funding. Can you tell me what your experience with funding for CTC has been?

Kat: The bulk of our funding sunset after the first 10 years, so we had to get a little creative and broaden our scope to include nutrition and physical activity. We found that there was funding available in this space, whereas in substance use prevention we were hitting some bottlenecks. This expansion wasn’t mission drift because we’ve always been focused on youth health and wellbeing. Rather, it was a broadening of what we were doing to meet another need in the community.


What system-level changes have you seen as a result of CTC’s work? (For more about what we mean by systems change in collective impact, check out FSG’s Guide to Evaluating Collective Impact.)

The biggest change is that all nine of our public school districts have been trained in an evidence-based substance use prevention curriculum, half of the districts are now implementing it, and almost all of the others are planning to implement. This is a major change and impacts all youth in the region, and we expect the programming to go on indefinitely.

CTC’s role was to review all the curricula (done by our Regional School Health Taskforce) and select the best curriculum for our districts’ needs. We then convened meetings with administrators about implementation feasibility, agreed on the final curriculum, put together the training, and brought all the schools together. We will also lead the effort on evaluating the effectiveness of the curriculum on reducing substance use. We also have plans for continuous learning by convening health teachers on a quarterly basis to share resources and adaptations to the program.

Additionally, we are helping to increase capacity in the region by building a network of substance use prevention professionals by seeking funding and mentoring other community coalitions in our area. We used to be the ony prevention professionals in the region, but now we have a whole set of colleagues all working toward the same goals.


What have you learned from these successes?

The reality is that funding can go away at any time and we have to be prepared to leave a legacy of effective strategies and population-level change. When we set up a new strategy, we are thinking about long term sustainability from the get-go. For instance, when we worked to get the LifeSkills substance abuse prevention curriculum in the schools we were not planning to teach the program ourselves, but rather worked to get teachers trained and the program institutionalized in all of our school districts. Rather than us leading the strategy and risking disappearance at some point in the future, we have built buy-in and capacity so that our stakeholders are doing the work themselves. It’s harder to do it that way, but it’s so essential and it will be more effective in the long-run. That way, if CTC disappears tomorrow, then that strategy will continue.

We also found that if the teachers feel like they are part of a larger network and there is an expectation to engage in the work, then that creates accountability and there is more likelihood of success. One simple way we build this network is to create space and time for relationship building. Whenever we have CTC meetings, we always have a non-working lunch and time for networking built into the agenda.


There are many collective impact initiatives that focus on youth. How have you engaged youth in your work?

This is one area that I am really excited about. To date, we have some youth involved in specific strategies, but I would not say that we’ve had strong youth involvement. But we’ve just voted on seeking funding for a new youth involvement initiative where one of our host agencies (Community Action Youth Programs) will take the lead on connecting all of the wonderful youth groups that already exist in our region, linking them more formally with the Coalition, providing leadership development and training, and getting these groups involved in local advocacy work. We have community and school policy changes on the horizon, and we think that youth can be tremendous advocates on a municipal and school level, and they can gain skills and feel empowered by getting involved.


What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.

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Video

Catalysts for Collective Impact: Insights from Funders and Backbone Leaders in Seattle and the Rio Grande Valley

Plenary discussion at the 2016 Collective Impact Convening with David Bley – Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Luzelma Canales – RGV FOCUS, Fay Hanleybrown – FSG, Wynn Rosser – Greater Texas Foundation, and Mary Jean Ryan – Community Center for Education Results (CCER). This session was held on June 8, 2016.

About this session: Funders and backbone leaders both play important roles in collective impact initiatives, from catalyzing action to sustaining momentum to sharing ownership and decision-making with other partners. Funders often need to go beyond their role as grantmakers to also serve as co-creators and partners with those in the collaborative. In addition, backbone leaders serve as active facilitators who guide vision and strategy, analyze data to inform learning, and coordinate/align the efforts of many other partners around the table. How can funders and backbone leaders most effectively lead with each other and with their partners? During this session, participants will hear from funder/backbone duos in Seattle and Texas about how they navigate various roles as catalysts for collective impact.

Conversations with Experienced Backbone Leaders: Project U-Turn

Posted Wednesday, June 22, 2016 at 10:44 pm

This is the second in our conversation series with experienced backbone leaders. (see this blog post describing the series.)

In this conversation, we spoke with Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, President and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN). PYN serves as the backbone organization for Project U-Turn, which aims to galvanize collective commitment and action to address Philadelphia’s dropout crisis. Project U-Turn has contributed to impressive results over time, such as a 14% increase in high school graduation rates since 2002 (source: Project U-Turn website). They have also helped more than 9,800 youth reconnect to education and/or employment pathways, and leveraged and/or realigned $230M in public and private funding to support dropout prevention and re-engagement services.

If you have questions for Chekemma, please pose them in the comment box below, and she will do her best to respond. Thanks, and enjoy!

Highlights from my conversation with Chekemma:

  • Project U-Turn has seen an increase in overall graduation rates of 14% since 2002, but Chekemma remains focused on closing gaps across race and ethnicity, and with system-involved youth
     
  • Chekemma offered a simple way to think about how Project U-Turn creates change: understand and unite around the problem, agree upon a shared goal and a way to measure it, reimagine new and existing investments
     
  • As Project U-Turn’s scope broadened, they included more and more diverse stakeholders to address different parts of the dropout crisis
     
  • Project U-Turn has released some influential reports, and are very intentional about involving system leaders and youth to vet the reports’ data before publication
     
  • Project U-Turn’s sustainability will depend on a) champions in the community stepping up to fill leadership transitions, and b) “strong collateral and data,” which can be a source of continuity in the face of transitions
     
  • Equity has always been part of the Project U-Turn conversation, but the national conversation around equity gives Project U-Turn and its partners permission to discuss it more directly than before.


David: What are you most excited about today regarding Project U-Turn?

Chekemma: Quite a few things! We recently released the report A Promise Worth Keeping: Advancing the High School Graduation Rate in Philadelphia, which looks at the effects of our prevention and intervention efforts over the last 4 years. The report shows we’re making gains supporting youth with foster care and juvenile justice systems with graduation rates increasing 16 and 20 percentage points respectively for the two groups.

I’m also excited about our continuing efforts to increase high school graduation rates. Graduation rates have increased significantly since Project U-Turn began, going from 52% to 65%. However, while rates are increasing for African American and Hispanic males and those in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems (some with double digit increases), they still lag behind peers. I’m excited to see progress, but it’s energizing to see how much more work we have to do.


You’ve had some very positive impact. In general, how did that change come about?

First, we had to understand and unite around the dropout crisis: what the challenge was, who was affected, and how we can work together differently. Once we had that understanding, we wanted organizations to take that microscope back to their own systems and get clear on how they’re contributing to the solutions or the problems. Importantly, we agreed not to blame each other.

Second, we needed a shared goal. We knew that we wanted to measure graduation rates, but there were still some dissonance about how to calculate it (e.g. 4-year vs. 6-year graduation rates). Having an agreed-upon graduation rate as our north star was important.

Third, we looked at how to reimagine investments. We knew that new investment wouldn’t solve the problem, so we also tried to reimagine how existing dollars could be invested.


Can you give me an example of reimagining existing investments?

E3 Power Centers are a pivotal service delivery mechanism. (E3 Power Centers offer a holistic approach to preparing out-of-school youth and youth returning from juvenile justice placement to achieve long-term educational, career, and personal goals). Through 2005, E3 Power Centers were funded by the Department of Labor Youth Opportunity Grant. Since then, the Department of Human Services (DHS) has invested in E3 Power Centers to provide access to educational alternatives for the juvenile justice population, something DHS had never done before.

The Philadelphia School District has also invested in re-engagement strategies, including Accelerated High Schools, even while the district was going through a financial crisis. The District has now established the Opportunity Network, led by an Assistant Superintendent, to set priority to and increase high-quality options for off-track students and out-of-school youth.


How has Project U-Turn’s organizational structure evolved?

The Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN) serves as the backbone to Project U-Turn. In this role, PYN convenes, guides vision and strategy, supports aligned activities, and mobilizes funding. This work is coordinated by PYN’s Senior Associate of External Affairs and is overseen by the Executive Vice President.

When we began Project U-Turn, we formed a small steering committee of decision-makers. We eventually became part of a broader economic imperative for the city. With this broadened scope, it was challenging to have a small group of people (the Steering Committee) directing activities without understanding many details of the work. So, instead of a small steering committee, we’re bringing together a more diverse set of partners. Some of these partners have been there since the beginning, while others (e.g., the District Attorney’s Office, employers) are new. As we understand the system young people must navigate after they complete high school, we’re increasingly involving those parts of the system. We’ve had various working groups throughout the years that have focused on different things; we adapt to the need.

As these structures have evolved, it has been helpful to have a consistent goal across all these structures – a North Star of high school graduation rates. From this North Star, we define specific targets for policy, new interventions, and so on. While there’s always a lot of exploration and reflection, the goal remains consistent.


Project U-Turn has released some influential reports. How do you use these reports and the data therein to advance your cause?

The most recent report called From Diplomas to Degrees looks at a cohort of 9th graders through their early 20’s to investigate degree attainment and other important issues. In preparing to release this report, we took some critical steps:

First, we presented data as it became available. The data went before a committee and was vetted so that we came to a common understanding of what the data is telling us. We asked “what concerns you about the information?” and “What alternative explanations are possible?” We also included youth in the vetting of the report.

Next, we vetted the data with leaders in the system. Of all the things we do to advance partnerships and align to the common goal, vetting reports with system leaders prior to publication is the most powerful approach we have. These sneak peeks serve to:

  • Give leaders the opportunity to reflect on what they can do with the new information
     
  • Ensure that no one is surprised later on. It’s important for these leaders to know that the data are driving our work
     
  • Build trust and change the tone from “this is your report, not mine” to “this is OUR report”
     
  • Give the report writers a better context


We know about Project U-Turn’s progress against the drop-out rate. What systems-level changes have you seen since Project U-Turn began?

We’ve seen many introductions and scaling of new practices. For example:

  • We have created a Reengagement Center
     
  • We have integrated low literacy support into community settings and in alternative education pathways
     
  • The School District reorganized themselves to better support opportunity youth, with the newly established Opportunity Network and Assistant Superintendent to focus on opportunity youth
     
  • The Education Support Center now tracks kids’ academic records, so we can understand their academic history even when they move from place to place
     
  • Policy changes have occurred, such as reforming the discipline codes in schools, putting early warning education systems into place, and training middle school faculty to look at data to see who is at risk of dropping out
     
  • Overall, there is increased willingness across sectors to be reflective about what they can do to contribute to this population


How has Project U-Turn been able to sustain its momentum?

To sustain the initiative, it can’t be just my job. In Philadelphia, there is a real sense of communal ownership around moving the needle. We are incredibly fortunate to have long-term partners at the system, program, and community levels. There are real champions, and the sustainability is dependent on them. We have also benefited from having a mayor who understood the dropout challenge. We are experiencing a mayoral transition now, and we are proud to have the new Mayor’s support behind this important work moving forward.

Strong collateral and data are also very important to us. While relationships are unpredictable and dependent on personalities, data can be neutral.


What challenges have you faced to sustain the initiative?

One challenge has been to have conversations about equity. It’s tough, because someone has to keep beating the drum, but I have a lot of drummers! There’s not a formula to having equity conversations, but we’re fortunate that people understand it as a priority.

Another challenge is that policy change can be slow, especially when building relationships with folks and getting them to understand the complexity of the issue. So, we make it a priority to bring new leaders up to speed.

The chief sustainability challenge is having consistent, long term funding commitments. This is not a 2 or 3-year problem, and the investment needs to match the type of change you are seeking.


How has your approach to equity evolved?

With Project U-Turn, equity has been part of the conversion, but not the driver. There are clear disparities across race, geography, and to a certain extent, gender. So, equity has always been there, but national efforts on equity have given permission and latitude to bring the issue more to the forefront in a way that people are willing to hear. This is a valuable conversation and it gives us a license locally that we did not have before. When the Superintendent or Mayor stands up and says that equitable education is the civil rights issue of our time, then you have someone’s arm to lock with.

It’s more difficult to talk about the role of privilege – where does it hide and how do you check your privilege? That’s sobering and personally uncomfortable. It’s tough. We’re asking the question and setting up a structure for people to explore. We’re familiar with the impacts of inequity, but we are uncomfortable when we talk about privilege and how that plays into inequity. The distribution of power, privilege, and wealth all matter.


How do you have conversations about equity and privilege?

We have gone from a neutral facilitator to a transparent facilitator. We have a perspective, and we can still facilitate without hiding that. That was a huge shift for us.

We had to start by looking at ourselves – having the challenging conversations with our staff, checking our approaches and asking if we were contributing to the problem, if privilege was hiding in our approaches, and so on. Taking the hard look in the mirror was critical.

We work with a lot of people who understand this work differently. You have to understand and respect where people are coming from. The key is about respecting people’s boundaries and expectations, and that includes when there is disproportionate impact on the community, and to meet them where they are. You have to go deeper to understand better. This happens one person at a time, and it’s slow work. You need optimism, energy, enthusiasm, professionalism, and rigor. That’s how you make change happen. You might have to look back in five years to see that things have changed.


What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.

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Conversations with Experienced Backbone Leaders: Vermont Farm to Plate

Posted Wednesday, June 22, 2016 at 9:00 pm

Welcome to the first in a series of conversations with experienced backbone leaders! (see this blog post describing the series.) In this chat, we’ll hear from Ellen Kahler, Executive Director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) since 2005.

For the past five years, VSJF has served as the backbone for Vermont Farm to Plate (F2P), a statewide collective impact initiative to strengthen Vermont’s food system. Ellen and her team of ~4.5 full-time equivalent staff do some very interesting things to build shared ownership among network members and to support working group chairs. Furthermore, their website and strategic plan are some of the most polished “deliverables” I’ve seen from a collective impact initiative. If you have questions for Ellen, please pose them in the comment box below, and she will do her best to respond. Thanks, and enjoy!

Highlights from my conversation with Ellen

  • After 5 years, Ellen has seen real changes in a) network members’ alignment and b) the culture of shared ownership. She’s also beginning to see working groups coordinate with one another.
     
  • F2P invests in working group chairs as a key part of the network. Chairs are provided with stipends and training to support this critical role.
     
  • F2P is very intentional about their deliverables’ (e.g., strategic plan, website) having a consistent look and feel and using consistent messaging and a common language. For network members, this creates awareness that they’re exiting their own organization’s space, and entering a collaborative space.
     
  • Ellen believes a key to sustaining an initiative is by creating participatory, reflective convenings that people want to attend.
     
  • To create a culture of shared credit and collaboration, F2P’s steering committee does not seek to include representatives of every sector. Read below to learn about Ellen’s thoughts on the matter.
     
  • To address equity, F2P has a cross-cutting group focused on food access.


David: What was the main need Vermont Farm to Plate aimed to solve? How did F2P come to be?

Ellen: Prior to the legislative session in 2009, there was a lot of discussion about the “food system” space. There was a big dairy crisis at the time, and some legislators thought that agriculture was dead. At the same time, there was momentum around farmers markets, CSAs, young people going into farming, more people wanting to raise meat animals, local brewing, local sausage making, and farm-to-table chefs. So, there was a disconnect between the traditional dairy narrative and the new diversified, direct-to-consumer narrative. At the same time, private funders were starting to fund food hubs, farm to school efforts, and various food access initiatives and were wondering “how do we make sense of this? How can we create more coherence and avoid duplication of effort?”

So, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (my organization) was tasked with creating a 10-year strategic plan to increase jobs in the food system, increase economic activity, and provide healthy local food to Vermonters. They asked us to look at the entire system and gave us seed funding. We built a steering committee, conducted surveys, had 8 gatherings around the state, conducted focus groups and a statewide summit, all of which were geared towards obtaining input into what would become the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan. At that time, we did not know about the collective impact framework, as the first collective impact article hadn’t been published yet. When I saw the article I thought “we are doing that!”

We launched the Farm to Plate Network in October 2011 in order to implement the Plan, with 6 working groups; task forces formed later out of the working groups. In the early years, we were learning about the core issues together, and about who wanted to “play” together. We then identified issues that no one organization could solve on their own.  Four years later, the Farm to Plate Network is made up of 350+ for-profit businesses, non-profit organizations, government agencies, capital providers, educational institutions, and public health professionals who are aligned around achieving the 25 goals laid out in our statewide Plan.


Five years into the initiative, what are you most excited about?

What’s most exciting is that our network members’ actions are more aligned around strengthening Vermont’s food system, and around our strategic plan goals (our common agenda). Network development is slow going, as people are building relationships, understanding how their organization’s mission fits into the larger picture, and understanding how a new initiative (F2P) is trying to connect them all.
  
Getting alignment is hard at first. We just had our 5th annual gathering, and each year it has felt more and more like people are getting what it means to work in the network. We have big plans over the next 5 years, and we needed this alignment in place before taking the next step.
  
Second, network members are feeling shared ownership for the network. It took a while, but there’s a noticeable difference in the way people are interacting.

Third, just within the last 6 months we’ve seen collaboration between a number of working groups.

Finally, I’m excited about the real results we’re seeing – 5,189 net new jobs and 665 net new establishments created, $3 billion in additional economic activity per year, and 2% more local food consumption taking place (~$89 million more being spent on local food per year) in just 6 years time! Because of the buzz we’re helping to create in the marketplace, the markets we’re working to open for producers, and the investments the private sector is making in expanding their capacity, we’re seeing an acceleration in many of the indicators of progress we had hoped to see. That’s not to say it’s all rosy and all the trends lines are headed in the right direction – they are not – but on a number of key indicators that our Governor and the Legislature care about, we’re getting results!


How did the alignment happen?

The alignment naturally evolved as more organizations in the network built trusting relationships with one another. A lot of the trust building comes from quarterly working groups meeting and other learning we do together throughout the year.

We have been disciplined about our feedback loop cycle: we plan, implement, monitor, learn and adjust:

  • At the beginning of a cycle, each working group will plan for the next year, including what conversations should happen and what new projects to launch (if any).
     
  • During their quarterly meetings, working groups reflect and adjust, which is important because projects will morph as you get into it.
     
  • At the same time, our steering committee tracks the evolution as a whole.

Once a year, we have a gathering of the entire network, where we reflect and adjust based on what we are learning on the ground. The disciplined reflection, which is part of our culture, causes people to ask better questions and see systems more readily – they are getting at the stuff underneath the causes, leading to better, more insightful projects and more aligned activity.


Can you give me a concrete example of how your learning led to action?

Six years ago, we went through a public engagement process to form our common agenda. We heard there were not enough slaughterhouses processing in Vermont. When we dug into the data and interviewed people, we found that the issue was not slaughter capacity, but meat processing capacity. This realization led to the creation of a task force, which took a value-chain approach to the problem and brought together stakeholders to really understand the bottlenecks. The task force went on “learning journeys” to Italy, North Carolina, and Wisconsin; they investigated the profitability and infrastructure needs of various processing facilities, promoted state funding for a meat cutters apprenticeship program, and learned that chefs wanted a certain quality and consistency to cuts of meat.

In addition to building relationships among stakeholders in the entire value chain (i.e., livestock producers, meat processing facilities, distributors, chefs, institutions and grocery store category buyers), the learning process helped everyone understand what each other needed to be profitable.  For example, livestock slaughtering has become more year-round (rather than only September – February), processing facilities are improving their capacity and have made infrastructure investments, and there have been many workshops on how to meet chefs’ desire for more consistent cuts.

Over three years, we constructed a shared narrative around what we need to do if we want the value chain to work for all involved. We established a greater awareness about the value chain, and what each part needed to do to be successful, and to support the success of others in the chain.

The meat processing task force disbanded after 3 years of very successful work together, but now we don’t have enough animals being raised! So a new task force is being formed to focus on the issue of meat animal supply, improving production quality, genetics and overall farm viability. I think this story really showcases our planning, implementing, monitoring, learning and adjusting approach.


What do you believe F2P does well?

I think we’re a really effective backbone organization! We “hold the whole” for our Network, keep track of progress, connect Network members and ensure connectivity between Network groups, and provide logistical support to all the Network groups. Each Network group focuses on a different “elevation” within the system. For instance, the Steering Committee monitors the functioning of the Network as a whole – from a developmental and connectivity standpoint – at a 30,000 ft elevation.  Whereas Working Groups operate at the 15,000 ft level and Task Forces are at the ground or maybe the 7,500 ft level. So during our various Network group meetings, we help these groups to stay at the appropriate elevation during their discussions and work plan development.

We’re also very intentional about how we design our annual gathering and quarterly working group meetings, which are geared toward high participation, reflection, shared learning, building relationships, and tracking progress. We also highlight the work of organizations in our network. In order to engage the private sector, we’ll often ask them to be on a panel so they don’t have to attend the whole meeting and we get their valuable insights and input into our work. We’ll also offer stipends for small producers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to join meetings.

Third, our governance structure encourages sharing of credit and reinforces the notion that agriculture development is important to our economy, while also being important to achieving other goals such as food security, environmental quality, public health, and community vitality. Our steering committee is composed of working group chairs, the chair of the Food Access cross-cutting team, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce, and a representative from the Vermont Food Funders Network and the Sustainable Agriculture Council. Perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, with our steering committee it’s not about having every key organization at the table. Rather, we wanted our steering committee to reflect the structure of the Network. If you have the expectation that every interest group needs to have a seat at the table, then everyone will speak from their own organization’s perspective rather than from the larger system perspective.

We also talk a lot about not coming to the network with your organizational ego. We want you to bring your expertise and knowledge, but we don’t want you to flex your organization’s muscles. It took a little while for members to understand this approach, but I think they appreciate it now because we’ve created a neutral convening space where we can bring our “best selves” to the table for the greater good of the food system as a whole.

We’re big on data and analysis to inform the solutions we choose to work on. If you take a look at our Getting to 2020 pages of the Farm to Plate website you’ll see how we are tracking population-level indicators of progress. We have created well over 125 data visualizations and a brief “story” to explain what the data appears to be indicating. Showing legislators and funders these data visualizations has continued to build support because they can see that we are quantitatively and qualitatively tracking progress and making adjustments to our strategies as needed. This helps to build their confidence in our competence!

Also, the fact that the Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce are on the steering committee is huge, because it sends a clear message that the state of Vermont takes this seriously, and that agriculture development is economic development. It helps people see the “bigness” of what we are talking about.


Working group chairs are a key part of your network. What are their responsibilities, and how do you support them?

Chairs get elected annually by their working group members, and can serve three consecutive terms. Every year, they facilitate four meetings, attend the annual gathering, attend an annual leadership retreat, attend five to six steering committee meetings, and submit two reports on how they’re doing.

In recognition of this responsibility, we provide a stipend to the chairs. The four working groups with co-chairs receive $5,000 each, the working group with one chair receives $7,500, and chairs of cross-cutting teams may receive stipends if needed.

We also provide chairs with leadership development opportunities, such as project management and facilitation training. This not only helps the working groups, but also the chairs’ own organizations. Investing in working group chairs allows us to have a lean backbone of 4.5 full-time equivalent staff.


What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced when sustaining the initiative?

We were challenged to maintain enthusiasm in the early years when the process is the product. It’s foundational work that can set you up to do more later.

Second, sharing credit was a challenge to many organizations. Some organizations are used to being the “go-to organization” for a particular issue, especially those that pre-date the Farm to Plate Initiative. But now the media often come to the backbone, although we do direct media inquiries back to network members as well. It took time for people to understand that they can show what their organization is doing while being part of a larger effort to strengthen Vermont’s food system.

To reinforce this message, my Communications Director has built a community of practice with communications specialists in network members’ organizations. They coordinate with each other so that when individual organizations create a press release, they include two sentences that situates their organization within the larger Farm to Plate context.

We say over and over again that the food system is way bigger than any one organization, and that we have to work together to expand the pie of available funding, the markets for producers, and product options for consumers. We help people realize that we should be referencing what each other is doing.


What advice do you have for other collective impact initiatives regarding sustainability?

Getting consistent, multi-year funding is key. From a financial sustainability perspective, it’s hard to get funders to see the value of the backbone.

Aside from backbone funding, raising funds for Network projects such as our new independent grocers project or our soon to be launched local food consumer campaign, can be challenging. Network members cover their costs of meeting attendance, although we do offer stipends for small producers, entrepreneurs and consultants who are important to the work but would otherwise not be able to attend meetings. We are continually challenged to think differently about what resources are needed to participate in this work.


What are a couple system-level changes have you seen?

Two years after F2P started, the legislature passed the Working Lands Enterprise Fund (WLEF), which created a funding stream for food and forest products businesses. In the last three years, over $1.6 million has gone into strengthening food system businesses. The WLEF uses the F2P strategic plan as a guide for their investments, so the funding gets deployed in an aligned way.

Overall, awareness of the capital continuum has increased. You want to have the right type of capital that meets the needs of the farm or food business, no matter their stage, scale, or market. We’ve made sure there is sufficient capital across the spectrum, and that’s changed the landscape.


How does F2P think about equity?

Vermont’s demographics make the racial side of equity challenging to keep in the fore (according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2014, Vermont is 94% white/not Hispanic or Latino, whereas the rest of the U.S. is 62%). The main theme for our 2014 annual gathering was around racial equity and food justice. We invited InterAction Institute for Social Change to teach us about deconstructing social biases. That theme has not carried through as fully as we’d like because class issues are more dominant for Vermonters.

Before F2P was formed, many food access groups had been working for years. We tried to add value by helping them come to a mini-common agenda, and our goal is for the food access work to be integrated into all other working groups.

At this year’s annual gathering, we ran a fishbowl panel with workers in the food system (e.g., migrant farm worker, production baker, sous chef, food coop front end worker, and a former dairy herd manager). The intention was to talk about good and bad working conditions as a way for people to learn about issues facing workers in the food system.

We’re also examining the food system job market. We have created 5,189 new jobs, but many are in lower-paying parts of the food system. We need to shift awareness to the quality of the jobs created. And at the same time, employers say they can’t find good workers for the job openings they have. So some of our next work involves addressing employment issues from both the worker and the employer perspective.


What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.

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