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.