Listening Session of Established CI Initiatitve Founders for Fledgling Startups

Posted 6 months ago at 3:05 am

Hi, 

My name is Nathan Earl with Ark of Freedom Alliance is South Florida. We have begun mobilizing stakeholders in our region for recruitment to the Steering Committee.  I am reaching out to see if professionals that were involved in the co-founding of any CI initiatives would be interested in participating in a Listening Session for our stakeholders here, locally. 

It would be great to hear the challenges and successes from those who have gone before us.  Initial thoughts are that we'd have four panelists with ten minutes to share, then open it up to a question and answer session from our community.  

We'd be looking to facilitate this as soon as convenient (2 weeks). Please contact me at (954) 778-2871.

Thank you,

Nathan Earl, Ark of Freedom Alliance

Webinar

Virtual Office Hour: Navigating the Backbone Role

The backbone team wears multiple hats—from guiding the initiative’s vision to facilitating relationships, from mobilizing resources to spotlighting community leadership. With so many hats to wear (and roles to play), this role can be a lot to balance and fulfill.

Join us for this Virtual Office Hour where we will answer your questions and offer recommendations about playing the backbone role in collective impact.

Download a copy of the slides referenced during this session at the link on the left of this page.

Questions in this Session Include:

What are the roles that the Backbone should be playing? 4:30

  • How does the backbone relate to other partners/structures like steering committees and working groups? 5:13
  • What are the roles that the Backbone should be playing? 8:00

How can the backbone mobilize stakeholders and partners and keep them engaged: 12:52

How do I balance the role of the backbone as guiding the work of the collaborative without doing the work of the partners?  19:00

What does an effective backbone look like, and how do you look at evaluating the impact of the backbone? 23:31

Are there effective ways to fund the backbone role? 27:58

How do partners and funders best support the backbone? 38:00

Are there examples of successful backbones that have provided funding for partners? 40:20

How to talk about impact without taking credit away from partners? 43:33

How much guidance does the backbone offer to the working groups? 45:03

What are things to think about when measuring impact? 46:57

How do you deal with the tension of partners approaching initiative funders during steering committee meetings? 49:00

Do you define your structure before gathering the steering committee or after? 51:10

Any tech platform recommendations to help with state-wide initiative planning and communication: 53:24

Any recommendations on how to illustrate the full breadth of the backbone role? 55:30


Office Hour Guests:

- Melissa Oomer, Director, FSG
- Jennifer Splansky Juster,  Executive Director, Collective Impact Forum

This session was held on November 7, 2019.

Consider CI for our youth violence prevention consortium

Posted 2 years ago at 3:05 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.

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