Guest post by Becky Hoffman, executive director of Adams County Youth Initiative, a StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network community.
In late 2016 our team and board of directors at Adams County Youth Initiative took some time to gain additional clarity on our mission, to define our role as the backbone and to further develop our internal infrastructure. Equally important, we took some time to craft our goals and focus for the year, which we are now referring to as our 2017 strategic plan.
As I stand at the wheel in terms of the work the ACYI backbone does, I am very keen about the responsibility our team has in not only knowing where we are headed, but in knowing how we are going to get there. Our strategic plan — serving as a succinct and clear road map — provides that direction and frankly makes us better partners on our community’s roadways.
In sitting down to map out strategic priorities for 2017, we started with the end in mind. Our destination is success for EVERY child, in every school, cradle to career (period)!
We unequivocally believe that a key component to a successful community is student achievement. When students succeed, our community succeeds. Why? Because students become our workforce, and it’s no secret that communities that have a talented workforce attract and retain employers. With jobs, income, benefits and more, families are able to live well and contribute to a better quality of life. This IS our true north.
Using the StriveTogether framework, otherwise known as the Theory of Action, our mission is to drive our community to improve key outcomes along every child’s path to education success (cradle-to-career outcome areas) through the development and support of:
- A shared community vision
- Evidence-based decision making
- Collaborative action
- Investment and sustainability
When students meet benchmarks in each of our cradle-to-career outcome areas, their potential for long-term success greatly increases. Our planned activities for this year start and end with a clear focus on moving the needle in these outcome areas.
Once we clarified our vision, intent and mission, we became very clear about roles related to the ACYI partnership. We know that the only way to move from talk to action is to identify who is responsible for what and hold partners accountable to clear roles. Learning about B/ART, or the boundary of authority, role and task, at a recent StriveTogether results-based leadership workshop helped demonstrate the need for this type of clarity. So that’s just what we did.
The partnership consists of about 75 organizations including five school districts, eight law enforcement agencies, seven cities, two unincorporated communities and a broad range of nonprofits, faith organizations, businesses and philanthropists. Everyone plays a unique role in driving student achievement from cradle to career by leveraging data, community expertise and collaboration using continuous improvement. All of us must:
- Measure what matters. Use key indicators to measure student achievement across our community.
- Identify best practices. Identify practices that create an environment of success.
- Spread what works. Work to help align community resources to spread what works.
The role of ACYI staff is to mobilize the partnership — the collective coalition of stakeholders who have agreed to work together to benefit students throughout the community from cradle to career.
We are set to accomplish well thought-out goals and action items including measurable outcomes that support each of the following strategic priorities:
Shared Community Vision and Communication
- Convene and engage cross sector leaders and partners.
- Engage a broad array of community voices, including the youth voice into our work. We are intently focused on ensuring that our youth are at the table and engaged in every aspect of our partnership.
- Facilitate communication relevant to the partnership.
Data-driven Decision Making
- Facilitate the collection and use of disaggregated data across the partnership to practice continuous improvement.
- Provide the knowledge, tools and opportunities to enable collaborative action
Investment and Sustainability
- Engage partners, funders and policymakers to support operations and collaborative work.
We are holding steadfast to focusing on our strategic priorities and are excited to continue with this crucial work in the community.
Becky Hoffman is executive director of the Adams County Youth Initiative in Adams County, Co. She leads a collective impact collaborative with over 75 organizations committed to the academic success of over 100,000 students. Hoffman provided key leadership in transitioning ACYI from an unincorporated federally funded grant to a stand-alone nonprofit adopting StriveTogether’s proven national framework.
One of StriveTogether’s great mentors and coaches, Jolie Bain Pillsbury, once had a brilliant insight about our work after engaging with a cohort of communities. She said, “I finally get it — you are trying to create a marketplace for results.”
After much reflection, this is a great way to sum up what we do. We have realized in our work with communities that the way we make decision in the social sector is largely irrational. Data is used to highlight problems but rarely to inform decisions, especially of investors. New programs and initiatives are launched in a stream of innovation, which can be very good. The problem is that when we find something that works, it can be hard to find resources — public or private — to spread and sustain the work. So we turn our attention to the next new idea.
To help understand how we might be able to better create this marketplace, we recently convened 15 investors from across the country at the national, state and local levels who are engaged in building cradle-to-career partnerships. The desired result is threefold:
- build the capability of the investors to model results-oriented action;
- test new ways for them to operate that contribute to results at scale; and
- learn lessons to inform the broader field about the role of philanthropy in this complex work.
First, the investors engaged in this cohort are courageous. There are some clear risks for investors in putting results at the center of their work. In addition to raising the sense of accountability, they are one step removed from the actual delivery of services, so there is less of a direct connection to the result. This brings some sense of risk. But they are diving in regardless as they recognize the critical role they play in this complex ecosystem. The bottom line: If we are going to create a marketplace for results in the social sector where outcomes matter more than inputs, we need more philanthropists to join them in this effort.
But my one primary takeaway was both simple and surprising to me: The role of an investor in community-based work to achieve results at scale is much harder than I thought. And that is saying something, given I have worn the hat before and even dabble in it now through the Accelerator Fund. So what triggered this insight? It was a discussion we had about the challenge investors have in clarifying the role they play in achieving results at scale. The good news is the investors recognized they play many roles: funder, advocate, convener, thought partner, to name a few. But no matter how much they try to enter any discussion on equal footing and even name the role they are playing other than funder, they are still seen as “Daddy Warbucks” from the Broadway show “Annie.”
There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, the mental model of “philanthropy as charity” is still pervasive. They are not seen as investors who are full partners in the work to achieve results, but check writers who should “do the right thing.” There is also the general sense and reality of resource scarcity and completion in the nonprofit sector. It is hard for those looking to implement work on the ground to take risks in authentically partnering, because they can never be sure how any problems they uncover could be perceived or communicated to others. Finally, there is just the reality of privilege in relationships around money. As the old adage says, s/he who has the gold rules.
This brings us back to the need for a marketplace for results. We need some ground rules for creating a more rational decision-making process. We need data on the impact of programs to be first on this list and we need to be sure capacity exists in the community to not just access the data, but use it in productive ways. But equally important, we would need a critical mass of investors to agree on these ground rules and to strive to apply them consistently over time. We figured this out in the private sector and it led to the development of the stock exchanges we see all over the world. There is no doubt the social sector is more complex with more variables to control, but I am confident we can figure out something similar over time as more data we can trust becomes available. And I believe the network of investors we have gathered can play a role in making it happen.
What would it take to achieve better and more equitable results for every child, cradle to career?
That overarching question is what guides all of our work at StriveTogether. Trying to improve educational outcomes at scale is an aim without end. Unlike learning how to bake a cake or how to build a rocket ship, figuring out how to shape and strengthen complex and adaptive systems across local communities is an unanswerable question. Communities are living ecosystems that require us to embrace emergence.
As individuals, we are generally pretty good at learning. Collaborative work requires a different level of intentionality to make the leap from insight and reflection to action and results. To strengthen the “S” in PDSAs (Plan-Do-Study Act cycles) and to create more purposeful reflexive loops from learning to action, the Emergent Learning Platform can be a helpful suite of tools and a way of thinking and working together that keeps results at the center.
Emergent Learning was created to focus on this big question:
“What would it take for groups of people working on important but challenging goals to learn as quickly and well together as we are each able to learn individually, so that they not only achieve their current goals more quickly, but also get better at achieving other important but challenging goals in the future?”
This is extremely relevant for community leaders and partners working in cradle-to-career partnerships to eliminate educational disparities. By unpacking what people know through a shared process, it’s possible to build people’s collective capacity to produce better results. The focus is on making thinking visible in a way that equalizes and values each individual experiences in service of shared results — bringing everyone’s best ideas to the table.
One of the easiest ways to get started is to use Before Action Reviews and After Action Reviews, a practice that helps groups learn in real-time from real work:
At StriveTogether, we’ve implemented these quick 30-minute prep and debrief conversations for everything from convenings and workshops to new initiatives. In doing so, we are more purposeful about what it takes to achieve our shared results.
In the context of local cradle-to-career partnerships, one of the most valuable Emergent Learning principles is the focus on testing ideas on the ground using real-time data. Instead of setting strategy in stone, the approach welcomes holding multiple hypotheses about what it might take to achieve the results you seek. As cradle-to-career partnerships work to improve outcomes and eliminate disparities, it is critical to concurrently test and work on multiple interconnected strategies. Alignment is the conscious commitment of many to a shared result — not everyone necessarily doing the same thing!
Marilyn Darling, the founder of the approach, shared one of her working hypotheses guiding this work: emergence rather than replicability likely leads to greater sustainability and scale. This is the sweet spot for cradle-to-career partnerships — helping cross-sector groups accelerate results by navigating ever-evolving conditions by testing and refining hypotheses and learning and taking action together.
As part of my personal and professional development toward being an advanced results-based leadership practitioner, I am a participant in the 2017 cohort of the Fourth Quadrant Partners’ Emergent Learning Certification Program.
Earlier this month, Parv Santhosh-Kumar and I had an incredible opportunity to gather together with 35 social sector leaders and spend three days at the Skid Row School for Large-scale Change. The experience was transformative.
For one, it came at the end of what has been a year filled with high highs and low lows. I think that we can all probably relate to this. Just when you feel like you’re making progress, you turn on the news and realize there’s so much more work to be done. So needless to say it was quite therapeutic to be able to spend time with like-minded professionals, each seeking to make the world a better place, and commiserate about our successes and failures on our respective journeys.
Next, similar to the StriveTogether approach, the leaders of the Billions Institute and the Skid Row School faculty put together a curriculum that forces participants to address both the adaptive and technical aspects of leading social change. We heard Becky Margiotta (keynote speaker at the 2016 StriveTogether National Convening and co-founder of the Billions Institute) share lessons learned from her work to combat homelessness on the 100,000 Homes Campaign, Joe McCannon (co-founder of the Billions Institute and former vice president at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement) share his work to improve patient safety on the 100,000 Lives Campaign and Nana A.Y. Twum-Danso (founder and CEO of MAZA) discuss her work to reduce infant mortality in Ghana as part of the Project Fives Alive! Campaign.
Dan Heath (2015 StriveTogether National Convening keynote speaker and co-author of Switch) provided individual coaching on getting super clear about our intervention to help mobilize others to care about the change we are trying to make and change their behavior as a result. And lastly, Christine Margiotta (executive director of Social Venture Partners Los Angeles) pushed us to uncover some of the “unspeakable invisibles” — such as fear of failure, scarcity mindset, indecision, overreliance on consensus and running on overwhelm — that exist in all of us and keep us from creating the change we want to see.
To try and distill my learning from the three-day school into some key takeaways was not an easy task, so I’m sharing a few key nuggets today and you can expect to see more from us as we incorporate our learnings into the everyday work we do with the Network:
1. If you want to spark change, feeling is the fuel. We have to generate interest in our mission to motivate behavior change. We cannot allow process to be the albatross. Most people are not motivated by static data charts. We have to match the rigor of our improvement approach to get results with an equal effort to motivate, mobilize and do a better job of telling the story about the impact on kids. That’s what humans care about. In Switch speak, this is what “motivates the elephant.”
2. Smart aims are like unicorns. Very rarely do organizations have quantifiable, time-bound objectives or aims like ours — five proof point communities (with measurable outcomes improving and evidence of systems changing) by June 2018. To set a smart aim, you have to first understand what complete success looks like for you, understand where you are in the expansion process and then set a specific time-bound goal for the next 18-36 months. As long as you are tight on aims, you can afford to be loose on everything else.
3. When you operate in fear, everything rustles. One of the primary reasons organizations and individuals do not set smart aims is because of fear. Fear often leads to blame, criticism and self-doubt. In order to do this work, according to the Billions Institute’s Model for Unleashing, you must be willing to “hug the bear,” or confront your fear head on, unpack what’s behind it and embrace failing forward.
4. Amateurs talk strategy, leaders talk logistics. Joe and Becky of the Billions Institute posit that achieving large-scale change requires organizations to operate Inside the Command Center. Teams who operate in this way put it all together — they get clear on their intervention and their aim, they embrace fear head on, they don’t get hung-up on business as usual, they do exactly what it takes to achieve results.
We look forward to continued partnership with organizations like the Billions Institute and other graduates of the Skid Row School for Large-scale Change. Changing systems to change the world is some pretty big work. We are fortunate to have great partners to learn from and grow with along the way.