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Lessons from the front line
Updated: 1 hour 39 min ago

Remember to Listen: Three Insights from the National Urban League Conference

Tue, 2014-07-29 10:38

At last week’s National Urban League Conference, I joined a panel discussion with four amazing individuals who have dedicated their lives to improving education for children around the country. As I listened to the featured speakers that introduced the session and talked with other panelists, I was blown away by the insight shared, not only by those on stage, but also from the audience. I came away from the experience with many insights, but these three stand out as reminders for each and every day of our work.

1)      Listen to understand different perspectives.

Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League, introduced Senator Rand Paul to open the session. As part of the introduction he made a clear point that we need to be open to dialogue with others no matter their background or political perspective. He urged everyone to seek to understand through listening in order to better understand and shape one’s own perspective. As we work to join together across sectors and among leaders at all levels, we need to be open to what we can learn from those we may assume see things from a radically different perspective. This is how we learn and how we begin to find new and creative solutions to our most pervasive challenges.

2)      Listen to children and youth.

Laysha Ward, President of Community Relations at Target, highlighted an initiative they are supporting to ensure the voices of children and youth are heard. As we work to build civic infrastructure that focuses a community on using data to inform decisions, it is critical we don’t lose sight of these voices. As one of our Cradle to Career Network members reminded us years ago, data without stories means nothing. As a critical piece of that story is the voice of those experiencing our disjointed education system right now.

3)      Listen to community voices.

While the comments of the panelists I was fortunate to be with on stage were profound, perhaps the strongest voice came from the audience through the questions they posed. Almost all of them asked about ways to create a safe and nurturing environment where learning can occur in the first place, especially for those who are most often left behind. It can be tempting to focus on the academics – what seems to be at the core of learning. But parents and caregivers are first and foremost focused on ensuring those they love are safe and sound, so they can reach the potential we all should see before us.

As Bernadeia Johnson, Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, noted at the outset of the panel, “We need to focus our energies more on what is needed most for kids and families.” If we listen and make sense of what is around us collectively, we will clearly be in a better position to focus the time, talent, and treasure of our community around what will have the greatest impact on the lives of those we seek to serve.

Panelists from left to right: Bernadeia Johnson, Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools; Patricia Stokes, Urban League of Middle Tennessee CEO; Charles Ogletree, Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School (moderator); Melissa Bradley, Corporation for National and Community Service chief strategy officer; Jeff Edmondson, StriveTogether managing director; and Michael Lomax, United Negro College Fund president and CEO. 


Finding Our People…..Just Like the Girl in the Bee Suit

Tue, 2014-07-15 20:00

In the Blind Melon 90s alternative rock video, “No Rain,” a young tap-dancing girl in a bee suit wanders throughout town looking for someone to appreciate her talents after being laughed off stage. At the end of the video, the lonely girl discovers a field full of other people dancing in bee suits – she finally found like-minded people who shared her passion!

At least week’s StriveTogether Expert Convening in Salt Lake City, Nate Waas Shull of the All Hands Raised partnership in Multnomah County, Oregon said he felt “like the girl in the bee suit” from that video. By being in a room with representatives from other expert cradle to career communities, he knew he had found like-minded people who shared the same passion: achieving better outcomes for kids by building civic infrastructure.

“We have a field,” Nate said. “There is a field emerging for this work!”

While Nate’s reflection gave us all a big laugh, it keyed in on a larger theme for the Expert Convening: We have a growing body of knowledge for how to actually achieve the eloquent and powerful concept now known as collective impact that is indeed very different than collaboration (Read more: The Difference between Collaboration and Collective Impact). And more importantly, we need to create opportunities for the practitioners in the field to come together with their peers – just like the girl in the bee suit – to enjoy the company of like-minded individuals, as well as to capture and codify knowledge as much as possible. This is what it will take to ensure we don’t revert to the status quo: tinkering around the edges rather than changing what we do every day to get better results.

The main goal of this particular gathering was to dig into the adaptive and technical processes involved with planning and implementing action that improves academic outcomes on the ground. This is a key area where we see partnerships getting stuck as they work their way through the Theory of Action. During intensive working sessions, attendees mapped out answers to the following key questions:

  • What types of actions are communities executing to improve outcomes at scale?
  • Who plans and implements action that achieves real impact?
  • How do community partnerships use data for continuous improvement?
  • How do they ensure accountability for action over time?

While the output of these discussions will help shape tools that will benefit many communities across the Cradle to Career Network, observing these six partnerships working together highlighted the potential for broader impact. We are in the midst of a powerful movement connecting communities across our country on a common mission and methodology. Each community may have its own goals and actions, but the Network is focused on one thing – engaging communities in new and innovative ways to support the success of every child, every step of the way.

“Think about the magnitude of what we are really doing,” Todd Williams, of the Commit! Partnership in Dallas County, Texas, said during the convening. “You get a sense of how powerful this can be.”

The shared knowledge and commitment to quality collective impact across the entire network is core to this movement. We commit to making sure we do everything we can to help communities doing this work in a deep and meaningful way to connect and learn from each other. I hope you will join us in this movement to increase our impact together!

Read reflections and commentary shared on Twitter during the Expert Convening at


Waterbury’s Bridge to Success Achieves National Quality Designation

Fri, 2014-07-11 15:38

The Bridge to Success Community Partnership (BTS) in Waterbury, Connecticut, has been recognized with a unique quality designation from StriveTogether. BTS is one of only 49 communities in the StriveTogether nationwide cradle to career network.

“StriveTogether network evaluators were impressed with the level of community engagement in Waterbury,” KnowledgeWorks CEO Judy Peppler said. “Bridge to Success’ active collaborative action workgroups bring together like-minded and passionate public and private partners, parents and caregivers to improve the lives of Waterbury’s children. We are excited to welcome them as one of the 49 StriveTogether community partners.”

Part of what is making BPS successful is the dedication of the involved partners. Nearly 100 organizations are working together to prepare the youth of Waterbury for success from cradle to career.

The Partnership celebrated the recent designation at a press conference yesterday, where Peppler welcomed through group into the Cradle to Career network. Waterbury’s mayor, Neil M. O’Leary, as well as several other civic leaders were present to laud the current and future successes of BPS.

Bridge to Success Community Partnership is a member of the Cradle to Career network with StrivePartnership.


Cradle to Career Brain Power!

Thu, 2014-07-10 10:26

I’m writing this post in the midst of StriveTogether’s first-ever Expert Convening, a unique event that is bringing together six of the most advanced cradle to career network partnerships to discuss ways they are using data to drive action to improve student outcomes. Yesterday, day one of the two-day event, was jam-packed with interactive working sessions and in-depth discussions with attendees. Our discussions centered around how these communities are driving change through community-wide collaborative action. We learned about some exciting successes:

  • The Commit! Partnership of Dallas County, Texas, said action is improving access to libraries, proficiency scores and pre-school enrollments
  • The StrivePartnership of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky told us kindergarten readiness scores are improving through community-wide action
  • E3 Alliance of Austin, Texas, shared that collaborative campaigns are impacting student attendance rates and providing measurable return on investment
  • All Hands Raised of Multnomah County, Oregon, said the community’s 9th Grade Counts program is getting students on track with credits and attendance
  • Milwaukee Succeeds of Wisconsin discussed how tutoring pilots are showing positive results for kindergarten through 3rd grade reading proficiency
  • The P16Council of Greater Bexar County, Texas told us that action is improving student attendance in San Antonio

We are honored to be here in the same room with these collective impact experts. The amount of knowledge and hands-on experience together here in Salt Lake City equals some amazing cradle to career brain power!

We are fortunate to also have representatives from United Way of Salt Lake, a partnership currently exploring ways to improve education outcomes locally through collective impact, here with us to help the group reflect and identify key outputs from our discussion.

One of my key takeaways from day one is the importance of the Cradle to Career Network in bringing together the communities leading the work on the ground. This is really hard work. It takes patience. It takes humility. This event is providing these collective impact leaders an opportunity to connect and build a sense of camaraderie over shared experiences. It was really inspiring to see the partnerships interact with one another, challenge each other and learn from one another while co-creating knowledge that can help other partnerships.

Thank you to all of our experts who took the time to be here this week in Salt Lake! The brain power harnessed through this event is providing invaluable insight that will help shape StriveTogether tools and resources for the entire network of cradle to career communities.

Tell us about how your community is working toward collaborative action that moves outcomes by sharing comments below, or join the conversation on Twitter by following @StriveTogether and #actionSLC.

Expert convening attendees work on process mapping key
community actions for cradle to career collective impact work.

SAM Is on the Move!

Wed, 2014-05-28 15:05

I had the pleasure of being a part of the launch of the Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM) baseline report card – called the Preface – just recently.  It was incredibly motivating!  A huge audience of local partners across sectors of Spartanburg County, SC came together as former Secretary of Education Richard Reilly opened the event.  The Secretary spoke about the power of bringing community partners together in a purposeful way to improve outcomes for kids, the core of what the Spartanburg Academic Movement is all about.  In many ways, the Secretary’s efforts while in office of promoting the concept of community learning centers laid the foundation for collective impact; encouraging meaningful partnerships among in-school and out-of-school partners working around the common goal of improving student outcomes.

The intense energy and focus of the community on stopping “spray and pray” was apparent throughout the launch event.  The Spartanburg County region is one of the largest economic engines in the country with a host of businesses, big and small, that contribute to our national GDP.  It was clear throughout the day, that the business sector in particular realized the value they can bring to collective impact efforts – not just to drive dollars toward what works, but to contribute the intellectual capacity needed to help social sector leaders use data more effectively to get results for kids.

Spartanburg Academic Movement is the cradle to career partnership located in the Upstate region of South Carolina that was created to address the academic needs of Spartanburg County. Sparked by a change in the local economy, moving from a base in textile mills to one that is more knowledge-based, community leaders were charged with exploring the connection between economic development and education and discovered a major lag in college degree attainment in Spartanburg County as compared with the nation and state. You can learn more about this exciting partnership by visiting their website:

We expect to see great things from SAM in the years to come as they begin to write new chapters beyond just the preface for how they can better serve every child, every step of the way, cradle to career.

Building the Backbone

Mon, 2014-05-19 11:18

StriveTogether is pleased to announce the launch of the Building the Backbone Toolkit. This toolkit follows our shift in thinking about how partnerships are built and how they may evolve as the work of the partnership becomes more about data-driven action and less about building infrastructure. The shift was first highlighted in a previous blog post, where Jeff Edmonson, noted “This has led us to the conclusion that what is likely needed is a ‘backbone function’ not a ‘backbone organization.’  This may simply sound like semantics, but it leads to a completely different way to approaching the staffing of collective impact work.  This shift helps us to see that this work is not about a central power center that gets created in a traditional hierarchical paradigm, but instead is about a set of shared roles that need to be played as we look to connect the dots instead of recreate the wheel.”

The backbone of a partnership is not one single entity, but a function, in which various partners, organizations, or committees can play a role in fulfilling. Viewing the ‘backbone’ as a function rather than an entity, allows more flexibility in the way a specific community supports the operational work of a partnership, building on the individual and unique assets of a community. These functions are the essential on-going roles related to sustaining the infrastructure of a cradle to career partnership, including: the fiscal agent, housing the partnership, staffing, engaging partners & community, communication, fundraising & development, data support, convene networks, and advocacy & policy change.




It is also important to note that not all of the backbone functions have to be filled in the formative stages of the partnership. As the work of the partnership evolves and matures, the functions of the backbone will also evolve.

The structure of a partnership’s backbone will depend on the context of the community, but generally the partnership will fall on a spectrum, with a single organization fulfilling most or all of the roles at one end (centralized backbone) to a structure where many different partner organizations, initiatives, or committees fulfill the roles at the opposing end (blended backbone).



The backbone structure is not set in stone and tends to move toward on end of the spectrum or the other as the partnership and partners evolve.

Partnerships with a backbone structure that falls more towards the centralized backbone end of the spectrum will have one organization, usually the anchor entity, which plays most of the backbone functions. A wide range of organizations can play host to a partnership including, but not limited to: the United Way, community foundations, universities, or community-based organizations.

Partnerships whose backbone structure falls on the opposite end of the spectrum have more of a blended backbone structure, where multiple organizations take on the various backbone functions, creating a comprehensive backbone to fulfill the needs of the partnership.  Within this structure, there may be a lead organization (usually the anchor entity), but the backbone functions are much more widely distributed than the centralized backbone.

As the work of the partnership evolves, so should the backbone structure. Often, in the early stages, one or two partners will step-up and drive the work forward by taking on many of the more operational backbone functions and form a partnership that falls more toward the centralized backbone end of the structure spectrum. However, as the work expands and becomes more complex, the functions of the backbone should also expand and may include partners who have more expertise, interest, or capacity to fulfill the new functions.

As partnerships evolve, so does our knowledge around how partnerships are formed, sustained, and implement action to move outcomes. Where on the backbone structure spectrum does your partnership land? What partners were engaged in building your partnership and how has this changed? We love to hear your feedback.


Exploring Communities can find the Building the Backbone toolkit in the Exploring Communities Resource Room and Network members can find it on the StriveTogether Partner Portal.

To Thine Own Community Be True

Thu, 2014-04-24 15:49

This is the sixth and final blog of the communications series. To read the first blog here, read the second blog here, read the third blog here, read the fourth blog here, and the fifth blog here.

In this blog series, we have covered how to tell a story, use data in context, identify which type of communication tool to use, and leverage partners to support communications. For the last post, we will concentrate on how to authentically communicate with diverse audiences within a community.

The support of every child, from cradle to career requires the collective effort of an entire community. Inherent in this, is the engagement, involvement, and mobilization of the community around the cradle to career vision. Authentic communication can help a partnership communicate with and engage facets of the community whom may not traditionally be involved, but are integral to the partnership’s success. Authentic communication recognizes that there are many facets of the community and uses messages, modes, and spokespeople tailored to effectively reach these facets. To accomplish authentic communication, partnerships will have to identify both the horizontal and vertical audiences within the community, create messages that each audience will resonate with, and use vehicles and partners who will be able to reach each audience.

Vertical and Horizontal Audiences

Many partnerships have been successful in targeting their messaging to specific sectors in the community (i.e. business, philanthropy, higher education, parents). These sectors are the vertical audiences within the community and can help ensure that the partnership has cross-sector representation and engagement. Messaging for these audiences is tailored by the characteristics of the industry or position, not by the characteristics of the people in them.

Within each vertical audience, there are also multiple audiences that are reflective of the people rather than the industry (i.e. African American, Hispanic/Latino, immigrant, individuals from specific neighborhoods.). These more demographically defined groups are the horizontal audiences within a community.  Attempting to engage specific horizontal audiences while only tailoring communication to their industry or position can be perceived as inauthentic, so it is important to consider both vertical and horizontal methods for effective engagement and communication. Targeting horizontal audiences can help the partnership relate to community members who identify more readily with their culture, race or geographic location, rather than their industry or position.  This method allows the partnership the opportunity to more fully engage with the entire community rather than just sectors and can help show that the partnership understands the complex context of the community.



Relevant Messaging

Once both the vertical and horizontal audiences have been identified, creating relevant messaging is the next step partnerships should take in authentic communication. Relevant messaging is making sure that stories, brochures, one-pagers and other communications the partnership creates are reflective of every facet of the community. For horizontal audiences, this includes strategies such as using protagonists in the partnership’s stories whose struggles reflect the issues facing the audience, using photography that captures the composition of the community so that different audiences can see themselves in the materials, and producing materials in multiple languages.  By creating relevant messaging, partnerships can show that they have thought about each facet of the community and want to authentically engage with them.

Choosing the Right Vehicle

Partnerships may identify their vertical and horizontal audiences and create messages that are relevant to them, but if the wrong communication medium or spokesperson is chosen, the audiences may not be reached or not view the message as authentic or credible. To choose the right communication medium, partnerships should look to where the intended audience receives their information. For example, if an audience primarily receives their information from the internet or watching television, producing a radio or newspaper ad may not effectively reach them.  More importantly, if the partnership doesn’t choose wisely when considering a spokesperson for the message, it could appear to be inauthentic. A strategy for choosing a spokesperson could include leveraging partners who are representative of or who already have a connection with the intended audience.  The partner will be able to use relatable language and a medium that will reach the audience, as well as give the partnership credibility as a source of information that is trustworthy.

Communicating with authenticity is crucial for partnerships to gain community buy-in and to ensure that the partnership is reflective of the context of the community. To successfully and authentically communicate, partnerships can refer to the lessons covered not only in this blog, but also the previous blog posts in this series. Partnerships will need to tell stories that relate to the audience which they want to engage and tie the stories to data that illustrates what is happening in that facet of the community. Partnerships will also have to use discretion when choosing which type of communication will help them convey the message and leverage their partners to help reach and truly connect with audiences. Finally, it is important to note that communication is an ongoing process. As feedback comes back from audiences and metrics are measured, the partnership should adapt and find new ways to engage authentically.


Engaging the Business Sector for Stronger Collective Impact

Thu, 2014-04-17 11:18




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Attracting the Business Community

Attracting the business community is a necessary strategy for sustaining a cradle to career partnership. Business engagement looks differently in every community, but can take the form of local companies providing communications support, loaned executives, support for the implementation of data-driven action, or strategic planning. Business partners can help ensure that a career ready workforce is in place by bringing significant resources to the partnership, both financially and through the donation of time and skills.

To Engage or Not Engage?

Many partnerships have been successful at engaging the business sector, but often not without a fair share of frustrations and setbacks. The case, StriveTogether: Reinventing the Local Education Ecosystem, written and published through Harvard Business School’s US Competitiveness Project, explores ways three StriveTogether cradle to career partnerships have engaged the business community in their collective impact work.  The barriers to business engagement are sometimes relational, as evidence by City Heights Partnership (San Diego), where business leaders were disillusioned with district politics and had difficulty relating to the way the education sector operates. Challenges in engagement may also arise out of the inability of business leaders to observe the impact of their investment as with Aspire (Toledo); where major corporations had donated large sums of money to education programs without ever being able to understand the impact their investment had on educational outcomes. Additionally, barriers to engaging the business community can stem from differences in the cultures of the education and business sectors. StrivePartnership (Cincinnati) understood the importance of engaging the business community from its inception, but a history of inefficient and uncoordinated efforts combined with a lack of data within the education field created frustration with the business community. Recognizing the importance of business sector engagement in a cradle to career partnership, it is important to work through these barriers and support the deep engagement of local businesses in the education of children.

Engagement, No Longer a Question

Moving beyond these barriers, each partnership found a sweet spot between engaging the business community and addressing any concerns of participation.

StrivePartnership (Cincinnati) addressed the lack of communication and organization by re-engaging existing business partners. They assured local business partners with the promise to focus on results, share information with the group, and increase efficiency of stakeholders working together. This assurance was enough for key business leaders such as Procter & Gamble and General Electric Aviation to engage in the initiative. As more businesses engaged in the partnership work, buy-in from the community and business sector increased. 

Aspire (Toledo) built on their history of civic engagement to involve businesses at the strategic leadership level. Aspire reported out regularly to a board of directors, many of them C-suite executives, which led to businesses, such as Owens-Illinois and Owens Corning, offering staff Six Sigma training and developing data analysis capabilities for the partnership.

City Heights Partnership (San Diego) also capitalized on the history of business engagement within the community to engage local businesses who already had an interest in supporting local educational efforts. Tad Parzen, the executive director of the City Heights Partnership, posited two strategies for engaging the business sector: philanthropic leaders associated with City Heights Partnership would attract support from the business sector and that the United Way’s orientation towards business leadership would help to identify, recruit, and convene a business advisory board of C-level executives. The business sector is engaged throughout the partnership especially at the leadership table.

The stories of the above partnerships are fully explored in the Harvard Business School case. The case also presents the metamorphosis of StriveTogether from a local partnership in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky to a national network of cradle to career partnerships.

Have you engaged the business sector in your cradle to career work? What strategies and types of engagement are the most effective? We would love to hear from you, so leave a comment and let us know your story.

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