Collective impact has been one of the biggest buzzwords in the social sector, and, unfortunately, the term gets used for a range of activities that deviate from the original intent: achieving results at scale. Our focus with the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network has been to establish standards for what this work really takes to achieve its true purpose. We have tried to clarify how it differs from collaboration, but that has not been enough as this beautiful concept continues to get watered down.

In order to show the true power of collective impact, we are investing in a core group of communities to become demonstration sites or “Proof Points.” One of our key insights thus far from this work is that communities need to create a culture and build the capability to use data not just to prove what works, but to improve how they support children each and every day. There is an entire field built around this practice known as continuous improvement. Most of the lessons and insight are based on all that has been learned from its application in the private sector. Fortunately, the health sector has been working over the last 20 years to help use the science in hospitals, giving us key insights into how continuous improvement can apply in the social sector in general.

Continuous Improvement Graphic
We are currently on the cutting edge of understanding how this work can best work in the education sector and across community partners, and we want to capture these lessons and share them rapidly to help raise the bar on quality from the start and avoid the propagation of yet another buzzword in our sector. Back in 2008 when the flagship cradle-to-career partnership was launched in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, we worked with GE Aviation to apply one continuous improvement method — Six Sigma — to help partners use data to improve outcomes at scale. We had some significant failing forward experiences that inform our work now with the Network and can inform the field as a whole. These form a baseline of knowledge we have been building on significantly as communities including Dallas, Memphis and Spartanburg continue to test new ways of applying improvement in the field.

A few key lessons have emerged to inform the field as a whole. These include:

  • Continuous improvement is not a technical tool but an adaptive process. In the work to apply Six Sigma in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, we became overly focused on the process and related tools. We provided traditional classroom lectures and over 100 pages of technical documents. This masked the true challenge of improvement: dealing with the changes in behavior those engaged in the process must consider as they learn more about what does and does not work for those they serve. So using a more simplified process — like the Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle — and applying it in real time to a real-world project is a much more effective way to learn.
  • The team doing improvement work matters … a lot! We were often happy just to get participants from different systems to show up at meetings. We did not care who it was or how often they came. We just wanted the institutions represented. It is impossible to make progress with an ever-changing cast of characters. Instead, it is critical to map out exactly who needs to be involved and to make sure they stay consistently engaged based on the role they play. Leaders need to be visible champions and practitioners need to be working to interpret data at least every other week. Without this level of clarity, the significant time invested won’t lead to any significant change.
  • New roles and capability are needed to embed and sustain the work in communities. Given the complexity of managing the change process and engaging the right people in the right roles, it is critical to invest in having new roles and building partner skills and capability. Having continuous improvement coaches work arm-in-arm with practitioners to help them gather, analyze and (most importantly) apply learning to their everyday work is simply critical. Simultaneously investing in training to build the capability of partners to model improvement in their organizations, is fundamentally critical to embedding the work in the community long term.

This is only scratching the surface of the lessons StriveTogether is learning to make sure communities not only realize the potential of collective impact, but bring the rigor required to the practice of continuous improvement right from the start. If we focus on quality, we can achieve better results for children and communities — and embed a critical body of work in our everyday practice to improve outcomes for kids … not just create another buzzword.



When working to increase FASFA rates, cradle to career partnerships are always looking for proven, easy to replicate strategies that lead to results. Through the work of the Postsecondary Enrollment Impact and Improvement Network, we know the effective strategies used to make sure that more students successfully completed the FAFSA.

1. Implement In-Class Interventions

In most states, FAFSA completion work can be used to meet state curriculum standards. Partnering with high school economics or social studies teachers to have students complete FAFSA as a class or homework assignment provides them with the opportunity and support needed to complete the FAFSA.

2. Use Student-Level and/or School-Level Data

In most states, school districts have the ability to track FAFSA completion at the school- and/or student-level. Using school-level or, better yet, the student-level helps to identify the students who are or are not completing the FAFSA. This allows school districts and their partners to focus their work on the specific students or schools that needs the most support.

3. Build a School- Campus-Based FAFSA Team

School- or Campus-Based FAFSA teams improve staff awareness about the importance of FAFSA completion and how they can help. Convening a team (assistant principal, guidance counselor, central office staff, Gear Up partners, etc.) on a monthly basis allows its members to review the data and discuss strategies for how to reach students who have yet to complete the FAFSA.

4. Host FAFSA Only Events

The most successful FAFSA events, like a FAFSA completion night, were the ones that just focused on FAFSA because it created the space and time for students and families to focus. Identifying a champion for each event helped determine the best time of day for the event to ensure the best attendance possible.

5. Assign Appointment Times

Assigning students an appointment time to complete the FAFSA, either during a completion event or during the school day, makes the meeting or event seem mandatory. The appointment times were not strictly enforced, there was no penalty for missing an appointment but the assumed accountability associated with the appointment time dramatically increased completion rates.

6. Frequent Data Monitoring

Most school districts across the country have the ability to access weekly or bi-weekly FAFSA completion data either form their state’s department of education or the U.S. Department of Education. Monitoring completion rates either weekly or bi-weekly allows school district staff and community partners to get quick feedback the effectiveness of their FAFSA completion work and helps keep FAFSA completion at the front of everyone’s mind.

7. Partner with Local Postsecondary Institutions

Partnering with local postsecondary institutions can help significantly with FAFSA completion. Financial aid staff are experts in their field and can provide additional capacity and support during FAFSA completion efforts. Additionally, financial aid staff can provide insight on what is specifically preventing students from getting the financial aid they have applied for – often times it’s a simple as a missing social security number or mismatched identification numbers.

8. Connect Work to its Impact with Run Charts

Run Charts, or time series charts, can be used to connect FAFSA completion work with the result (the number of FAFSAs completed during the work period). As a result, run charts are incredibly powerful tools so partnerships who want to understand the impact their work is having on students.

9. Create a FAFSA Phone Bank

Having a scheduled event where parents, guardians and students can call in to ask questions about completing the FAFSA was a very successful way to reach families who didn’t want or need to attend a completion event.

10. Test Small Before Going Big

All of our teams focused on FAFSA completion selected a specific population of students or high school as the focus of their initial work. With each intervention this allowed the teams to learn what worked well and what could be improved before scaling the work across multiple high schools or multiple districts.




Increasing FAFSA Completion Rates Across the Country

October 11, 2016
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Over the past year, six communities across the country have been participating in StriveTogether’s Postsecondary Enrollment (PSE) Impact and Improvement Network. The goal is to increase FAFSA completion in their communities. FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). An increase in FAFSA completion means more students have access to financial aid for, and access to, […]

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Rise Up: Three Insights from the 7th Annual Cradle to Career Network Convening

October 4, 2016
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The 7th Annual Cradle to Career Network Convening was an outstanding success! This is due solely to the great work each and every person in the room does to achieve our ambitious vision – supporting the success of every child from cradle to career – and our short-term goal: Establishing five Proof Points by June […]

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Ms. Price goes to Washington!

September 29, 2016
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This week Juliette Price, director of The Albany Promise, a Sustaining member of the Cradle to Career Network, will travel to Washington, DC for a very special visit to the White House in which she will be recognized as one of eleven “White House Champions of Change for College Opportunity” for the work she is […]

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New Data, New Opportunities

September 28, 2016
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Too often, policy can seem inaccessible to the people in charge of, or affected by, its implementation. That’s why, in part, the StriveTogether network has identified four different roles cradle-to-career partnerships can play in policy: Data expert Partner Convener Community Mobilizer Advocate Connecting each of these concepts is one major role: liaison. I’ve been thinking […]

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Small Changes Can Make a Big Impact

September 27, 2016
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At the final morning in Memphis, Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of the State University of New York, invited the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network convening attendees to stand for the gatherings they had attended as she cycled through the locations of the last seven years. Once everyone was on their feet, she announced, “Welcome to the […]

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Learn to let go of the desire for credit. If you want recognition, get a puppy.

September 22, 2016
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Do you find yourself just doing the work yourself because it will be faster, easier, and done the way you want it to? This was the question that framed Becky Kanis Margiotta, co-founder of The Billions Institute and lunchtime plenary session speaker at StriveTogether’s 2016 Cradle to Career Network Convening. While she was quick to […]

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What Education Excellence for Every Child Really Means

September 21, 2016
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According to Adriane Johnson-Williams, founding facilitator of the Seeding Success partnership in Memphis, TN, the work of collective impact and confronting structural and institutional racism is like a highway. “All lanes must be maintained,” insists Johnson-Williams. “And you need to be able to change lanes when you want to – and not worry about being […]

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In Cincinnati, Systems are Changing and Student Outcomes are Improving

September 20, 2016
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As hundreds of leaders and practitioners across sectors converge in Memphis for StriveTogether’s Cradle to Career Network Convening, we are proud to announce the designation of StrivePartnership of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky as our first Proof Point Community, celebrating the achievements of local partners and institutions working together to change how education systems work […]

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