Adriane Johnson-Williams, founding facilitator for the Seeding Success partnership in Memphis, Tenn., is exploring what it looks like to truly do the work of collaborative action. Through stories of challenging conversations and genuine relationship building, she shares her experiences working to change behaviors and practices in pursuit of better and more equitable outcomes at scale. A native Memphian committed to improving outcomes in her hometown, she now works in philanthropy.
Using data to define problems, develop plans and monitor progress may seem straightforward, but continuous improvement has never been among the competencies required in the youth development, direct service or intermediary agencies that make up most collective impact partnerships.
I learned that the hard way.
When the Seeding Success continuous improvement director negotiated a data-sharing agreement for the partnership, we were presented with an opportunity and a challenge. Our direct service partners would be able to measure progress for the children they served, and we would be able to aggregate up to the partnership level. Our monitoring would be as regular as new data were available.
We were responsible for data security and ensuring partners would use the data for continuous improvement. I worked closely with my teammate and developed a training that covered it all.
We adopted language from the Data Quality Campaign. We examined other approaches to continuous improvement training for nonprofits and designed something appropriate for our audience.
Or so we thought.
We made far too many assumptions about what our partners knew. Some staff had basic literacy and numeracy challenges. Others struggled to apply the concepts to their work. There were significant failure rates on the training assessments. Access to data was tied to proficiency, which means we were standing between our partners and very sought-after data. Things got a little tense.
We had skipped an important step. We never assessed our starting point. If we had, we would have found that we needed to lay a foundation before attempting to build partner competency.
As our work evolved, a significant part of my job became focused on capacity-building. The better we got at it, the more need we saw. It has since become a focus of local philanthropy because we know that an agency’s ability to pursue outcomes depends on capacity. Thanks to regular conversations with the StriveTogether team and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s results-based leadership faculty, I have interrogated my definition of capacity-building. Since my departure from Seeding Success, I have shifted my language to competence.
Defining and assessing competencies is achievable. It has been happening in the nonprofit management world for years. What has been missing is a systematic way of assessing competencies for continuous improvement in the sector.
Ultimately, we are engaged in a professionalizing of direct service work in the health and human development sector beyond the arena of licensed social workers and like professionals. We are asking child care, youth development, social service and intermediary leaders to commit to a core set of knowledge, skills and dispositions and be held accountable for them.
I am both excited about the possibilities and nervous about the implications. This is a corporate and somewhat scientific approach. Such methods privilege ways of knowing that have marginalized people of color and limited access for people living in poverty and in the working class. Professionalization sounds great, but it also suggests a weeding out of those who are unable (or unwilling) to see their work as systematic and scientific.
For some people, caring is more important than competence, no matter the outcomes. And in some circumstances, those people may be right.
Adriane Johnson-Williams, Ph.D., was the founding facilitator for Seeding Success, a StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network partnership in Memphis, Tenn. She now works in philanthropy. She is a native Memphian committed to improving outcomes in her hometown.