Last month, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF) and FSG Social Impact Advisors (FSG) published a series of blogs in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on “Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact” in which they shared their insights about the work of six backbone organizations in the Greater Cincinnati area.
A must read for those working in the field of collective impact, these blogs help define the important role of backbone organizations as an effective catalysts for community change.
As I was reading the posts, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that there are at least six backbone organizations working in one community. Six! That seems like a lot of infrastructure, doesn’t it, when you factor in that each backbone organization has at least a director and in many cases, additional staff? While collective impact backbone organizations typically run lean and mean, impacting significantly more resources than what is required for their operations, I had to wonder how efficient is it to create multiple backbone organizations to do this work? Especially given the beauty of collective impact is the ability to create efficiencies, do more with less and leverage existing resources to achieve impact.
In looking at the six backbones featured in the blog posts, I can see where there is room for more than one in this community. Several of these backbones represent different geographies or issue areas (Health, Education, Transportation, etc.). But there are several backbone organizations with overlapping outcomes revealing that there are opportunities to be more efficient about the infrastructure created to do collective impact locally.
This is especially important considering how challenging it is to find resources to support backbone infrastructure. I recently sat on a panel presentation at a conference for funders who were interested in supporting collective impact initiatives. As part of my panel presentation I discussed how critical it is for funders to provide backbone support. More than one funder questioned how these efforts could be sustained and I made the arguments that  the investment in infrastructure was minimal compared to the impact that could be had and  that the efficiencies created as a result of achieving greater impact could be reinvested to support the infrastructure. Reading the blogs has me a bit worried this may not be true when you have multiple backbone organizations in a community. I have to ask, when does it become too much infrastructure to break even much less see a return on investment as a result of creating efficiencies?
As the collective impact movement continues to grow, I become increasingly worried about the inundation of backbone organizations. Last month, I attended a convening focused on collective impact initiatives for improving outcomes in grade-level reading and just last week I participated in another convening of collective impact initiatives focused on “Opportunity Youth.” My fear is that with the perpetual buzz around collective impact, the first thing that will come out of these convenings is the creation of new backbone infrastructure. I will argue that in many communities the backbone infrastructure to do collective impact already exists. In fact, in more than 60 communities across the country it exists in the form of Cradle to Career Partnerships. As part of the Strive Network, these sites have already or are committed to putting into place the core elements of effective backbone organizations. They are using evidence to drive decisions, data for continuous improvement and aligning resources around what works. Additional backbone infrastructure is not needed, rather I’d argue that you need a “Convener” in each of the outcome areas (e.g. early childhood, grade-level reading, opportunity youth, college completion, etc.) to bring content expertise and better organize the work, but the infrastructure is already in place.
In the human body, the backbone connects and provides infrastructure for the many smaller vertebrae. Let’s consider a parallel in the collective impact field, in which one backbone connects several conveners of outcome areas. The role of the backbone organization is to provide connectivity between these different outcome areas representing segments along the educational continuum. The relation of the backbone organization to the conveners is not one of authority but rather of support often in the form of data analysis, facilitation, communication and access to a leadership table who is willing to advocate for what works. It is through a Cradle to Career Partnership that collective impact is realized holistically. In a field where vernacular is so important, let’s try to be very clear about what we mean when we define the role of the Backbone versus the role of the Convener.
See the illustration below that we have started using to describe what civic infrastructure looks like. We hope others in the field will find this helpful and work with us to practice the collective impact that we have been preaching.
With more than 120 sessions, special strands for new teachers and future schools, and more tweets than you could ever read, NTAC has a lot going on. It’s just impossible to do it all. But through the magical power of the interwebs and moving pictures, we can bring the best of the conference right to you! That’s the inspiration for “NTAC Live” – our video interview series designed to deepen, extend and share the 2012 New Tech Annual Conference experience.
“We are building the civic infrastructure necessary to support every child from cradle to career.” Well, that sounds pretty fantastic, but what does that actually mean?
At Strive, we have defined ‘Civic Infrastructure’ as: A way in which a region or community comes together to hold itself collectively accountable for implementing their own unique cradle to career vision, and organizes itself to identify what gets results for children; improves and builds upon those efforts over time; and invests the community’s resources differently to increase impact. And once again, I ask: “What does that mean?”
I feel like sometimes we get caught up using obscure words because we want them to mean something different then the expectations that more common words often elicit. But in the end, we wind up complicating the lines of communication. So, let’s take a stab at defining civic infrastructure in a way that doesn’t make our heads spin.
My elementary English teacher taught me to never define a word by describing what it is not, so naturally, that is exactly where I am going to start. Civic infrastructure is not a program or an initiative that you can just implement in your community. It also is not a tangible thing that you can use any of your five senses to identify. Rather, it is the organization of all the moving pieces in a community that impact a child and their family in a way that more effectively gets kids from birth to a meaningful career, successfully. It’s what we are already doing to support kids, and a little of what we may not be doing, but organized so that we are working together, using data, and moving resources in a coordinated way to constantly be getting better at what we do. So what are these moving pieces exactly? I default to the framework:
Shared Community Vision- This consists of bringing together stakeholders around a unified vision and goals, but it’s stakeholders at every level (grass roots and grass tops) and across all sectors of the community, collectively holding each other accountable for improvement. If third grade reading scores go down, it is not the school district’s problem, it is our problem because we all are responsible for improvement and we all are part of the solution.
Evidence Based Decision Making- This includes all the metrics with which we track our progress and assess our improvement, as well as agreeing on which high level data points we want to move because we know they will indicate impact. It also consists of using the data we are tracking to help us understand how to get better, and keep getting better, as opposed to merely proving whether or not we’re failing.
Collaborative Action- Yes, it consists of all the services we already have to support kids from birth through when they enter a career, but it’s also bringing together the providers of those services to work together differently. And when we say ‘work together differently’ we mean coming together to use data to identify what practices within their area of work have impact and how they can collectively work together, using data to keep improving. It’s much more than just sharing best practices and networking with other providers of similar services.
Investment & Sustainability- This involves more than asking for money from the funders to support this work; it’s asking for the community’s time and voice, a partner’s skills and expertise, and a leader’s influence and support and then aligning all those assets behind things we know will work for kids. It takes resources and investment from every stakeholder in the community in order to sustain this work and resources of all different kinds.
When you pull all these pieces together, line them all up, mix them all around in a way that makes sense in your community, you are essentially creating the civic infrastructure. And while each of these pieces are singularly important, and people do individual pieces really well already, we can never achieve the kind of impact we want to see without putting it all together, without building that solid civic infrastructure.
I hope I have simplified the idea of civic infrastructure here, and provided a solid definition for you. But since this is the work that you all are doing every day, I encourage you to join in the conversation. Tell me I am wrong, tell me I am right on, but mostly tell me how civic infrastructure is defined in your community.
It’s been said that we come to beginnings only at the end. And as the Beatles song says -- that’s something of a family tradition for me. In my family, we rarely say “goodbye”. We always say “hello.”
Think Different. Just Do It. We Try Harder. These are examples of the best taglines ever created. Taglines are emotional triggers for us. They help us remember what we want to do and who we want to be. And they say what we mean in very concise language.
In his June 2012 Social Impact Exchange presentation, Jeff Edmondson reviewed the history of Strive as well as highlighted the focus of scaling practices, the creation of the Strive framework, the meaning of collective impact, the practice of continuous improvement through data, the understanding civic infrastructure, and the achievement of a greater social return on investment.
This video is a great introduction to the work of Strive, and a great refresher for those already familiar with the work.
Watch his full presentation, and the following Q and A session, by following this link: Jeff Edmondson at the Social Impact Exchange
In 15 years of working with the media, one thing that’s certain is competition among outlets can be fierce as news teams and editors work diligently to get the right story in front of the right people at the right time. In Guilford County, the presence of two major cities – High Point and Greensboro – adds even more healthy competition to the mix as reporters race to get the story first.
It’s wonderful to see, however, that the idea of collective impact isn’t lost on Guilford County’s media as it relates to childhood literacy. This entire summer, select members of the media have agreed to serve as guest bloggers for AchieveGuilford. Each blog post will show how reading has shaped their lives both personally and professionally, while also supporting Guilford County Schools’ (GCS) 3 Million Books Challenge. The thought behind this is to use local media “star power” and personal stories to motivate people to read and learn more about literacy issues.
Columnists like Doug Clark or Morgan Josey Glover from the News & Record and Owen Covington from the Triad Business Journal or TV personalities like Nicole Ferguson from Fox 8 and Tracey McCain from WFMY News 2 will highlight literacy as a fundamental building block of success. They will put getting “the scoop” on the back burner to work collectively in shaping attitudes towards reading.
What’s more, I’ve seen firsthand how collective impact influences community-based initiatives through my work with Guilford County Schools (GCS) and Strive member AchieveGuilford. The 3 Million Books Challenge of Guilford County Schools, for example, has received widespread support from our local businesses, nonprofits and government leaders (more to come on that in an upcoming blog post).
The 3 Million Books Challenge comes from GCS Superintendent Mo Green in which he has asked GCS students to read 3 million books by year’s end. With GCS’ strong commitment to excellence and the community’s assistance, last year’s goal of 2 million books was exceeded by more than 600,000.
Throwing the “operating in silos” concept out the window in order to see students flourish and thrive now and in the future is key to this initiative and is the only thing that has the power to create sustainable programs.
In Guilford County, local leaders, parents, teachers, administrators and the media continue to work towards the common goal of making every child ready, cradle to career. Joining forces to stress the importance of reading and literacy is one way Guilford County mobilizes around education. It isn’t always easy, but leaving personal agendas “at the door” has set our community on the right track where students become the ultimate winners.
Brian Cockman is a member of the AchieveGuilford communications committee and assists with their community relations. He’s also the President of Rooster Communications and is a product of the public school system in North Carolina having attended elementary, middle school and high school in Guilford County, UNC Chapel Hill for his undergraduate degree and UNC Greensboro for his MPA. Rooster Communications has offices in Greensboro, NC and Charlotte, NC. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bcockman.
Third grade reading matters. While this critical benchmark is receiving more attention—rates have been trending upward in the region for the past five years—there’s more that needs to be done. Recognizing that early interventions are a better solving mechanism than retention, the Early Grade Level Reading Campaign is dedicated to increasing early reading success throughout Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Our campaign focuses on low-income, high need Cincinnati Public and Northern Kentucky Schools. This focus stems from the fact that more than half of low income third graders miss the third grade reading milestone every year.
The Strive Partnership and the Northern Kentucky Education Council, together with funders and non-profit leaders, are addressing third grade reading through three key strategies: early childhood interventions—kindergarten readiness, summer learning programs, and attendance. The campaign set an ambitious goal for every child to be reading on grade level by 2020.
But it’s not just organizations that play a role in early interventions. The community as a whole has to get behind the goal of ensuring third graders are reading on level. Campaigns through Readaloud.org, Reach Out and Read, and the Public Library are placing a strong emphasis on ensuring that books get into the hands of children. And with 61 percent of low income children without age appropriate books in their home, efforts like this are needed.
66 percent of Ohio third-graders read below grade-level, making them four times more likely to drop out. Getting 100 percent of students reading on grade level is not driven simply by the desire to hit a benchmark; we are driven by our desire to see students succeed in the future.
This guest post was written by Nia Williams, Strive Partnership Fellow. The Strive Partnership is the cradle to career collective impact effort based in Greater Cincinnati.
Very recently, the North Carolina collective impact partnership AchieveGuilford reached out to me, asking if I’d be interested in writing a guest post in their blog about the importance of literacy and the effect that reading has had on my life.
We all know that reading has the potential to teach children more about themselves and the world they live in, and allows them to envision what they, and the world, could be. For these reasons and more, literacy campaigns are an important part of community partnerships.
As I mention in my AchieveGuilford post, my role at KnowledgeWorks allows me to see the efforts that communities across the country are taking in order to better prepare young readers. From coast to coast, communities within the Strive Network are prioritizing early childhood literacy within their cradle to career pipeline. Two such communities, Greater Cincinnati (Strive Partnership) and Guilford, N.C. (AchieveGuilford), will be outlining their efforts in upcoming guest posts on the Striving for Change blog.
Check back later this week to learn about what these communities are doing to reach young readers.
If your community is part of the Strive Network, and you’d like to write a guest post on your partnership efforts, please don’t hesitate to contact me at BergJ@KnowledgeWorks.org.
Last Friday marked the final day to weigh-in on the new District Race to the Top language. We’re excited about many aspects of the proposal released in late May, and we hope to see the following policies remain in the final regulations to be released this summer:
Competitive Preference Priority for Results, Resource Alignment, and Integrated Services – The key to sustainability of results is widespread community engagement and alignment across the educational continuum. By engaging a wide range of local partners and aligning their resources to support shared goals, communities will realize and sustain significant gains in student improvement.
Productivity & Data Driven Decision Making – The emphasis on productivity through greater transparency of resources, ongoing continuous improvement, and resource alignment is key to transformative thinking at the district level.
In addition to maintaining the policies above, Strive sent a letter to the Department encouraging it to consider the following improvements to the proposed District Race to the Top program:
Eligible Entity – Clarify that districts can partner with intermediary organizations to drive continuous improvement, identify impactful practices, and align and leverage local resources to scale practices that will help the district meet identified goals.
Ongoing Engagement of Community Stakeholders – While we commend the Department for encouraging applicants to engage community stakeholders in the application process, we encourage the Department to ensure continued involvement of key stakeholders throughout the implementation process.
Inclusion of Non-Academic Indicators –This will give districts the flexibility to identify indicators relevant to their student population.
Encourage Regional Scale and Sustainability – As applicants demonstrate how they will achieve district wide reform beyond participating schools, we believe it is important to encourage districts to think beyond their traditional geographic boundaries.
Additional Metrics for Performance Measurement – Additional measures should be included in the performance measurement section to ensure a more robust picture of student learning, including metrics for grad-level reading, kindergarten readiness, and enrollment and completion of post-secondary education and/or training.
Drive Quality Continuous Improvement – We recommend strengthening the proposed language to ensure grantees implement a quality continuous improvement process, using data to improve, and scale best practices.
Elevate the Importance of Cradle to Career Partnerships and Alignment – Community collaboratives across the country have begun to move the needle on education reform, celebrating significant results that span from cradle to career. These collaboratives recognize the need for dramatic change across the entire education continuum and have committed to an ambitious vision that tracks success from kindergarten readiness to college and career success. The Department should encourage more communities to embrace this type of reform by applying a sliding scale to the competitive preference priority with maximum points awarded to districts seeking funds for a cradle to career approach.
We hope you all had the opportunity to submit comments to the Department, (you can download our letter, which explains the above recommendations in more detail, here) and we look forward to the release of the final regulations this summer.
Exciting news for the Strive Network! Cradle to Career language has been included in draft regulations for District Race to the Top program.
Included in the recently released draft is a competitive preference priority for Cradle-to-Career Results, Resource Alignment and Integrated Services. This is a great moment for the Strive Network, and a testament to the work that is being done in communities across the country to build cradle to career civic infrastructure. The inclusion of this priority validates our collective work, and is evidence of the value the Department places on these types of partnerships in helping to drive innovation and improvement in student achievement.
You can read the language here: http://www.ed.gov/race-top/district-competition/competititive-preference-priority
Since these are draft regulations, we encourage you all to submit comments in support of this language throughout the comment period – which ends today. You can submit public comment here: http://www.ed.gov/comment/reply/12250#comment-form
The final regulations will be released in July.
Be on the lookout for more information about webinars that we are planning to co-host with partners such as the United Way Worldwide and Promise Neighborhoods Institute to think through how communities doing this type of work can ensure programs and resources are aligned in order to participate in this competition.
Finally, we hope you will all take a moment to celebrate this recognition of the hard work you are doing every day!
Yesterday, more than 30 Strive Network communities participated in a Network-member webinar focused on the different ways that these Cradle to Career partnerships can best communicate their work to the media and to local community members. After Carly Rospert, Communications & Strategic Assistance Associate for the Strive Network, unveiled the brand new Communications Toolkit, two panelists (myself and Director of Public Relations at KnowledgeWorks, Byron McCauley) spoke to communities about how they could communicate their work locally using both traditional and social media outlets.
Working in the Marketing and Communications group at KnowledgeWorks, one of my responsibilities is to support both the Strive Network and the Strive Partnership with their communication needs – which range from editing documents, to conducting interviews, to creating content, to managing their social media. Having managed social media for both, I’ve seen how powerful a platform it is for connecting, amplifying, and networking.
During the Strive Partnership’s tutoring campaign, Be the Change, social media was just one of the mediums used to get the word out. @StriveTogether pushed out information and news articles about the campaign, whose goal was to recruit 2000 tutors for students in Cincinnati Public Schools. After a few tweets were sent out, one community follower replied simply, “Where is the link to apply?” I responded with the link, and the follower soon signed up to become a tutor at a local elementary school.
Both @AchieveGuilford and @Learn4LifeCbus reached out to the @StriveNetwork via social media when their Cradle to Career partnerships were taking shape and establishing themselves. These connections, which were followed by emails and collaboration plans, led to an Op-Ed from Jeff Edmondson that ran in Guilford, coordinated in part by @AchieveGuilford; and social media guidance for @Learn4LifeCbus, which helped inspire the new Communications Toolkit.
Building off of these experiences and many, many more, we were able to form the Strive Network Communications Toolkit. Yesterday’s webinar was a great success, and we’re happy to announce that the new Toolkit is now available for Strive Network members. To access it, log on to the Strive Network Partner Portal.
I was just recently part of a discussion with several of the Strive Cradle to Career communities about how they’re working to promote shared accountability within networks that are building collaborative action plans.
It became clear throughout the conversation that this is one of the toughest challenges that partnerships wrestle through. There is no denying it – collaborative action is hard work. It requires a level of collaboration that goes beyond rhetoric, to a place where partners are asked to set aside individual agendas, change behaviors and adopt new practices. It is time-consuming in that being data-driven means being willing to take the time to analyze and make difficult decisions. And in most cases, it requires network partners to do something that is above and beyond their “day jobs.”
As the discussion continued, Dan Ryan of All Hands Raised in Portland stressed that we need to be “writing a new job description,” one which includes collaborative action as one of the core competencies. This will likely require partners to re-evaluate all of their many responsibilities and prioritize authentic collaboration around a shared vision and common measures, with the expectation that this type of action will get to improved outcomes.
Geoff Zimmerman of the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati, Newport and Covington added that we must find a balance between how much support and capacity the backbone provides to the collaborative action work, with how much we expect partners to change how they’ve been operating in order to adapt to the “new job description.” If the backbone provides too much support, partners will not change their behavior and this work cannot be sustained.
So the questions are: how do we write the new job description for this work, making collaborative action a critical competency for our partners’ “day jobs”; and as backbone support organizations, how do we provide the right balance of capacity building and support to catalyze systemic change and make sure our partners don’t want to quit their “day jobs?”
Working with a few sites recently, I came to realize that “enlightened self-interest” is a beautiful thing. It’s often referred to in the negative because of the perception that people are being selfish if they think about how the partnership work could help an individual partner succeed. But in the end, real and sustainable partnerships do have to meet the unique needs of each partner while serving the common good.
As a practical example, these sites are all having trouble getting one or two sectors to actively engage in the partnership work. When we thought this through with them, we realized we really needed to capture both what would likely bring them to the table AND what could be keeping them away. In the end, this matrix will have to be tailored for the needs of each partner. Doing this by sector can get you a good start, helping you to understand what would be the “enlightened self-interest” of the partner to actively engage in the work. These sites now have plans with concrete talking points for how to get the much needed and critically important partners actively involved.
In the end, each partner will need the work of a cradle to career partnership, and the civic infrastructure that emerges, to meet their own mission and goals. Because, in the end, it is the alignment of all these efforts that will lead to long-term success. And that really is in all of our “enlightened collective interest.”