- STRIVE NETWORK
I recently had the privilege of serving on a panel at the annual United Way Worldwide Staff Leadership Conference. Melody Barnes of Aspen Forum for Community Solutions – among a hundred other key roles she plays so wonderfully to support our democracy – facilitated beautifully. She helped us dig into a host of questions about really taking on Collective Impact and engaged the audience in a great dialogue.
One of the follow-up items I was approached about by numerous folks afterwards were a couple references I made to “servant leadership” as core to the work of collective impact, namely the backbone organization staffing cross sector partnerships. I read Robert Greenleaf’s book The Servant as Leader years ago, but given the level of interest it sparked me to go back and take another look. I was fortunate to find a pamphlet that served as cliff notes that The Robert K. Greenleaf Center published not too long ago, and I was literally floored.
Having lived the life of a “cat herder” supporting a cradle to career partnership for many years in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, his words from 1970 provided a level of clarity I had not expected regarding the roles – maybe I should say “the way” (Steve Patrick, also of Aspen, noted that Lao Tzu might be the most obvious example of this way of being) – those who take on this work must adopt.
Here are a few quotes that really stuck with me:
“ …the great leader is seen as servant first and that simple fact is key to his/her greatness.”
“But if one is servant, either leader or follower, one is always searching, listening, expecting that a better wheel for these times is in the making.”
“A fresh critical look is being taken at the issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in a less coercive and more creatively supporting ways.”
It would have been easy to pick out 100 others and I could have picked out even more of the core tenets he describes, but here are my top ten based on my latest read:
There are wonderful stories to go with each of these insights that make this worth your time to read. I would encourage everyone to take a look and I would love to hear what you think.
We have the honor of working with sites all over the country looking embrace the concept of collective impact and establish cradle to career civic infrastructure to achieve better outcomes for children. Unfortunately, the energy around this work has led to a new political challenge in many communities: jockeying among partners to become the “backbone”. In one community that reached out to us they noted they had NINE backbone organizations in the education space! As we all know, a body that has nine backbones is really going to struggle to move forward effectively. The same is the case for a community working to improve outcomes in a specific issue area like education. We fully embrace that a community may likely need multiple backbones for multiple issues – health, public safety, housing, education, etc. – but we strongly advise against having multiple backbones in just one issue area.
So how might we think about the different roles organizations looking to take up a leadership can play in order to capitalize on all of this interest? We have developed one way to think about this that has helped numerous communities find a way through this challenge. The visual below captures the concept at a high level, but the key is to differentiate between the role of backbone organizations and conveners. The primary difference is that a single backbone entity is needed to help support the overall development of civic infrastructure to have collective impact. Conveners, on the other hand, are focused on working with the relevant partners – practitioners and other interested stakeholders – to build comprehensive and data driven outcomes around a single outcome along the continuum. See a summary of the roles in the visual below:
The Role of the Backbone
The key roles of a backbone organization are outlined in detail below. Before going into the roles, it is important to note that while the backbone is often perceived as a position with the most power in a collective impact effort, it is most effectively played by an entity that embraces the principles of servant leadership. In essence, the backbone needs to play a very quiet and behind the scenes role, lifting up others who are doing the work so they get the well deserved credit for the data-driven work they are doing on the ground to support children. In the end, an entity willing to take this servant oriented stance – instead of being more visible – will be able to play the following roles much more effectively as partners across all sectors and at all levels will feel respected for the contributions to the partnership vision:
The Role of the Convener
The convener, on the other hand,plays a much more specific and frequently more visible role in building action plans. Because practitioners are looking to bring attention to their work, the convener can be out front with the work they do to help develop comprehensive action plans because it will invariably raise awareness both for the importance of the work and the contributions of the partners. So entities looking to be more visible and play a leadership role may very well be better positioned to become a convener to do the following:
It is important to note that in each of these roles, the backbone and the convener, the entities in question must be a) un-biased toward specific partners or strategies, b) willing to use data to drive decisions and navigate the many challenges that come with such a role, and c) have resources to fund the basic staffing roles needed to do the work. This can often narrow the pool of potential players to fill these roles. But if partners can meet these criteria, they can find a way to lead. Not everyone has to be the backbone. In the end, given the state of the outcomes most communities hope to move, there are plenty of leadership roles to play to realize the improvements we all so desire.
 See definition in “Collective Impact” by Kania and Kramer at http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/collective_impact/
I just read a fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “No Rich Child Left Behind.” I wasn’t surprised by what I was reading. There is a significant gap in education success between high-income families and those of lower socio-economic status. This we know and have known for years. What did surprise me is how much the gap has grown over the past few decades. The author, Sean Reardon, found the gap in test scores is around 40 percent larger than it was 30 years ago. He also found that the income test score gap is considerably larger than the black-white test score gap. “Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race.”
I found this shocking and disturbing, given what has seemed to be a great deal of focus and resources dedicated toward closing the achievement gap over the years. But, as I continued reading, what I found even more surprising was the author’s conclusion for why this rapid widening of the gap has occurred. After reviewing a significant amount of historical data, particularly related to family income, he found that the academic gap is widening because the rich keep getting richer. As income inequality rises (which it has substantially over the past decade) rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than even middle-class students, much less poorer students. Which means that wealthier students are not only better prepared to succeed in their first years of schooling, but ultimately better prepared to succeed in life as a whole. This supports what we know about the critical importance of early childhood education as building the foundation for education success.
So, could it be that we, as a nation, have been focusing on the wrong issues when working to eliminate these educational disparities? Much of the strategies to close the achievement gap have focused on improving teacher quality and failing schools and we have made some great progress, yet the gap continues to widen and at such a rapid pace. The author suggests that we must also focus on the relationship between family income and educational success and he makes some suggestions for how to address these challenges. In reviewing his suggestions, it is clear that our work to build cradle to career cross-sector education partnerships is particularly relevant as it will take the combined efforts of business, philanthropy, government and education sectors to close these gaps or better yet, prevent them from occurring.
First, improving outcomes in early childhood education must continue to be a focus for cradle to career partnerships. If states and the federal government are not going to do the right thing and increase investments in this area, then it is imperative that local partnerships really dig into the early childhood data, identify what is working and align resources to expand these practices, with a specific focus on ensuring greater access and equity when it comes to high-quality early childhood experiences.
Next, cross-sector cradle to career partnerships are uniquely well-positioned to advocate for more family-friendly policies, such as more generous maternity and paternity leave policies or access to high quality childcare. These types of policies will enable parents to have the flexibility and resources to spend more time supporting and teaching their children. In fact the business partners at the table of cradle to career partnerships could set the precedent by implementing these policies for their own employees.
There are so many things that partnerships can do to help prevent and eliminate gaps, but what is perhaps the key lesson learned from this particular issue, and so many other education issues, is that it all starts with data. Just as the author of this piece used data to understand the growing problem of income disparities, cradle to career partnerships must take the finest cut at the data – digging into student data and monitoring important contextual data in order to get at the root cause of the issue and address it head on before the gaps occur. Only when we have looked at disaggregated data as a community, can we be prepared to have the tough conversations and take the appropriate action that are so critical to reversing this trend. If the achievement gap begins well before children reach kindergarten, then an ounce of prevention is most definitely worth a pound of cure.
When the Collective Impact article appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review back in early 2011, our phones began ringing off the hook with communities wanting to learn more about the work of building cradle to career civic infrastructure. Thanks to support from Living Cities we had already worked to capture lessons and work with other sites nationally, but the momentum the article generated expedited the launch of the Cradle to Career Network. We knew we didn’t have all of the answers here in Cincinnati so we needed to fuel the movement by creating the Network to connect the many communities doing cradle to career collective impact work on the ground and capture the knowledge being generated in order to help share the learning.
And the movement has most definitely been fueled. Membership in the Cradle to Career Network includes 92 communities across 35 states and 6 different countries and counting. This rapid growth is exciting as it means that all of these many communities are committed to improving outcomes for kids. When we came together as a Network for our Annual Convening last fall, however, we were not talking about how to continue to grow the Network. Rather the conversation was about making sure the Strive approach remained rigorous across all these communities, calling for a more defined structure around what it means to do this work with quality. If we don’t work to maintain the rigor that is inherent in this approach, collective impact will become little more than business-as-usual collaboration and we will not achieve the results that we want to see for kids.
And so, the process of developing quality benchmarks began and here we are in the midst of the soft launch of the Strive Theory of Action. The Theory of Action takes the years of captured learnings from the Network and our work on the ground with communities and builds it out into a continuum of quality benchmarks that act as a guide to implementing the Strive Framework. The Theory of Action clarifies the essential pieces of building and sustaining Cradle to Career Civic Infrastructure, which will allow for a better understanding of how to do this work and act as a guide in where to focus a Partnership’s energy and resources to more efficiently achieve impact. It also acts as a mechanism to hold each other accountable within the network for implementing a collective impact effort with rigor, increasing the consistency of language and approach across communities. And finally, and perhaps most important in all of this, the Theory of Action and quality benchmarks validate local action. The Theory of Action provides a practical and evidence-based framework to inform and validate local action and focus.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies the validation of local action more than the Interactive Theory of Action tool that was built to support the soft launch process of these benchmarks. The tool incorporates examples from 17 Cradle to Career Network member partnerships, demonstrating how these partnerships have achieved specific benchmarks. But what’s even more amazing than the tool itself is the way in which these 17 cradle to career partnerships, along with leaders from the more than 25 partnerships involved in the vetting and revisions of the many Theory of Action drafts, the more than 350 participants in the 2012 Strive Cradle to Career Convening who put out the initial call for more rigor, and the Network as a whole has really rallied around a new movement – a movement toward quality. Network members have provided stories, examples, feedback, and advice. They have struggled, innovated, failed forward and been willing to share it all so that others can learn. And now they are committing to quality and taking on a rigorous approach to lead to impact. And when all is said and done and outcomes for kids from cradle to career begin to improve, this Network will have contributed something incredible for the field. I’m excited to be part of the movement.
There is so much we can learn from the recent indictments of so many administrators in the Atlanta public schools around scrubbing data. I would like to focus on just one: as long as we use data for punitive rather than constructive purposes we can expect to keep seeing these types of situations no matter how many people get thrown in jail. This by no means excuses the behavior. It is nothing short of abhorrent and, in the end, harms kids today and in their future. But if we ask ourselves what is underneath someone being motivated to act in such an irresponsible way, you could point to self-preservation. And if you point to self-preservation, it means people do not feel like they have the space to be transparent and honest about results for fear of unreasonable repercussions.
We talk a lot about creating a culture of Failing Forward in the communities we are working with to achieve collective impact. The idea being that we need to ensure those serving children feel like they are allowed to share not just whether they succeeded or not, but what they have learned along the way – from success and failures – and how they are applying that learning. We often reference the practice at Google, which may actually be an urban myth, where they apparently give out regular awards to the staff who had the biggest failure. They actually celebrate what did not work and what was learned to ensure people are not afraid to be transparent and take risks. Now this is not to say we are encouraging folks to try just about anything and assume failure is okay. But if we have a disciplined process for using data, focusing on building on what works and innovating when necessary, we can create this culture of using data not just to prove what we do works, but to improve what we do every day.
I am more than dismayed by what happened in Atlanta. But I am also hopeful that by working to build cradle to career civic infrastructure where all the partners in a community begin to focus on using data more effectively each and every day to serve children to the absolute best of our abilities, we can create a culture that ensures people embrace learning rather than resorting to cheating.
Back in 2006 when we started the work in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky on The Strive Partnership, we came to the realization this work was in great part an engineering challenge as much as anything else. There were many moving parts and they all needed to be “corralled” in such a way that we could focus on what really gets results. About that time, GE Aviation offered to provide us with some basic training in their systems engineering process known as Six Sigma. It was very intimidating at first, but I quickly realized it was similar to the scientific method we all learned in fourth grade: it was fundamentally about agreeing on what you wanted to accomplish, landing collectively on how to measure results, and constantly learning through cycles of improvement.
I came to this realization because we were fortunate to be introduced to one of their trainers who had the unique ability to make the seemingly mundane interesting. He would use videos to help capture the concepts and get you out of your mental models about how to tackle complex problems. We were at a break and started to think about a good analogy for the type of work we were undertaking. One of the team came up with herding cats and we immediately Googled it. Turned out there was a super bowl commercial that captured this perfectly. We have since used it in many trainings as it seems to capture the heart of what the partnership and staff in particular face when taking on this work:
See video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pk7yqlTMvp8
I have been challenged many times on using this analogy for the work. I can understand why. There can be negative associations, as the context in which the analogy is used is not always flattering. For example, on my worst days at home as a parent, I have felt like I may not be doing such a good job at “herding the cats” in the form of our two sets of twins.
Despite this, I have yet to come up with a better analogy and in the end it feels like it holds. I would go so far to say that using this analogy in our work to achieve collective impact is not actually negative at all. It is just the reality of what our system (or lack thereof) has produced. Those of us working on education or any other social issues have perverse incentives to work in silos. We are driven to compete with each other to get a grant or distinguish ourselves from others by highlighting our own strengths at the expense of others working on a common goal. In short, the landscape of supports we have to achieve social impact is the direct result of the systems and incentives we have created.
I would love to hear from you. What’s your take? Is this “herding cats” analogy worth using? Are there others that are better?
As we work with sites across the country to build cradle to career civic infrastructure, we are learning a great deal about how communities are overcoming both the adaptive issues that are so fundamentally critical for changing culture to align limited resources and the technical solutions for improving supports for children on the ground. Perhaps one of the most important technical issues is how to fund the critical staffing support needed for the backbone organizations. We have seen communities approach this in numerous ways and have boiled down some of those lessons in the attached white paper. In the end, this is a very real challenge. It is much easier to find funders to invest in programming directly serving children. But as noted in the paper, there are key messages and a value proposition that make it clear investments in limited infrastructure can have a major impact on student outcomes. We would welcome your input on the content and real-world examples from your work to inform this emerging white paper on this very challenging topic.
Read the white paper:Funding to Support Backbone Organization