Two years ago this month, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline arrested me: “State’s Black Fourth-Graders Post Worst Reading Scores in U.S.” Immediately, I reflected on all the work I’d seen in the last two decades to help our kids. I thought of the massive growth of youth development and after-school programs, the countless hours invested in reforming public education, and the expansion of charter and choice schools.
Many of these same organizations and efforts have claimed to be achieving great outcomes for children. Some have even won awards for their outcomes. Yet, how can we have so many programs and initiatives meeting outcomes and still have the worst reading scores in the country for African American children?
Two years ago, I had just worked on the issue of social innovation for President Obama’s campaign and the Obama-Biden Transition Team (both as a private volunteer). I strongly believed we needed more innovative and effective organizations and programs, and that the nonprofit sector needed better management and use of data to drive decisions and impact. I especially agreed that we needed more philanthropists to invest in building enterprises that could innovate and scale their innovations (through general operating grants tied to measurable strategic growth goals with management support).
I also felt we should allow competition for public funding and enable groups that can more effectively (and at times efficiently) meet impact goals win. I still hold these beliefs today.
But the focus on social innovation has been incomplete. It makes a particular nonprofit or program the unit of analysis. It often assumes linear causality between an intervention and an outcome in communities where issues and obstacles are inter-related. And it neglects the fact that short-term outcome achievement can be lost when new sets of obstacles or challenges arise later.
Also, outcome results can be skewed when groups work with less risky populations, or when multiple groups claim the same person as their outcome (I was once claimed as an outcome by five different service efforts!)
When I was invited to join the White House Council on Community Solutions and we began thinking of how we could have impact, I felt that rather than starting – as groups often do – with finding great programs and scaling them, we should instead look at where communities have successfully moved the needle. By “moving the needle,” I mean increasing reading scores by 20%, decreasing teen pregnancy by 50%, or increasing graduation rates 30% for a whole city. I then thought of another Milwaukee example. A few years ago a collaborative effort led by the United Way and the Milwaukee City Health Department succeeded in reducing what was the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country to one that’s on track to dipping below the national average by 2015.
Shortly after this first discussion, Mark Kramer and John Kania of the Foundation Strategy Group authored their seminal Collective Impact article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. This paper validated my interest in this way of looking at communities. For my book “Everyone Leads,” I had already interviewed Jeff Edmondson and Public Allies alumna Khalilah Slater-Harrington from the Strive Project in Cincinnati, which they held up as a model of collective impact.
With the support of White House Council Chair Patty Stonesifer and the partnership of Michele Jolin – and with the support of a great team at The Bridgespan Group – we began researching these collaborative efforts. We defined “needle-moving” as those that resulted in a 10 point or more change in an aggregate, community-wide measure. We visited groups, honed in on research, convened the best practitioners, and created from that work a white paper, a toolkit and case studies that are available on the White House Council and The Bridgespan Group websites.
After visiting with United Way CEO Brian Gallagher at an Independent Sector board meeting, we also forged a partnership with the United Way to convene more than 30 community conversations across the country this Spring to seed more of these collective impact efforts, especially for disconnected youth – the 6.7 million young people now out of school and unemployed across the country.
This is promising work, and I hope it will have influence on the sector. Yes, we need social innovation to build better and more effective programs to solve problems. But it is not sufficient. As my colleague John Bridgeland said at a Jan. 5 White House event, the reason we have so many disconnected youth is that the services and supports are disconnected, too. I believe that it is not just effective programs that are needed, but systems of interconnected effective programs.
The solution is not about building strong organizations but strong communities, and no one can do that alone.
– By Paul Schmitz, Public Allies CEO, author of “Everyone Leads” & member of the White House Council for Community Solutions
Read more about our White House Council effort on Needle Moving Collaboratives in this Chronicle of Philanthropy article (requires log-in).