Jeff Edmondson: Linking everyone who impacts a child's life

At Ballmer Group, we bring communities together to help give kids living in poverty in the United States a shot at moving up. Why?  While we look to the public sector to fund and provide support services, “Government is not equipped to make sure the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts,” Steve Ballmer noted recently. “We need a partnership to get to a common understanding of how to target resources to the most pressing challenges.”

I recently traveled with Connie and Steve Ballmer and several colleagues to visit cradle-to-career partnerships in Spartanburg, SC and Memphis, TN to get a better understanding of what it takes to drive real improvements for kids and families. 

We came away from discussions with key community leaders, practitioners, advocates, and families in these communities with a host of interesting insights, but one stood out as particularly critical:  These partnerships work best when they are held together by an organization that serves as the backbone linking together everyone who can have an impact on a child’s life.  This insight is not a surprise, since it is a key element to achieving collective impact.  But the skills and competencies these small teams have refined over time are simply game changing when done well. 

At the absolute simplest level, this backbone organization must do the following with excellence:

·       Bring people together to set common goals and hold shared accountability for real results - not just talk

·       Bring the data together to understand progress on the goals and to identify and build on what actually works

·       Bring resources together – time, talent, and treasure – to support, improve, and scale what works to give children and families a shot at moving up the economic ladder

And while all three of these roles are important and mutually dependent for success, what stood out on this trip is the centrality of data across the work of a backbone or intermediary organization:

·       The primary long-term role of the backbone is to coach on how data is collected and utilized to practice continuous improvement.  Data is often used in the social sector and with public agencies to play “gotcha.”  The backbone entities supporting the partnerships never do this.  They act in a neutral role to “build the civic muscle” to use data on an ongoing basis to inform the everyday work of partners like school districts and nonprofits.  As one local district superintendent put it after working for years with the backbone team at Spartanburg Academic Movement, “We now have trust with the staff at the intermediary so we know that the data won’t be used to shame us.  Now we’re focused on kids, not fear.”   

·       A key part of this coaching is knowing how to ask the right questions to collect the right data.  The truth of the matter is that there is a glut of data being collected in the social sector.  The real challenge is making sure the data is useful.  In Memphis, we heard about data being collected so intentionally in one high-quality childcare center that it was used weekly to make changes to teacher practice.  The backbone team can work with other similar centers to sure this is done on an ongoing basis in across the community. 

·       Coaches must also lift up those who question assumptions to find real solutions.  It would be easy to assume that extending the school day would improve student performance.  But as another superintendent in Spartanburg noted, “At first, we thought that if we kept kids after school, fed them, and offered some tutoring, we’d see better test scores.  We did not.  Then we thought we’d get new software, which would translate to better outcomes.  But outcomes did not improve again.  Continuous improvement rapid-cycle tests to evaluate changes helped us look harder.  Now we understand it is a mix of all these factors, along with social/emotional issues and transiency.” As a result, the districts are not only working on academic improvement and enrichment, but also housing and social service alignment.  In our eyes, these partners are rock stars for challenging commonly held beliefs and finding impactful solutions. 

The bottom line: these partnerships are critical to tackling complex social challenges, but they need highly skilled and adequately resourced backbone staff to do it. 

Any community serious about giving every child and family a fair shot needs to ensure that the best leaders and facilitators they can find are focused on bringing the right people, data, and resources together and making decisions based on data. This is why Spartanburg, Memphis, and so many other communities across the country pioneering this work are making an impact.