11-25-2019 · InForum Series

“Experience leads to knowledge, knowledge leads to attitude, attitudes lead to behaviors and behaviors lead to results,” says Milton J. Little, Jr., president and CEO of United Way of Greater Atlanta.

Little uses this quote to introduce the October InForum breakfast. InForum is an ongoing series of community conversations convened by United Way of Greater Atlanta. It brings nonprofit, corporate, philanthropic and civic partners together to talk about the issues the Greater Atlanta community faces and how it is that, collaboratively, the community can address them.

“We set ourselves the very ambitious goal of improving the well-being of 250,000 children over the next 10 years,” says Little. “To do so, we need solutions designed to tackle multiple and inter-related challenges that people face.”

The goal Little refers to is that of the Child Well-Being Movement, which has been the guiding force of United Way of Greater Atlanta’s work for the past two years.

When the Movement began in 2017, United Way of Greater Atlanta recognized that its desire to make an impact in the community and improve the lives of so many children needed to be met with an ability to measure and maintain how their work made a difference.

That’s why, alongside dozens of community partners, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emory University and the Atlanta Regional Commission, United Way of Greater Atlanta developed the Child Well-Being Index. The Index informs the organization of what communities are in greatest need by using a set of 14 measures that determine the level of opportunity and resources present in any given zip code.

Some of those measures include rates of low-weight births, percent of children reading at a third-grade level and the percent of families who are not financially stable. These metrics act as a barometer for understanding whether children living in a certain community are primed for success or failure – whether they have the opportunities and resources they need to thrive.

It’s not common that the problems of a child are an isolated incident. There are typically other “inter-related challenges” the child’s community and family face, hence Little’s call for solutions that can tackle multiple issues at once.

For the October InForum, the speakers are principally concerned with evaluation – namely, how we can approach large systems change work like Child Well-Being and apply evaluation frameworks that measure changes when solving for complex, inter-locking challenges.

“If we’re being honest, there is a huge disconnect between what we’re accomplishing and the promise of evaluation,” says Kelci Price, senior director of learning and evaluation at the Colorado Health Foundation. “Evaluation was not created for how we try to use it today.”

Price’s opening remarks speak to the need to disrupt the field of evaluation – a practice that was originally designed to test the impact and effectiveness of stand-alone programs in stable environments.

Social innovation work, like what United Way of Greater Atlanta focuses on through Child Well-Being, deals with complex issues in the community, where variables and contexts are ever-changing. That level of complexity is too much for the methodologies and frameworks of traditional evaluation to keep up with. As a result, social innovators are left without the tools they need to evaluate their work effectively.

“As a field,” Price states, “we’re not shifting fast enough because we’re too stuck in old mindsets.”

To change those mindsets, Price suggests social innovators cultivate a culture of learning instead of attempting to replicate those dated evaluation models.

“It feels like we’ve forgotten that learning is not what comes from measurements and indicators and metrics,” says Price. “To learn, we have to wrestle with the evidence.”

Price says collecting data isn’t good enough. Organizations have to grapple with the data they have collected, pay attention to the context it is collected in and generate solutions that are well-informed and as multi-faceted as the problems they face.

To do so, Price calls for an “emergent learning framework.” Through this framework, social innovators are encouraged to learn through intentional, iterative and ongoing experiments, which are more responsive to variables of change in the community.

Mark Cabaj, president of Here to There and associate at the Tamarack Institute, kicked off the second half of the breakfast by asserting that evaluation is constantly “playing catch-up” to the work of social innovators.

“I didn’t start as an evaluator,” says Cabaj. “I started as a strategist who desperately wanted better evaluation in my work.”

Over the past few decades, Cabaj’s prayers have started to receive answers. The field of evaluation has begun producing methodologies and frameworks designed to accommodate complex community change work.

One such framework, Multi-level Perspectives, guides systems change efforts by tracking four different actions simultaneously: supporting niche innovations, nudging systems, shifting culture and being responsive to changes in landscapes. This framework embraces the fact that complex community change efforts must bounce between perspectives, constantly adapting to its environment in a fluid, comprehensive manner.

Another framework, the Five Dimensions of Scaling, details how social innovators can scale a program to reach more people, change systems, make bigger impacts on culture, innovate with new solutions and build the capacity of a community to expand that work at scale.

And, while these frameworks have greatly improved evaluation in social innovation work, there are still shortcomings.

When working to address multi-layered challenges, Cabaj says there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all answer.” All frameworks for evaluation reveal an important finding, while distorting something else.

“I treat them like kaleidoscopes,” says Cabaj. “Put one on and see something, change it out and see something else.”

Regardless, both Price and Cabaj agree that it’s an exciting time to be involved in the evaluation space.

United Way of Greater Atlanta, driven by its Child Well-Being Movement, is taking up the call to pay attention to place and understand that its community change efforts will have to be as complex and adaptive as the community problems it is seeking to address. And by 2027, it is hoping those efforts will be enough improve the well-being of 250,000 children.

To contribute to those efforts and empower the work of United Way of Greater Atlanta, donate to the Child Well-Being Impact Fund today.