“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.

Young people have always been at the forefront of social change.

It’s not uncommon today to see examples of young adults joining together to take a stand for social causes, pleading with politicians and driving public policy. There are marches, protests, sit-ins and walkouts — chances are you have participated in or at least witnessed this.

The discussion at the February edition of United Way of Greater Atlanta’s InForum series at The Gathering Spot in West Atlanta focused on the power of youth organizing, and how it is being used across the country to create better outcomes for youth and their communities.

United Way’s Katrina Mitchell drove the conversation Wednesday morning highlighting examples of youth activism — the Selma march, Vietnam War protests and then modern movements like Black Lives Matters and marches organized by survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting.

Many great social movements have been powered by youth activism, she says.“How would this country be different without the power of young people?” Mitchell says. “How could it be different if young people had not pushed for change?”

Eric Braxton, of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, has played a part in creating new initiatives and new projects for youth to create meaningful social change. He also works to raise awareness about the power young people have.

Braxton said he had been working for FCYO for eight years in a role providing resources to young people to help promote social change.

He said youth have always been at “the forefront of mobilizing and sustaining” social movements.

“Youth organizing is not new,” he said. “Whether it was the civil rights movement or the labor movement, young people have always been at the forefront for struggles of social justice in this country.”

He said this was because young people had “an inherent sense of justice and willingness to stand up for what they believe in.”

In the 90s, there was a new wave of community organizing that spread across the country, he said. Young people had marched for social movements, education and justice reform to end institutional oppression.

This is work that continues today, says Manuela Arciniegas, interim director of the Andrus Family Fund.

“[The Andrus Family Fund is] committed to fostering justice and sustainable change in the United States,” Arciniegas said. “We have a specific focus on advancing outcomes of vulnerable youth and advancing social justice.”

The “vulnerable youth” they refer to are those age 16-24 who are products foster care or the juvenile justice system, according to Arciniegas.

Her organization has partnered with groups who have “successfully closed youth prisons” in multiple states. Through the Andrus Family Fund, Arciniegas identifies young people who have been compromised by systems that may not have always had their best interests at heart.

As a result, young people are thrown into a world without connections to positive supports or services. The Andrus Family Fund helps connect young people to “caring communities, proven services and vital skills that they so sorely missed earlier in their lives.”

“We provide multi-use support, and we leverage our grants by partnering with other foundations,” Arciniegas said.

By organizing young people, you can develop leaders while engaging with your community. This impacts the individual as well as the community and society as a whole, Braxton says.

“This prepares young people to be participants and leaders in a Democratic society,” he said.

Emery Wright, co-director of Project South, spoke about the history of youth activism in the South. He said Project South was founded in 1986 to be a leadership development organization.

“A lot of the work of Project South can really be summed up with a quote by Fannie Lou Hamer, a great civil rights activist who said, ‘Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,’” Wright said. “That’s an easy statement to say, but hard to put into practice.”

Project South spreads this message locally, across the 13 Southern states of the U.S. and globally.

“About 20 years ago, we really started to engage this question of youth leadership development and youth organizing,” Wright said. “We started doing this work right around 1999-2000… and a lot of the [youth organization] was happening on the [East and West Coast], and in the South that energy wasn’t taking place.”

He said Project South has a goal to “build strong, powerful movements.”

“We saw that there was something to the power and potential of youth leadership,” he said. “We knew if we don’t have youth involved, then we’re going to have a big missing ingredient.”

Wright said the power of this youth perspective came to light about 50 years ago. He said this was when a “major turning point in youth culture happened here in the U.S. South,” referring to college students in North Carolina who held the first sit-in. He said this spread like wildfire and introduced people to a “whole new type of non-violent demonstration.”

He said that Southerners had a “proud legacy of youth leadership and youth development,” which has inspired the rest of the world.

Arciniegas agreed with Wright. She said people should continue to follow the examples of young people as they press for more change.

“Dream, Atlanta, dream,” Arciniegas says. “And follow the young people because they will take you there. Youth organizing is the strategy that allows things to happen.”

There are a lot of complex needs in the Greater Atlanta region.

In a room full of nonprofit practitioners at the January edition of United Way of Greater Atlanta’s InForum series, those issues were brought to light for a deeper discussion and dive into how we tackle those problems and address those needs.

There was a common pattern among those in attendance: Everybody wants to serve this community.

“The underlying theme is that all of us want to serve,” said Suganthi Simon, the Westside Program Officer for the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. “But we want to address multiple issues. If we are all serving them, then how do we serve people in the right way?”

The discussion Thursday at the Gathering Spot in West Atlanta centered around finding ways to override the current trend across Atlanta and the South as a whole. How do we reverse a lifetime of generational poverty and find innovative ways to improve economic mobility for Atlanta residents?

Well, for a start, you have to make it easier to access services. The talk focused on ways to deliver integrated services to the people that need them most. They focused on ways to remove barriers standing in the ways of families and children from receiving services.

Our partnerships are crucial in ensuring that success, Milton J. Little, CEO of United Way of Greater Atlanta, said.

“We should all feel a responsibility to embrace these partnerships to make sure that we all succeed,” said Little. “It’s going to take us all working together, finding things that I do well and you do well so we can serve everyone.”

Ralph Gildehaus, senior program director of MDC Inc, in Durham, North Carolina, works with communities to design support systems for connecting populations with support services.

MDC has partnered with United Way of Greater Greensboro and community stakeholders across Guilford County, North Carolina, to build a technology-based network to deliver integrated services to connect low-income households with resources.

“We have to build what we call our infrastructure of opportunity,” Gildehaus says.

He said change in a community happens when “leadership, culture and systems” intersect with each other. In order to improve the economic mobility of a community, we need to “change the perspective,” and change the conversation.

MDC looked at ways to change habits that affect a system and change the expected outcome. For example, they focused on implementing ways to have every high school student in Guilford County complete a form for Federal Student Aid.

“The intention was a systems change,” he said. “Every student completed a FAFSA form and sent an application to at least one college. As a result of that, more and more students are going to college.”

There were other examples of finding ways to consolidate services for families and people with low income in the community. What they found was that people needed “stabilization and better preparation” for work, health and income services.

MDC recently developed the Integrated Services Delivery Network model to reduce poverty, improve social determinants of health and advance family economic success. But, this is only possible through collaboration.

The Rev. John R. Moeller, Jr. is CEO of Inspiritus, is a nonprofit in Atlanta that serves adults with disabilities, children, refugees and victims of natural disasters.

Moeller said Inspiritus created a Financial Opportunity Center, which brings income supports to help families “beyond basic budgeting.” In the past 18 months, his organization was able to serve victims of three different hurricanes.

Inspiritus also offers services to homeless youth in a “Youth Post-Home” program where they are able to place young adults in a home with families for up to nine months where they “receive integrated services.”

While Gildehaus’ office worked to develop a system of integrated services, Moeller and his office worked on the frontlines to provide those human services.

In Simon’s work with the Westside Program, it was a way at looking how to do both. She said the building of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium sparked a catalyst for conversation on how to address the needs of the Westside.

“We had to unravel some of the pieces put in place that establish the systems that we see,” Simon says.

The Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund works with residents and partners to leverage resources and programs in Atlanta’s historic Westside neighborhood.

Simon manages the implementation of collaborative strategies in health, economic inclusion, safety and security and civic empowerment an engagement. Her work looks at breaking the bonds of intergenerational poverty for Westside residents.

Atlanta as a whole is a city that is thriving, but it has the lowest opportunity for economic mobility of any other city in the United States. That means that people born into poverty are not given the chances to move out of it, and while there’s access to jobs, there’s no knowledge of how to obtain those jobs.

But, through access to these services, and by changing the conversation, we’re able to hopefully reverse this fact.

“Communities are experiencing issues on a much larger scale,” Gildehaus said. “We need to take an approach that we can implement across the community. The public sector and nonprofits need to work together to promote these integrated services.”