Jeff Edmondson on Creating Collective Impact to Support Kids
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Ballmer Group Managing Director Jeff Edmondson leads the philanthropic organization’s efforts to deploy data-driven, innovative and scalable strategies that promote economic mobility and a brighter future for kids and their families. He is the founder and former executive director of StriveTogether, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering community partners to advance common goals that help every child thrive from cradle to career.
Our hope is that, over time, we can start showing communities how they can stop pointing just at early childhood centers, or just at school systems…and start to own the role that they play.
As the founder and executive director of StriveTogether, Jeff Edmondson built a network of communities — now 73 strong and counting — committed to using collective impact to support the academic success of every child.
Casey’s Lisa Hamilton asks Edmondson—a thought leader on collective impact—about his time at StriveTogether. They discuss the lessons that Edmondson learned during his 12 years at the nonprofit’s helm, including the art of falling forward and the benefits of starting small.
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Lisa Hamilton: Welcome to CaseyCast, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's podcast. I'm Lisa Hamilton, vice president of external affairs at the Foundation, and I'm so glad you've joined us for a hopefully inspiring and interesting conversation. The Casey Foundation focuses on giving kids what they need, strong families, vibrant communities and financial stability. In these efforts, the foundation is fortunate to work with innovators who advance solutions to help kids thrive. Each month, we'll bring you an in-depth conversation with one of these experts, right here on CaseyCast.
Improving outcomes for kids takes the energy of people with the skills, persistence, and experience to work together to untangle complex problems. For this reason, the Casey Foundation works to develop leaders including today's guest, who have the capacity lasting change for kids and families. Today, I am thrilled to welcome Jeff Edmonson to the podcast. Jeff has spent his career jump starting collaborations to achieve better results for children, and has become a thought leader on scaling for impact.
As the Founder of StriveTogether, Jeff Edmonson is dedicated to bringing community partners together to support the success of every child from cradle to career. StriveTogether emerged from a flagship partnership in Cincinnati and has grown under Jeff's leadership into a national non-profit network that now reaches eight million children across 31 states. Welcome, Jeff.
Jeff Edmonson: I'm really looking forward to the discussion.
Lisa Hamilton: Great. Well, why don't we start by having you explain the work of StriveTogether and what its communities do for those who might not be familiar with your organization?
Jeff Edmonson: Great. So, StriveTogether is a network now of actually, as of today, 73 communities across the country. All those communities have cross-sector partners from the education, business, nonprofit, philanthropic and civic sectors, who've come together around two things. Number one, they've all agreed that there's six core outcomes that they need to see improved consistently over time. In essence, if you think about in the health sector, your vital sign is your pulse. In education, these six outcomes would be considered the vital signs of a community's educational health.
Those are kindergarten readiness, early grade reading, middle grade math, high school graduation, college entrance, and degree completion. All the 73 communities have agreed to collect data on those outcomes, at least annually, disaggregate the data, and set targets. That's the first thing, all 73 communities have embraced those outcomes.
The second thing is that they're all using a common methodology. It is something we call the "theory of action." If you want to go to our website, StriveTogether.org, you can find it. Every single community, all 73 are assessed annually on where they stand within that methodology, getting towards systems change.
Our goal is that we would have more and more communities that see at least four of those six outcomes continually trending in the right direction. Our hope is that over time, in all 73 of those communities, but also beyond that, we can start showing communities how they can stop pointing just at early childhood centers, or just at school systems, or just at higher ed systems, that are all critical players, but stop blaming them for any educational shortcomings we may have and start to own the role that they play, each individual.
Whether they're a philanthropist, or a non-profit, or a social service provider, or a community advocate. Everybody has a role to play, and that we would start to see communities starting to take accountability and accepting responsibility for how they can collectively move towards results.
Lisa Hamilton: Jeff, this is so exciting to hear that so many communities around the country are thinking of ways that they can work collectively. In fact, you've become an author and thought leader around this issue of collective impact. Could you explain a bit about what collective impact is, different from collaboration and what do you think has sparked new approach to solving problems facing our kids?
Jeff Edmonson: Yeah, it's a great question, and we get asked it a lot. We would say that there's four key differences between collaboration and collective impact, and I want to say that collaboration is very appropriate and impactful at certain times.
The four differences are that partners are not coming together around a specific program or initiative. They're coming together around measurable outcomes. But the community is coming together to say, "We're not necessarily looking to do something new right away, we're not necessarily looking for money right now. We are looking to improve a specific outcome and figure out how we could do that collectively."
The second difference is that you're not using data to just prove things. Doing a long term evaluation, for example, you may still do that, but you would also be using data to improve things. Data is being used as Aimee Guidera of the Data Quality Campaign said, data is being used as a flashlight instead of a hammer. You're actually uncovering what works and then organizing the community around what already works, in order to build on those successes. Then, where there's clear outages, you may innovate, but you're starting by using data as that flashlight to uncover and build on what works.
The third difference is that in collaboration, it's often people coming together and adding one more thing to their plate. With collective impact, whether it's teachers or program providers, or philanthropists, or corporate partners, everybody should be getting data to inform what they do every day differently, instead of it being one more thing on top of everything else. Once again, using data as a flashlight to say, "Hey, this works. How does that apply or inform your work every day, not adding that one more item to your to-do list?"
Then last but not least, when you're really clicking on collective impact, when you're really moving, you're not just advocating for things that may have worked in another community, you're actually able to speak with authority, with confidence, on what is working in your own community.
Those are really the four key differences. Organizing the community around outcomes, using data as a flashlight, making sure you're changing what you do every day, not adding one more thing on top of everything else, and then knowing and being able to spread what works in your own hometown.
Lisa Hamilton: How do you think that communities realize they needed to be doing something different, and what role does StriveTogether as an organization play in serving as the glue for this process?
Jeff Edmonson: I think across the country, you're starting to see people say, "Okay, we can be frustrated with the status quo, but if we're just talking with each other and coordinating the things that we're already doing better, that's one step." But if we don't get more intentional and more purposeful about actually potentially refining what we're doing individually, and acting in a more purposeful way collectively, we may not see those changes, because we're really just doing what we're already doing, we're just doing it in a more aligned and coordinated way.
I think there was just a general frustration with the status quo and the communities are starting to see that we need to approach things in a much more intentional way. Our role at StriveTogether is we typically, we have communities call us up. It could be the mayor, it could be a superintendent, it could be a philanthropist, a corporate leader, a community advocate, a grassroots advocate, that just says, "I'm sensing this frustration. I'm sensing that traditional collaboration as it's been defined isn't getting us where we want to go, and there seems to be some energy around this more purposeful alignment." That's really where the theory of action that I described comes in, because it gives a roadmap. It's not a model, it's not a one size fits all technical set of steps.
But it gives a framework within which a community can start to organize itself, and actually move towards this aspirational collective impact. Because quite frankly, a lot of the stuff that people are talking about as collective impact nationally is really just collaboration. But I think the theory of action captures in many ways the differences and the key steps that are needed in order to get to this really intentional, purposeful way of working together. If a community ends up using that theory of action to guide their work, they can then become a member of the network and that's where you benefit from learning across a host of organizations, all 73 across the country, about what they're doing to navigate the many pitfalls of this work.
Lisa Hamilton: So how are you seeing communities operate differently on the ground? How are they shifting their services or programs in order to achieve these results?
Jeff Edmonson: Yeah, so I think probably our biggest lesson, and we talk a lot about failing forward in this work, of collective impact at the community level, there are a lot of mistakes that are made. I think the number one mistake we made actually was something the health sector has known for years, because they've been using data in this rigorous way to inform practice for a lot longer than we have. Essentially that lesson is that you have to start small to have impact at scale. Essentially, when I was the leader of the Cradle to Career partnership in Cincinnati, we wanted to do everything big.
We wanted to, for example, create career plans for every single kid in the district, or we wanted to make sure that from day one, that every single early childhood center had a quality, prepared teacher. But we didn't have a mechanism to do it, so when we made the announcement, we couldn't make it happen. I think what we've learned in this work is that you always need to focus on a result. Whether it's kindergarten readiness or college enrollment, and then you have to actually start small but rapidly, not annually, rapidly, week to week, month to month, improve upon your practices.
In Cincinnati, Ohio, they looked at the local data and they saw that having a certified teacher and a low student/teacher ratio was dramatically or led to dramatically better results for kids entering kindergarten, right? Just exponentially better results when the kids, especially low income kids, were in a quality early childhood environment with a certified teacher, and a low student/teacher ratio. They, over time, through the work of our local United Way, gradually expanded the number of centers that had those certified teachers.
They were able to constantly assess what was it about those teachers that made the difference, what was it about the low student/teacher ratio. We developed a methodology locally, and I say we, just as a member of the community, but all these key partners worked together to figure out how to certify teachers. Eventually, the school district said, "As part of a tax levy, we will hold aside 15 million of 48 million to support quality early childhood centers that meet the standard that we know works for kids." Here you had a school district that itself needs resources saying, "We'll set aside $15 million" that may not even come to the district. It may go to non-profit quality preschools, it may go to other social services that operate quality preschools.
Lisa Hamilton: So it sounds like starting small is a huge takeaway you've had about how to achieve results at scale. Have their been other lessons learned about how to scale what works?
Jeff Edmonson: Absolutely. I think the biggest one other than that would be when people read the original collective impact article that was in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which was an incredibly powerful article, but as tell everybody, was a sanitized version of reality. Because it just, the way it was described in Cincinnati, it made it feel like everybody was singing Kumbaya and agreeing with each other, when every day there was conflict. The biggest thing was that from that article, it talked about a backbone organization.
A lot of communities have tried to do collective impact where they hire four or five staff to be that backbone organization and they figure that those four or five staff are somehow going to individually as a group, as four or five people, achieve collective impact. The biggest thing we've learned is that that can't happen. The role of those four or five staff are not to do collective impact. The role of those four or five staff are to lift up what works and then work with individual partners to change their everyday behavior.
We've adopted what the Annie Casey Foundation has developed and called the "results based leadership." One of the core ethics in that is that you have to give the work back to the group. When you decide you want to improve kindergarten readiness, again, the role of the four or five staff isn't to somehow magically find the perfect intervention that's going to improve kindergarten readiness. The role of the staff is to say, "Hey partners, we know having a certified teacher works. What is your role? What is the role of the district? What is the role of the non-profit? What is the role of the philanthropist? What is the role of the public official? What is the role of the corporate partner?
If you look at the backbone staff alone as if they're going to make collective impact happen, you're quite frankly never going to see the results improved. One of the articles we wrote was called "The Irony of Collective Impact" and essentially the irony is that it depends more on the individual's change in behavior than it does in the collective working together.
That's often very hard for people to understand because they really do just want some sort of magic bullet that's going to make everything better.
Lisa Hamilton: That's fascinating. You mentioned the foundation's results based leadership approach, and you've worked to embed that within your organization. Could you say a bit more about what the impact of that has been and why you think it has improved the way that you do your work?
Jeff Edmonson: Yeah. I mean, the word transformative is thrown out there all the time, but I just have to say to you that it truly has been transformative. The first step on that journey was I was a part of the Annie Casey Foundation's Family and Children Fellowship. I learned about results based leadership, and quite frankly I didn't embrace it. It seemed like a lot of jargon to me, didn't make a lot of sense. Then, about a year later we were working with a community that was struggling, that wasn't able to get passed talk to real action.
I was reflecting on my own work in Cincinnati where as the leader of the backbone team, we were doing most of the work, and most of the partners were showing up and telling us what to do. What I remembered was that concept of giving the work back to the group, of having a result, very clear, kindergarten readiness, early grade reading, putting it right up front in the room, and then asking the partners what their role is versus ours. I went back to the foundation and we ended up having a long conversation about how we could build a training for the communities to start giving the work back to the group, to start looking at data and really starting to challenge them to use that data to change their behavior.
That seemed to be going well but very quickly people started to say, "Okay, great, you're asking us to change our behavior. How is your organization modeling this?" Quite frankly, we had no moral authority to be asking communities to use data in this way if we weren't using it internally ourselves. We ended up training our entire staff in results based leadership, specifically results based facilitation, and in our organization now, everything we do, it all focuses on how does it connect to the six core outcomes moving? How does it connect to helping communities make progress in the theory of action? Everybody in the organization understands their role related to those two points, advancing communities in the theory of action, and improving those six outcomes.
Then, we collect data consistently and have regular meetings to review that data on the progress that's being made and our contribution to it. Having our staff fully trained up, we now have two people that are certified to do results based leadership training. We are also getting trained in continuous quality improvement, so that we have the skills, but again, the moral authority, because we're practicing internally continuous quality improvement, to really work with communities and have the experience to say, "We're trying to do the exact same thing that we're preaching.
I can just say that I quite frankly believe that collective impact movement, the success of it will depend on whether or not community partners actually embrace one, results, so holding themselves accountable for those results, and two, whether they embrace these competencies of using data for improvement of facing or leaning into equity conversations, and being able to navigate real solutions and interventions that get to the heart and the root of equity challenges.
Adaptive leadership, understanding the needs that communities have around changing their behavior every day, not just showing up at meetings. If we don't focus on these competencies and really build those, I don't think the collective impact movement itself will survive.
Lisa Hamilton: You talked a lot about the focus on data and how that has really improved your work internally, and that of your communities. What are the best practices you've learned about how organizations can focus on data collection and use, and what missteps do you see people making in that regard?
Jeff Edmonson: It's one of the key technical challenges in this, and I think the biggest misstep or maybe it's a misconception is that data collection is all about the technology tool, right?
A lot of communities have gotten enamored of paying for data aggregation systems that are really complex and they're waiting for that perfect data aggregator that will gather both programmatic data about delivery, so what type of tutoring has been delivered and how long has it been delivered, and what topic was covered. They want all that to be entered into a single data system that can then be connected to the result, and I want that too. That is what we need and I believe that we're going to get there within the next three to five years, that will exist, and we even tried to create something like that ourselves and we spent a considerable amount of time and energy on it.
But I think we need to let those things form. The key here is, again, starting small, starting slow, to understand what is the easiest outcome data to collect? It could be say early grade reading, and then what's the easiest contributing indicators that are connected to that? Something like attendance that you can get regularly, and then what are the five or six data points on your programmatic activities, not 200 data points, but what are the five or six data points on your programmatic activity that if you collected them, could actually inform taking a different action, right?
It could be how frequently are you reaching out to kids individually about attendance? What mechanisms? Is it telephone calls? Is it visits to their house? What programmatic data could be collected that could then inform action? It really does go back to that lesson of starting small to go fast and finding ways to collect data on your outcomes, on contributing indicators, but most importantly, collecting relevant data on your programmatic delivery and not a lot of data points, just a few, to make sure that you're actually able to inform action.
Lisa Hamilton: You mentioned in an earlier answer about commitment to racial equity and how data can help organizations think about how to develop solutions. Could you talk a little about the challenge and maybe the issues you've had in trying to address racial equity with communities?
Jeff Edmonson: Yeah. Our network is likely going to be focused. We've had a five year goal of establishing what we called "five proof point communities" by October of 2018. Those are communities that see four of those six outcomes I mentioned earlier, improving, and have evidence of systems change. That was great and I believe we're going to meet that goal in October of 2018. I think our next five year goal, based on all of the feedback from the network that we've been getting over the last three years, about where they want to go, it's going to be not only are those outcomes improving consistently, but our disparity's closing.
Are we able to actually see all boats rise as a result of our work and make sure that the most vulnerable children in particular, low income, minority students often, are seeing their results improve? First and foremost, that takes the courage to disaggregate data and set targets not just in the aggregates, so not just for everybody in early grade reading, but to set targets for those populations that may be further behind and that we know we need to focus on. That may mean that for African American boys, if we're at 25% at a community, there needs to be an aggressive goal set for those kids that may be different than the population as a whole, and calling that out.
Then, once you call that out, then you have to be able to navigate questions of what works for in that case, African American boys, and how are resources going to be allocated differently? There's one, many of your listeners may have heard this, the difference between equality and equity, and equality being in many cases it's that peanut butter approach that I talked about, everybody getting the same thing. Equity means that you may have to have discussions of certain kids getting more resources or more investment than other kids based on the challenges that they face.
There are a set of competencies that are a part of results based leadership that individuals can learn where you are able to help communities navigate those conversations so that when they are thinking about what they want to focus on, what they want to prioritize, they hopefully and in many cases we have seen are, willing to take a differentiated approach where they make have some strategies for the whole population, but other strategies for specific populations in order to see not only again, those outcomes improved, but disparities close. It's those competencies of using data to help communities both confront and then act differently based on the disparities that they see, those are some of the competencies that again I think will really determine whether this whole collective impact movement survives.
Lisa Hamilton: Thank you. What's interesting, one of the interesting elements about StriveTogether is that you have a notion of Cradle to Career, which we know crosses very different systems, early childhood programs and then a K through 12 public education, and then higher education. How are you seeing the links improve between those different systems in order to really accomplish this vision of a Cradle to Career opportunity for young people?
Jeff Edmonson: Yeah, it's a great question. Honestly, I think a lot of people when they think about education, they immediately go to K12, and that there's so many systemic challenges within K12 systems that people seemed to feel overwhelmed. I think if you look at the higher ed system, you can see equally as many challenges in how it's structured, whether it's fully customer centric, meaning are the kids, particularly the most vulnerable, is it viewed as the responsibility of the higher ed institution to meet them where they are to help them succeed or not?
There's challenges both within each of those systems and in connecting them in order to ease the transitions. I think the most exciting work that we see is where communities are starting to identify their high demand career sectors. It could be health. It could be advanced manufacturing or technology. Could be construction. Whatever those high demand careers may be, they're starting to help students earlier on map out what the path is to take advantage of high demand career opportunities.
They're not tracking them but they're actually connecting their coursework in K12 to an area of interest where there is high opportunities, so that it's not learning from learning's sake alone. It's connected to something that could be more relevant to their lives, and then they're going a step further and actually mapping out what is the pathway in higher ed to get to that career if they're interested, so that they begin to think not of higher ed as a right of passage alone, which in many cases it is, but it's a path to somewhere.
When you start to think about it that way, the gap between K12 and higher ed starts to disappear and you can often see community colleges in particular, but sometimes universities offering courses in high schools, where you're actually able to see the kids very easily transition. The problem of summer melt, when kids apply to college as a senior, they get accepted but don't show up. That goes away because they're actually already habituated to college in their high school years and it's just a lot easier to make that transition.
We're starting to see that and I think as the data emerges from communities around whether that does actually lead to improved not only enrollment but retention and completion rates, hopefully we'll start to see a lot more of this blending across the two systems that makes sure that they're operating in a very student centered or customer centered way where they are meeting kids where they are by helping them connect their learning to areas of interest, and simultaneously helping them to potentially land early in their career in career sectors where there's real opportunity.
Lisa Hamilton: Great. Well, I tell you, you do have a really unique perch of seeing communities come together to focus on improving educational outcomes for kids at a time when so many people are questioning the effectiveness of our public schools and access to higher education. What gives you hope that we can really create real opportunity for all kids so that they can succeed?
Jeff Edmonson: That's a great question. What gives me hope is one, the staff that we have at StriveTogether. They are amazing, and they are so student oriented to help make sure that the communities are succeeding. That's one thing. The other thing that gives me hope is the work that the communities are doing. We recently had our annual convening where we bring together all our now 73 communities together, we bring teams, and everybody came together and we created a huge data walk. Where in the ballroom instead of it being empty walls that are very nice because all the conference centers are gorgeous, we actually were able to put on the walls examples from all over the country, like those that I mentioned in Cincinnati where they found early childhood practices that work.
We had over a dozen examples of that sort where communities had pinpointed locally practices that worked and then found creative ways, using existing resources, and in some cases new, to spread those practices.
I mean, it is unbelievable to see just the tenacity and perseverance of the communities, and how they are using data as a flashlight, as I said before, to really build on what works for kids.
Lisa Hamilton: That's fantastic. Well, I am certainly excited to see what continues to evolve at Strive. I know that you recently have made the decision to leave Strive to play a leadership role in the newly formed Ballmer Group. That's a terribly exciting opportunity and so we are all looking forward to what you will accomplish in this new role. So, thank you so much for your leadership at Strive, and thanks so much for joining us today. Congratulations.
Jeff Edmonson: Thank you very much and I just want to say one, how much we've appreciated the opportunity to learn with you and your team over the years. This is really messy work and I think if anything that's been exemplified, it's that learning stance, that willingness to fail forward, and I hope that others in the relationships, with investors and with practitioners, will model that same willingness to allow communities and partners to make mistakes but not just make mistakes and dwell on them, but improve. It's just been a great journey and I'm looking forward to continuing that in work with communities in the years to come.
Lisa Hamilton: Fantastic. We have deeply enjoyed the partnership as well, Jeff. All the best.
Jeff Edmonson: Thank you very much.
Lisa Hamilton: And I want to thank our listeners for joining, as well. If you've enjoyed today's conversation, please rate our podcast on Apple to help others find us. You can also ask questions and leave us feedback on Twitter using the #CaseyCast hashtag. To learn more about Casey and find notes for today's show, visit us online at AECF.org/podcast. Follow the Casey Foundation on Twitter, @AECFNews. Until next time, I wish all of America's kids and all of you a bright future.