10/24/2012 02:56 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

'Disciplined' Adults Key to Kids' Success

In his Huffington Post blog, Peter Goodman gave one of the most eloquent and succinct renderings of the principle that guides Strive to get better educational outcomes: "Put concerned people in one room, agree upon statistically definable goals, and then coordinate action and spend the dollars to hit the targets."

This may sound like a familiar concept. Some could see it as traditional "collaboration." But there is a major point of differentiation between collaboration and what Strive has been looking to accomplish -- a concept that many people are now referring to as "collective impact." The difference is discipline. In this case, we mean the discipline to consistently use the growing body of education data to narrow our focus on what matters most and invest in what really works.

As Goodman notes in his blog post, it's not enough to meet with like-minded people. It's not even enough for everyone to agree on what needs to be done. In order to make real change, in order to make the kind of impact that produces the results we want, we need a new way of doing business. And based on what we've learned in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and through connecting with over 150 other sites across the country, we see this new way of doing business as building the civic infrastructure.

In our focus area of education, civic infrastructure can be defined as the disciplined organization of all the moving pieces in a community that impact a child, and their family, in a way that more effectively gets kids from birth into a meaningful career. Like the physical infrastructure of a city, the civic infrastructure has several critical components:

  • Shared Community Vision consists of bringing together a broad array of partners around a unified vision and goals. The partners include people at every level (grass roots and grass tops) and across all sectors of the community (education, business, philanthropic, non-profit, and civic) who commit to holding each other individually and collectively accountable for results.
  • Evidence Based Decision Making includes agreeing on which high-level data points a community wants to commit to moving over the long-term. This also includes setting concrete targets related to each data point, prioritizing where to focus our time and energy, and identifying roles and responsibilities each partner can play to make improvements.
  • Collaborative Action consists of bringing together service providers to work together more efficiently and effectively, using data to identify what practices within their area of work have impact and how they can collectively work together to keep improving.
  • Investment & Sustainability involves aligning all the assets focused on children -- our time, talent, and treasure -- behind what we know will work for kids, providing staff to support partners in working together, and using data more effectively to drive how decisions are made.

Within each component there are additional activities that need to be addressed simultaneously. And together, these components have the power to completely transform how we serve children.

The good news is that most communities already have many pieces in place which they can build upon. For example, we have seen communities that have multiple tables of cross-sector leaders coming together to rally around an individual piece of the education pipeline such as early childhood learning or college access. The work of building civic infrastructure asks communities to create a single table with executive leaders from across sectors who will support practitioners that are willing to use data to lift up and scale what works.

We have seen some communities that already have up to ten report cards measuring over 200 indicators related to education and well-being. The work to building civic infrastructure asks them to narrow down the number of indicators to a chosen few so that we stop getting overwhelmed by the problem and start setting targets for moving critical outcomes.

And we have seen other communities where the funders -- public and private -- already communicate effectively. The work of building civic infrastructure asks them to move from talking about investing together to actually building public/private partnerships that focus every dollar possible on what the data demonstrates works for kids.

The bottom line: Taking steps like those outlined above may feel "processy" but they are incredibly important because there is no silver bullet. No single program will address all our educational ills. And our historical definition of collaboration is not enough. Instead, it will come down to our willingness to be disciplined about how we use limited resources to better support the success of every child.

What do you think? Is civic infrastructure a step forward for addressing complex social issues? What are the key challenges and barriers to making it happen? If you would like to join the conversation on ideas like these that are part of the emerging social innovation landscape, join us in San Francisco at the 2012 Independent Sector Annual Conference Nov 11-12.