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United Way of Coastal Georgia Teams with GCN to Improve High School Graduation Rates

Recently, GCN welcomed Mark Kramer, co-founder of nonprofit consulting firm Foundation Strategy Group (FSG), to present a series of lectures on “Collective Impact,” an approach to nonprofit work that tackles complex, community-wide problems by aligning all stakeholders–nonprofits, government, business, residents and others–around a shared set of goals and measurements, mutually reinforcing action, and a backbone support organization.

At the same time, GCN is already putting Kramer’s principles to work on the Georgia coast, facilitating a bold Collective Impact initiative for United Way of Coastal Georgia (UWCGA): the High School Graduation Blueprint Project, aiming to improve educational outcomes in the Greater Brunswick area.

When the UWCGA first approached GCN two years ago, they didn’t just want to identify the best nonprofits for investment—they wanted to lead those nonprofits and the community they serve to improve regional outcomes in a major, lasting way. “Under CEO Missy Neu, United Way of Coastal Georgia is among a top tier of organizations going after complex problems with a long-term investment” that includes committed multi-year financial backing, said Cheatham. “They want to go beyond what even nonprofit coalitions are typically able to do, to engage the whole community and make a system-wide difference.”

After working with GCN’s Affiliate Consultant Chris Allers to refine its investment process and train grantees in outcomes-based measurement, UWCGA again called on GCN, this time to help them identify the best target for a Collective Impact initiative—that is, the most important problem facing the community. Together, UWCGA and the GCN Consulting team, headed by Allers, formed the vital backbone organization that would drive the initiative forward.

Issues at Hand: The Community Speaks

Together, with an attitude of "burning patience," we can successfully address complex problems that no single organization can solve alone.

The project began in summer 2009 with a community needs study that asked Greater Brunswick residents to name “the greatest challenge facing your county.” The top answer: “the effectiveness of the school system.” With graduation rates as low as 67 percent in the 2007-08 school year, the community saw improved education as a way to create opportunity for young residents while heading off other area problems like poverty, unemployment and crime.

Using this study, input from key stakeholders, and the “Mobilization Plan” developed by United Way Worldwide for improving high school graduation rates, UWCGA and GCN began organizing a multi-year framework for educational improvement. To that end, United Way’s Mobilization Plan supplies national data and outlines five proven, high-impact strategies adaptable for the UWCGA’s own High School Graduation Blueprint Project:

Identify students at risk of dropping out.
Engage students in learning.
Support families to improve academic achievement.
Leverage community supports and systems.
Connect students with the resources they need.

The GCN Approach: Inclusive Leadership, Evidence-Based Research

To craft a sustainable, effective plan, UWCGA and GCN knew that the process would have to be rigorous, transparent, and fully supported—by a group of area leaders who cross sector boundaries, by community stakeholders, and by solid data.  It would also need, as per FSG’s Collective Impact model, a set of shared goals and measurements to unite the work of a diverse set of people and organizations. (Better graduation rates, for example, is a key measurement in assessing the overall goal of improved educational outcomes.)

The first task was identifying three highly influential and diverse “champions” to oversee the effort and pull in more community partners. With advice and support from area leaders, UWCGA recruited Jack Kilgore, President of Consumer Brands at multi-billion dollar food-industry pioneer Rich Products; philanthropist, volunteer, former public servant and Agnes Scott College trustee Jeannie Manning; and Glynn County’s Judge Orion Douglass. Working with UWCGA leadership, that group assembled a 25-member Blueprint Commission, drawn from all sectors of the coastal community, including education, media, business, finance and real estate, religious institutions, nonprofits, and government agencies.

A Collective Impact initiative does not happen overnight; it takes time and effort to bring together hundreds of people and dozens of organizations around the same goals, measurements and strategies.

The Commission’s job, to devise a comprehensive Graduation Blueprint Plan, began with a two-day summit in April that pulled in scores of parents, teachers, students, human service providers, school administrators, and experts. The result was a set of 14 recommendations—including a mentoring initiative, expanded afterschool services, and joint student-parent “learning spaces”—that would go to workgroups for further development. To gather deeper input, the Commission and GCN set up a further series of focus groups for teachers, counselors, and school social workers.

The Focus: Putting Proven Strategies to Work

Three workgroup sessions, on mentoring, tutoring, and family intervention, recently completed their work and presented their recommendations to the Commission. At the same time, a Data Sub-Committee, working with Brunswick school records, identified students with the greatest “at risk” indicators for non-graduation. Thanks to this new work, at risk students can be identified with about 75 percent accuracy as early as seventh grade—meaning intervention services can begin immediately in the eighth grade.

Already, the in-progress draft of the Blueprint Plan includes specific strategies for training and supporting mentors, a best-practice tutoring program, and comprehensive family assessments. Further, the committee will follow up each of these strategies with a results-driven evaluation process to refine and expand the program. The finalized Blueprint Plan, including a detailed implementation strategy, will be unveiled to the community November 5th, with follow-on funding and implementation to go live over the next few years. To check out the Blueprint Plan’s progress, visit UWCGA's Blueprint page.

What’s Your Collective Vision?

Needless to say, a Collective Impact initiative does not happen overnight; it takes time and effort to bring together hundreds of people and dozens of organizations around the same goals, measurements and strategies. But together, with what Mark Kramer calls an attitude of “burning patience,” we can successfully address complex problems–a dysfunctional education system, a public health-care crisis, an entrenched homeless population–that no single organization can solve alone.

So consider what your organization could accomplish as part of a Collective Impact project. If you’re interested in affecting broad-based change for an urgent, complex, community-wide problem through a Collective Impact approach, GCN Consulting has the skills, knowledge, and professional network to help you through all phases of the process. Just contact Cindy Cheatham at [email protected] or 678-916-3012 to get started.

Marc Shultz is writer/editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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