Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Building connections: How UWCW’s Community Collaborations team is working to break the cycle of childhood poverty

By Paul Krieger, United Way Intern

Mayra Arreola
United Way of the Columbia-Willamette is currently instituting major changes in the way we do business — especially how we interact with our community partners and how we evaluate the impact of our investments in the four-county region. This blog series will look at how our Community Impact team is retooling to achieve our ambitious goal of breaking the cycle of childhood poverty. In this second part, I interview Mayra Arreola, director of the newly formed Community Collaborations (CC) team, responsible for working with and building new relationships with community partners.

Prior to her work with United Way, Arreola worked at Rural Development Initiatives as diversity and inclusion manager as well as Latino program manager. Her work involved providing programs and services to the Latino community as well as convening, facilitating and training in the realms of leadership development, and community and economic vitality. It also involved building new relationships and finding new ways to bridge services with needs – skills that are well suited for United Way’s new community impact strategy. Mayra is originally from Mexico and has lived in the US for the past seven years.

What exactly does your team do within the larger Community Impact department?

Community Collaborations focuses on two things: managing UWCW’s grants portfolio and engaging with the community in the four-county area. Community engagement for us is about understanding the counties we serve and getting to know firsthand both these communities and the organizations that serve them. That includes learning about what they’re doing, what their needs are, where they’re struggling, and what inequities they’re facing. It’s also about looking for opportunities, as well as putting the pieces together from a United Way perspective through funding, services, convening and facilitating. We’re looking for the right places to support, lead or strengthen the work of local organizations.

The other side of what we do relates to our grant funding investments in local organizations. We manage those grants and establish relationships with funded organizations. For example, with our Community Transformation strategy on people’s minds, we’ve gotten a lot of questions about what “Community” means for us. “Community” can mean a lot of different things. It can mean cultural communities, advocacy groups, different geographic areas or even different layers within a community. That’s why we want to encourage grant applications from groups who may not see themselves as traditional United Way grantees but could actually receive funding.

Overall, we want to make sure that our investment portfolio and the communities applying align with the mission and the vision of United Way and are a reflection of the four-county area. We want to open doors and encourage our target communities to work together in a way that reflects United Way’s goals and again, aligns with what we’re doing. We also want to provide opportunities for the organizations to have clarity when it comes to our new grants guidelines and processes as well as where United Way is going and how they can fit in with the new strategies in terms of what they’re doing.

The new Strategic Plan represents a real shift in focus for Community Impact, especially from its work in years past.

Yes, that’s true. One example is that when it comes to grant funding, it’s no longer just about applying, getting the money, submitting a report and that’s it. We’ll be looking to gain a deeper understanding of the organization and their needs, as well as how we can partner and reach our goals together. United Way will have a stronger presence and a stronger role as a convener, a facilitator, or a supporter of the funded organizations’ work and their impact.

We are transitioning to become a “backbone” organization when applicable as well as a convener. What is Community Collaborations’ role in making this transition happen?

One way I see United Way being a backbone organization revolves around that sense of really understanding our region and being able to establish links and be a connector – being able to say: here are several groups whose work or vision aligns with one another, what happens if we convene them and work on a problem together? Also, we are interested in working with organizations that are not necessarily funded by us, but because of their role and what they do, they align with United Way’s vision of breaking the cycle of childhood poverty.  

So it’s almost like in our role as a convener, we are acting as an informational hub where information travels both ways between partner organizations.

That’s right. Eventually we’ll get to a place of deeper understanding of what is happening in the areas we serve so that we can help inform and work with other organizations to shape their future efforts, linking it to our data, metrics and indicators of success. That way we can say: based on the data we know, in this particular community, this action is something that makes a lot of sense to support and will be great for us to get involved in.

In his interview, Alejandro Queral, director of Systems Planning and Performance (SPP), described SPP and CC as two sides of the same coin, with CC as the face side. Can you describe CC’s relationship with SPP and how the work of one department complements the other?

SPP and CC are like a big team, but we have a different focus – one internal, one external – and we work closely together. It’s a complementary approach. SPP is mostly focused on systems, data and metrics, while CC is focused on managing grants and relationships and engaging with the community. As Alejandro said, these sides of the same coin provide a well-rounded perspective of what we are basing our decisions on and how we see our efforts moving forward. In the end, everything we do links back together as Community Impact and also as United Way.

As we take a more active role with our community partners, how do we learn to listen more effectively to their own input and concerns and digest more qualitative feedback?
This fall, we held Town Halls in each county about the new strategic plan; then we hosted informational sessions in each county about the grant funding opportunities. At both types of events, people had the opportunity to give their input and suggestions. We also solicited online feedback about our draft grant-making guidelines, and that input definitely influenced the final version of the guidelines. We’re being intentional about making sure we reach out to culturally specific groups in a variety of sectors. In general, there’s a shift in the relationship with potential grantees: we’re not just distributing information about what we’re doing but we’re also providing an opportunity to influence the grant-making guidelines.

How is CC working to be more adaptable in terms of how we relate to organizations of different sizes and levels of sophistication? Also, how can we be more flexible in terms of how we measure community impact?

This year, we have different evaluation criteria and requirements for emerging and established organizations that are applying for Community Strengthening grant funds. Also, while Community Transformation is an opportunity that’s best suited for existing collaboratives, the Catalyst Fund grant opportunity is streamlined and accessible for all sizes of organizations, including smaller, newer ones.

How is CC working to be a part of the community outside of grant funding?

To start with, each of our team members is a liaison for a specific county:

  • Clark/Multnomah Counties: Mayra
  • Clackamas/Multnomah Counties: Hosheman Brown, Community Collaborations Manager
  • Washington/Multnomah Counties: Lai-Lani Ovalles, Community Collaborations Manager

This is a new effort for us, and we’re starting to connect and be a part of networks. We have a presence at nonprofits, committees, task forces and boards, either in an advisory position or to gather information. As time goes on, we’ll be doing a lot more of this and identifying focus areas for our involvement. Also, we have great support from Anna Nakano-Baker, Community Collaborations Coordinator, who supports the team in a variety of ways.

What else should people know about your team?

We’re a new team and we’re doing a lot of planning and laying the groundwork right now so that we can be successful in the future. We’re looking forward to building more and better relationships with the community and we’re very excited to do more to help break the cycle of childhood poverty!

This is part two of a three-part series looking at how United Way’s community impact team is realigning in order to help break the cycle of childhood poverty. Up next is our Hands On Greater Portland Director Becky Blumer.

Interested in how your organization can help break the cycle of childhood poverty? Learn more about funding opportunities from United Way. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Shifting lenses: How UWCW’s Community Impact team is working to break the cycle of childhood poverty

By Paul Krieger, United Way Intern

Alejandro Queral
United Way of the Columbia-Willamette is currently instituting major changes in the way we do business — especially how we interact with our community partners and evaluate the impact and success we are having in our region. This blog series will look out how our Community Impact team is retooling to achieve our ambitious goal of breaking the cycle of childhood poverty within our four-county region within a generation. In this first part, I will interview Alejandro Queral, director of the newly formed Systems Planning and Performance team, responsible for measuring and evaluating our overall impact and efficacy.

Queral is a new member of our team, having come on board in July. He holds a B.S. in environmental science and a master’s in evolutionary biology and is a graduate of the George Washington University Law School. He has also worked for the Sierra Club, directing their Human Rights and Environment program, been a state government relations director of the American Heart Association and a program supervisor for Multnomah County Health Department. With his extensive background in health, environment and administration, Queral brings a unique perspective to the role of SPP director.

What’s the function of the Systems Planning and Performance team?

SPP is the part of Community Impact responsible for developing systems that will help United Way make the investment decisions that will be most effective at reducing or eliminating childhood poverty; ultimately, these decisions will be based on data, available evidence and measurable outcomes.

What is the current focus of your work in Systems Planning?

This is a period of creation and innovation for us; in fact we are trying to define what we are given our new role. We are currently working on creating and refining an integrated management system for multiple data sources to make better decisions about how to invest and who to invest in. We are moving toward a system where we can better evaluate the performance of our partners as well as measure our own impact within the community. So we will focus on key performance metrics that can help us measure how effective we are toward eliminating childhood poverty, as well as to continue to improve our investment processes and decisions moving forward.

How has the focus of your department changed compared with years past, especially given the new strategic focus?

We have taken a critical step in changing our focus from a transactional, fundraising organization to a relational focus that is community-based. With this new focus, we must identify who the key stakeholders are in our community and who is driving change. We must enlarge our knowledge base and understanding of what works so that we are more in tune with community needs, and better understand where we can have the greatest community impact. We need to increase our presence as a community partner by participating in our community in more qualitative ways — we must do a better job of telling the story of who we are and what our impact is.

How is Systems Planning preparing for this new relational role and how do you envision this will play out in terms of how we interact with partner organizations and projects?

This is where one of the great opportunities lies for United Way, to redefine itself. What does it mean to be relational, particularly in the context of working with community partners and investing resources into their organization and development? SPP has a key role to play in defining how we measure success and in being able to convey what success looks like to our community partners. SPP provides a framework for a performance-based approach in making our investment decisions — we should be able to say what organizations are really having an impact in ending childhood poverty.

But it’s more than evaluating or assessing their performance — it’s also about understanding what it is that they’re doing that is working well, that is helping move the needle, and understanding where the barriers are that are preventing success. In other words, when we talk about being relational, we need to think about accountability in a different way — not necessarily about being punitive but about using the data we gather from the community and the region to make better decisions about where to invest, where to take action, how to approach a particular problem. So we will play a role in not just gathering and managing data but turning that data into knowledge that partners can use to make effective decisions.

So it’s a two-way streetdata can flow both ways helping both us and our partners gauge performance?

Absolutely. I think it’s critical that we are learning from organizations — we will certainly be creating the infrastructure internally to understand what it is our partners are doing. It goes to the question of impact — if we understand how to measure success, then we can say something about the impact of United Way and our grantees in the community. And it’s more than a two-way street; it’s really a whole network of organizations, and through that network we will be sharing knowledge that can be put into action — not just a bunch of data that only tell us whether we’ve met our goals or not. It’s more than that. Through the network, we will all learn why we did or didn’t achieve our individual and collective objectives and what we can all do to be more effective.

Can you talk a little about our role as a “backbone organization” and about being a convener?

There are a number of things there — one is the question of what our role is within a collective impact model. We can play a backbone role but I think we should also be open to adapting, particularly around the CommunityTransformation investment strategy. What I think we will see is that organizations and collaboratives are at different stages of development and readiness. So United Way has to tailor its role according to where organizations and collaboratives are and how they envision their partnership with us. We need to able to think about what is the best role for us to play in enhancing the work of a particular community.

How about measuring impact?

Since about 2012, United Way has been funneling resources to a range of projects with focus areas around health, education and economic stability. But within those things, it runs the gamut — around income for instance, around EITC, rent assistance, financial literacy classes — all these different things in the past have never shared metrics, have never shared goals. It’s very difficult to condense that work into stories that people can relate to. Statistics and theory are not sexy. People want to hear about results. In previous years we have not been set up to understand the impact. So what we’re doing is refining how to look at what works to reduce childhood poverty based on the available evidence.

For some types of projects it’s relatively easy to measure concrete impact and return on investment; for others that are less tangible, it will take time and research to develop meaningful metrics. For example, what does it mean for a family to be able to stay in their home one more month? How does that impact their family stability? What does it mean in the long term? Does that one time influx of cash have a long term effect on their ability to stay employed?

The key is to be able to communicate the vision of where United Way wants to be. In order to do that, we can provide data that shows where our region is in terms of childhood poverty — measurements like academic attainment, financial stability, public housing, services provided, etc. Moving forward, we’ll be working on data that captures what our partners are doing and how they’re moving the needle in a very local way.

Anything else that our community should know about SPP?

The role of the Systems Planning and Performance team is to create the underlying infrastructure that will allow the Community Collaborations team (another new team within Community Impact) to better understand what is happening in the community, how our partners are working and what kinds of success they’ve achieved. It’s really important not to lose sight or forget that Systems Planning is just one side of this coin and that the Community Collaboration team will be more directly engaged with community members on the ground. Our role really is to facilitate their work. We have a relationship where we just don’t simply meet and talk but rather take action together and create the infrastructure that allows us to take action together.

This is part one of a three-part series looking at how United Way’s community impact team is realigning in order to help break the cycle of childhood poverty. Up next is our Community Collaborations Director Mayra Arreola.

Interested in how your organization can help break the cycle of childhood poverty? Learn more about funding opportunities from United Way.