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. 

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