Helping groups to work together to solve complex issues can be a challenge, particularly when those groups don’t see eye to eye. Perhaps the biggest challenge in pulling together a coalition of groups is that you’re likely to get a mix of different types with differing perspectives. Social groups, business groups and fundraising groups, for instance, all have different priorities. The challenge escalates when the issue in question is politically divisive. In such cases, it often seems competing groups are speaking different languages. This, needless to say, makes communication difficult.
What’s our goal? It’s a simple question. The answer has to be made clear and kept in mind if an initiative is to be successful. Too often groups working together get swept up planning activities. Rather than keeping an end goal in sight, they focus on the activities they want to do in the interest of furthering their cause. This is only natural when you put a bunch of action-oriented people in a room together. Getting right down to doing action plans and developing activities is progress, but something’s missing. Namely, taking the time to consider why we’re doing what we’re doing.
It’s inevitable that groups working together on an issue will have different ideas about what the cause of that problem is and how best to solve it. This is especially true when the problem is complex. Such differences in thinking can thwart group efforts to address an issue. This is why it’s important for groups to agree on a final vision and how they think they’re going to get there up front.
The theory of change is an approach to thinking about what’s required to bring about a desired effect. This method is most useful when dealing with a multifaceted issue. Creating a theory of change involves plotting a roadmap—a pathway of change—to determine indicators that can be used along way to evaluate the effectiveness of taken actions. This is useful because it requires justifying how and why planned interventions are going to lead to each needed change.
I’ve worked with a lot of organizations and networks developing community-based programs that seek to address complex issues such as homelessness and youth involvement in gangs. There’s no shortage of knowledge among those working on these issues on the frontlines. What’s often lacking, however, is the translation of this day-to-day expertise into useable knowledge. The professionals work in silos, rather than contributing to a collective body of knowledge that could move the field forward as a whole.
Even after the brainstorming is completed, goals are set, the roadmap defined and processes are set into action, there is one more key element to consider in order to ensure the deployment of a successful community development initiative.
That important component is communication. After all, if nobody, including those involved in the initiative, can understand or communicate the project goals and metrics, then it becomes difficult for an initiative to build momentum. It is essential to develop the right tools to help organizations communicate project goals, preconditions for success, and ongoing evaluative results.
When dealing with complex issues such as homelessness, poverty, or street-involved youth, it is a real challenge to communicate effectively in a way that makes the issue and initiative understood, yet doesn’t oversimplify it.
Why is communication a priority with community development projects?
- When trying to engage other partners in work with an organization, they need to have clear idea of the initiative: what the issue is, what the broader societal impact of that issue is, why and how an organization is involved in tackling the issue, and how each partner is being asked to participate in the initiative.
- When trying to engage funders or the government, the specifics of the pitch being made needs to be clear. Organizations needs to clearly communicate how they view the issue, how they’re involved in tackling the issue, and where and why the other prospects would fit as funding partners. Funding partners are always, of course, interested in results; so implementing organizations need to devise an evaluative framework and system for communicating project results.
- When trying to engage the broader public, it is important to communicate the value of an initiative in helping to address a social issue. The media and public are amazing partners who can help build momentum, contribute with grassroots initiatives, and add creative thought leadership to development projects.
Although there can be many levels and types of “engagement”, the success of a community-based initiative depends most upon the active participation on the organizing committees/ working groups. Many initiatives are led by a smaller core group of people, with others joining in for short periods of time. Communication, therefore, needs to flourish within the core group of participants.
Theory of Change: A Communication and Evaluative Tool
When it comes to developing a tool that aids organizations in communicating their goals, preconditions, and results in a way that gives due recognition to complexity, yet breaks down the issue into understandable pieces, the Theory of Change model stands above the rest.
The Theory of Change gives practitioners an opportunity to understand and map all of the aspects of complex social issues in detail, incorporating all contributing factors – some of which are obvious, some of which are not. This provides a framework around which participants and partners can gather and discuss an issue. The model incorporates visuals to communicate layers of information behind each of the component pieces, making the information easy to refer to and more accessible to a wider audience.
Theory of Change: A Collaboration Tool
The Theory of Change process furthermore empowers organizations to decide how and when to intervene. Organizations struggling with the question of how to contribute to a development initiative can use the model to learn more about the preconditions to success, and to determine how their organization can play a role in improving the situation.
For instance, there are often multiple organizations tackling the issue of homelessness in one city, each with different strengths, skill sets, and assumptions about causes and solutions. The Theory of Change helps groups identify their potential contribution to achieving the preconditions for reducing homelessness, and the ways in which they can work together. From guidance counselors in schools working to reduce the instances of street-involved youth; to addictions group counselors working to bring stability to peoples’ lives; to homeless shelters caring for those already on the street – addressing a complex issue requires both preventative and rehabilitative initiatives, and above all it requires collaboration. The Theory of Change is the perfect communication tool for groups tackling complex issues.
Crime Prevention Ottawa implemented a Theory of Change based initiative on community-based crime prevention and, along with the success realized across several communities, the effort was honoured with two plain language awards from the Center for Plain Language’s ClearMark Awards in Washington, DC. The Center for Plain Language’s ClearMark Awards celebrate the best in clear communication and plain language from government, non-profits, and private companies in the U.S. and internationally.
The international recognition reaffirmed the importance of making community development initiatives more accessible and understandable. It also affirms the importance of sharing knowledge along the way and communicating results with as many citizens as possible.
The Theory of Change has helped set social development initiatives ahead because of its amazing ability to clearly map the goals, preconditions, and measurements of success for organizations tackling complex social issues. It has received due recognition for its contribution to improving communications between organizations, partners, and the public. To conclude I’d like to leave you with a quote from Simon Sinek that nicely summarizes the value of the Theory of Change model in the realm of communications:
“Simple ideas are easier to understand. Ideas that are easier to understand are repeated. Ideas that are repeated change the world.” – Simon Sinek
When you hear the word “evaluation,” you might think of it as something that is done after the fact. That would be fair, because that’s when many evaluations take place — after an event, program, or course. Evaluations typically tell us how we did, as well as what we could have done better. While this approach can be very useful where you have an established program model that you already understand well, it is not very useful where you are working in completely new territory – where you are trying to figure things out as you go. Developmental evaluation can be a powerful tool for these situations.
Developmental evaluation is a very useful tool in helping organizations to understand complex social issues. It was used to evaluate and inform the approach for the Health Promoting Schools movement across Canada.
Communities across the country are taking part in an exciting new initiative that is designed to help end youth homelessness. They have been embarking on the process of developing coalitions, researching the issue and starting dialogues in order to develop solutions and to generate community momentum around this issue.
The Mobilizing Local Capacity (MLC) initiative, started by Eva’s Initiatives in Toronto (and funded by the Catherine Donnelly Foundation) was started about two years ago to catalyze action around this issue and to help communities develop broad strategies to deal with youth homelessness. Communities from across Canada applied to participate and, so far, six communities have been selected.
One World worked with Eva’s Initiatives to conduct a developmental evaluation of the MLC and here are some of the learnings that have emerged so far:
1) Thinking upstream: Most communities respond to homelessness by providing shelter beds. While this is a useful – and necessary – short-term response to the issue, the challenge is that the problem does not go away and more and more beds need to be provided. Communities need to start thinking upstream, to start dealing with the causes of the problem rather than just treating the symptoms.
2) Thinking like a system: Thinking upstream automatically means you need to involve a broader group of organizations in developing solutions. In Saint John NB, for example, high school guidance councilors expressed a strong interest in getting involved as they are often the individuals that high school students turn to when they are experiencing problems at home. Intervening at this early stage could help to prevent some young people from becoming homeless. Similarly, police, who often get involved when youth are already on the streets and involved in criminal activity, really want to get involved on the preventive side of the problem.
3) Engaging the ideas and energy of youth: From the very beginning of its MLC process, Kamloops decided that they wanted it to be youth-driven. They wanted to engage mainstream as well as homeless youth and give them a real voice. They found that youth care passionately about the issue of youth homelessness, and eagerly participated. They brought a drive and commitment to the issue that helped to engage the public in a way that likely would not have happened in an agency-driven process. (Check out this video that was produced by the youth). Much of that energy and perspective is reflected in the final community strategy.
4) It takes a coalition: One of the most important parts of the MLC process is that communities need to develop broad coalitions to develop a systemic approach to the issue, and to get the broad support to move the strategies forward. Kingston’s MLC initiative, led by the local United Way was particularly effective in developing a broad coalition of local organizations and local politicians to take action. Youth played a major role in this initiative as well.
5) A catalyst approach works: The MLC approach is a novel way to support communities to take action. Each participating community develops a strategy that is very “local” in flavor, and really resonates with local players. Participating communities do not receive much funding; instead, they are helped with coaching and connected to experts who can provide them with advice, as well as other resources. They are also connected with other communities going through the same process so there are many opportunities for learning and site visits. All of the communities reported they were very happy with this model of support.
We hope that the lessons learned in this initiative can be applied to other groups tackling complex social issues.
How can developmental evaluation help communities take action to address a complex problem such as youth homelessness?
The Problem: Youth Homelessness
Youth homelessness is a significant national problem in Canada. Approximately 235,000 individuals, youth and families experience homelessness per year. Of these, approximately 20% are youth aged 16-24.
Youth homelessness is a largely hidden problem in most communities. Most youth experiencing homelessness do not wind up “sleeping rough” on the street, but spend nights “couch surfing” wherever they can.
Like a roadmap guides motorists through unfamiliar territory to reach the final destination, there are effective tools that can help organizations to better navigate the complex environments in which they work, and guide the development of successful initiatives. And just as a map is altered as landscapes evolve, so too should the tools used to help us understand complex issues.