Everyone knows collaborating with your community will create better outcomes for the children you serve. Sharing is caring...right?
Taking all of the information, demographics, living situation, academic performance, outside of school time program attendance, ketchup or mustard on a hot dog preference, and creating a 360-degree view of every child in your community can only bring good things. There is one slight hiccup in the plan. It's hard. Like really hard. Speed bumps like multiple data collection sources, consents, and willingness to participate can feel like unclimbable mountains.
The good news is the wave of cooperation is spreading. The reality of better outcomes, less duplication of services, and the better use of resources and broader access to funding sources are becoming less of a rumbling and more of a conversation. But how do you know if you're ready to head down that path? Our experience from observing the formation of collaborative communities has helped us understand the key areas which lead to a smoother start and more reliable information exchange. In no particular order, here are the foundational blocks we see the most thriving communities are built on:
To paraphrase some wise puppets, "purpose is the spark that lights the flame under your…" You get the point. The purpose of a collaborative community lies beyond the walls of a specific out-of-school-time group or community-based organization. For some communities, it's rooted in systemic change. For some, it's a singular problem like graduation rate, immunization rate, or access to quality child care. The answer lies within your community and the groups who are willing to entertain the idea of collaboration. Having and communicating a clear purpose will not only help other organizations get on board but also help you see the light at the end of the tunnel shine a little brighter when you're stuck in an endless number of meetings hashing out the details of consent or minimum data set requirements. Reality is, in most communities, a single child can be enrolled with multiple organizations. Without a full view of that child, it's almost impossible to see what interventions worked to improve their life, let alone understand what other children might be traveling down the same trajectory where a simple intervention could make a similar impact. You know this. You're passionate about this. Please don't lose sight of it.
2. Stakeholder Engagement Plan
Anyone who has spent any time with kids will agree a child will be more willing to participate when they directly benefit from the "So, what?" It turns out, organizations that help kids are very similar. In very few instances, it happens organically. A round table discussion leads to (virtual) handshakes and (socially-distanced, air) high-fives, and everyone runs back to their headquarters to get the data sharing consents signed. It is more likely you will meet with some like-minded community members, and the rumble to collaborate will start with a small group looking to do great things. Collaboration (like getting your kids to pick up their room) will be far more likely to happen if there is a dedicated plan to make sure the groups who would benefit are strategically engaged from the beginning. A plan like putting a primary school principal on a Kindergarten Readiness team. A plan like engaging the head of pediatrics in your local health system for your early childhood screening and intervention program. Making a smart, strategic plan will help smooth the path toward the ultimate goal.
Although your whole community is coming together to make a bigger and better impact, someone needs to own the effort. Between deciding votes on critical topics, data quality assurance, and consent guidance, your community will need to have an arbiter who will keep the overall purpose of everyone involved. That role can come in many forms from funders, CBOs, advocacy organizations, or government entities. It certainly isn't the easiest position to hold, but with a strong sense of purpose and excellent stakeholder engagement, you won't be standing alone.
4. Flexibility in Data Collection
From million-dollar custom platforms to handwritten attendance entered into a Google Sheets document, every organization has its way of collecting data. Coupled with funder mandated collection and reporting platforms, to launch a community-wide collaboration with yet another data system that creates a second, third or fourth place to enter little Susie's attendance at day camp will create a collaborative mutiny before you email off your first report. Finding a platform that can play well with all of the agencies involved and not require them to change their already effective and ingrained system is critical. Experience has shown me eliminating the hassles of data collection will pay dividends when it comes to overall buy-in from the organizations you are looking to include in your effort.
Our current climate has shown a spotlight on issues in every community. The good news is there has never been a better time to start planning a community-wide collaboration. Sharing resources and meeting the needs of the kids in real-time, coming together as a community, in the truest sense of the word, is more critical now than ever. Like all things in life, if it were easy, you'd already be doing it. Make a plan. Share that plan. Make your community a better, healthier, more inclusive place to live.