Colorado Springs Health Foundation: Embracing Learning and Partnership

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Starting from Common Ground

Starting from common ground

By Laura Sundstrom

At Vantage Evaluation, we envision a world where foundations embrace evaluation as a learning tool, not a mechanism for grantee accountability. Closely monitoring grantee activities, financial operations, and outcomes does not answer big questions about the foundation's impact on the community or what’s working and what’s not in the foundation’s approaches. We are working to change the conversation, and the Colorado Springs Health Foundation (CSHF) exemplifies this journey.

CSHF provides grants that target immediate health care needs and encourage healthy living in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado. They have been committed to infusing evaluation into their work since their founding to inform strategy, assessment alignment, and drive learning. This year, we investigated funded partners’ understanding and work in five areas of interest to CSHF: sustainability, collaboration, evidence-based services, culture of learning, and health equity. These areas are key elements of their grant decision-making process, focus on continuous quality improvement, and/or are critical to real change in public health.

Vantage conducted a series of phone interviews with 25 funded partners and completed two case studies of high-performing funded partners. During the interviews, funded partners were asked about at least two of the interest areas.

What Did We Find?

There was a moderate mismatch between how CSHF thought about the five areas of interest and how their funded partners thought about them.

How Funded Partners Think About The Area

How CSHF Thinks About The Area

Sustainability

Diverse funding sources

Diverse funding sources and using organizational roles and processes to support organizational and financial strength

Evidence-based Practice

Scientifically researched and tested approaches

Research and tested approaches and learning and improving from your own data-based evaluation efforts

Collaboration

An exchange of relational capital

A means to solving a larger problem that no one organization can solve alone

Social change work generally falls along a continuum that includes supporting individuals through systems-level change, similar to the social-ecological model. Many organizations have programming and services along this continuum. Both ends of the continuum (and everything in between) are critical to social change, and no one organization can undertake it all. But throughout the community, it is important to have a balance of organizations working along that continuum. We found funded partners’ perspectives overall leaned heavily toward the individual side of the continuum with few funded partners thinking about these areas of interest and engaging in work at the systems level. And CSHF also recognizes that most of their grants are for individual-level programming.  

Lessons Learned Through the Process

This was an interesting and engaging project for the Vantage team. We loved digging deep into how organizations think about and engage in activities around these critical areas of interest. This project has also informed how we work on our other evaluation projects.

  • Test different ways to surface understanding when definitions just won’t do. We really wanted to get at how funded partners thought about these five areas of interest, not just if they agree with CSHF’s definitions. This required a lot of open-ended questioning and probing. And oftentimes, we couldn’t just ask them how they defined these terms.

    For example, health equity is still a relatively new term in the field. We started by asking if the term “health equity” was familiar to them. If it was, we asked them how they define it at their organization and how it informs their work. If they weren’t familiar with the term, we provided them with a definition and followed up with a similar question about if and how health equity informs their work.

    Another area that was tricky to ask about was evidence-based practices. In certain circles, evidence-based practices have a very specific definition of scientifically tested models that need to be implemented with fidelity. But CSHF was also interested in a broader definition of evidence-based practices. We found that by first asking for their understanding of evidence-based practices, interviewees got too focused on that definition and we weren’t able to get an understanding of other areas of the work that they engaged in. We ended up first asking about the work that they do in these areas –- what sort of information or evidence informed their decision making –- before asking for a definition.

  • Meaningful insights are only generated when you involve others. Our analysis and reporting generated actionable insights. But it wasn’t until we held a learning session with CSHF that we were able to look at the findings from a systems-level perspective. A different perspective at the table helped surface a  deeper understanding of the trends across the five areas of interest.

  • Closing the feedback loop is critical. CSHF is committed to sharing back what they learn with the community. Every year, they invite their funded partners and community members to a learning session where they share their findings, what they learned from them, and how they are changing their work in response. And every year, we see how this process strengthens CSHF’s relationship with their funded partners and promotes CSHF as a leader in the community. CSHF also shares their learnings with other funders, prompting these other funders to think differently about how they can use evaluation as a learning process for themselves, rather than just grantee accountability.

So What’s Next? In 2019, CSHF is repurposing its evaluation budget to host a Learning Collective for ten health-focused nonprofits in El Paso and Teller counties, focusing on building a culture of learning within their organizations. The Learning Collective is an effort to both build these skills and mindsets within organizations in the community and respond to funded partners’ requests for CSHF to undertake more convening efforts.

Intrigued? You can read the full report and case studies!


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Laura Sundstrom, MSW | Evaluator

Laura specializes in building evaluation capacity, helping clients understand the “why” behind evaluation tasks, and leaves an impressive trail of evaluation skills wherever she goes.


Laura Sundstrom