Serve Colorado connects people and funding to meet Colorado’s most critical needs
How this state agency used evaluation to become the national leader for all AmeriCorps organizations
“I didn’t realize that our previous evaluation approach was problematic,” Antonio Mendez, Executive Director of Serve Colorado tells us. Evaluation challenges even the most savvy organizations. But together, we took a new approach and Serve Colorado used the findings to make huge, positive shifts in how they meet the needs of Colorado.
Introducing Serve Colorado
Serve Colorado aims to meet the locally-identified, critical community needs of Colorado– such as early literacy, homelessness, and opioid abuse prevention– by supporting not-for-profit organizations with people power and grant funding. They are part of the AmeriCorps family, serving as the State Service Commission for Colorado, responsible for awarding the AmeriCorps State grants.
What they did
Craft an intentional 3-year plan
As a State Service Commission, Serve Colorado is required to develop a three-year state service plan that outlines the top needs in our state, and how Serve Colorado is going to serve Colorado as a result.
In the past, the needs of the Colorado communities had been defined by sending a survey to those who were already on their email contact list, asking which of the five pre-identified priorities were most important to them. Serve Colorado would compile these results, capture the top three high-level funding priorities for each county, and use this to decide which grant applications would get funding. That was the extent of the three-year plan, and it typically sat on a shelf unless it was time to vote on grantees.
In the fall of 2017, Serve Colorado had some extra dollars through a Community Investment Fund Grant, and decided to use some of it to work with us on an evaluation project that would allow them to dig deeper and create a more robust, comprehensive state service plan.
How we did it together
Using evaluation to shed light on and give everyone confidence in how the funding can make the greatest impact
Serve Colorado invited us to help them craft a more valuable evaluation process. Together, we pushed past the standard, simple prioritization of five broad focus areas by county, and focused on what we might learn to have a greater impact. We started with a discussion to break this all down – what does it actually mean to prioritize these focus areas, and what are we trying to get from this data?
Spending some time to discuss the true purpose of this evaluation led to an increase in the quality and depth of the research:
Expand and diversify those reached with the survey.
We reached three or more from each county in Colorado, surpassing all regional response targets – 542 Coloradans in all.
Ask more specific questions to get to distinct needs.
Within ‘economic opportunity,’ for example, we uncovered ‘affordable housing’ as an exact need.
Look at broader, regional trends.
Being more intentional with the data collection shed light on a regional gap, and led to creating new goals that weren’t previously on the radar.
Deeper understanding leads to a-ha moments and inspires profound collaboration
The Serve Colorado team saw several significant shifts in the data, in understanding the needs of the state, how the plan was written, and even how they collaborate with their partner agencies.
A significant shift in the funding priorities.
Changing the evaluation process led to understanding the actual needs of the state, rather than the biased priorities of a small group of people on the email list. Affordable housing was found to be the top priority, not education.
A more granular focus led to greater impact.
Now, instead of funding any not-for-profit addressing education, for example, they know to focus on out-of- school programs and recruitment of intentional qualified teachers.
Capacity building through out the project.
Antonio and his team reported an internal shift in what “good” evaluation is, and why it matters. This shift has led to positive changes in the way they approach all of their work.
More confidence in the credibility of the plan.
Gathering responses from all 64 counties allowed them to eliminate the concern that the Front Range controls where the resources go, and therefore receives more of them.
Inspired to break through organizational silos and collaborate on new ways to address needs.
This deeper understanding of the critical community needs of Colorado lead to a huge, intentional shift in how the four divisions of AmeriCorps operate in Colorado. Previously working in silos, they are now working together on shared goals captured in the three-year plan.