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A Blueprint for Collective Impact on Georgia's Coast

On Nov. 5, GCN member United Way of Coastal Georgia (UWCGA)—in association with the Glynn County School System, the College of Coastal Georgia, area nonprofits, GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group, and hundreds of participating educators, parents and students—presented its High School Graduation Blueprint to the residents of Brunswick.

The product of a research-heavy process that began in 2009, and which should see its first pilot programs kick off in the beginning of 2013, the UWCGA’s Blueprint is a comprehensive, whole-community, multi-year roadmap for improving educational outcomes by aligning the entire system of stakeholders—every one of the students, parents, educators, administrators, nonprofits, government officials and private businesses involved in Brunswick school system—around one set of goals and strategies.

If that model sounds familiar, you may have read our look at Collective Impact (“The Promise of Collective Impact,”, Summer 2012), the approach to complex, system-wide problems championed by GCN guest speaker Mark Kramer of Foundation Strategy Group. The specific model followed by the UWCGA was developed by United Way Worldwide; called the "Mobilization Plan Blueprint for Improving High School Graduation Rates," it supplies national data and outlines proven, high-impact strategies adaptable for local projects. Both models call for a shared set of goals and measurements, mutually reinforcing work among all stakeholders, and a backbone organization keeping the effort together—in this case, the UWCGA, with help from GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group.

In her introduction to the Blueprint, UWCGA CEO Missy Neu says the document represents a new commitment to “long-term, sustainable change” for the organization, which for 56 years has been—and will remain—committed to providing direct services to community members who need them. GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group VP Cindy Cheatham places the UWCGA “among a top tier of organizations” that “want to go beyond what coalitions are typically able to do, to engage the whole community and make a system-wide difference.”

The Issue at Hand: Listening and Leading

"The biggest challenge was finding the right group of folks to create a plan that would have broad support, that would integrate a lot of diverse viewpoints, and would be different from anything the community had done previously" —GCN Affiliate Consultant Dr. Chris Allers

To determine the best target for that new effort, UWCGA commissioned a 2009 community needs survey from the University of Georgia. As reported in the Blueprint, Brunswick area residents said, “clearly,” that educating area youth “was the most important human care issue facing coastal Georgia.” With Glynn County graduation rates averaging just 72% in the 2008-09 school year (with a ten percent drop among economically disadvantaged students), the community saw improving education outcomes as a way to improve the lives of young residents while heading off other area problems like poverty, unemployment and crime.

The UWCGA knew that to be sustainable and effective, any plan would need the backing of a large, varied community of stakeholders. “Education tends to be hugely politically charged, with a lot of opposing points of view,” said GCN Affiliate Consultant Dr. Chris Allers, who in November 2011 joined the project as head of GCN’s consulting team. “So the biggest challenge was finding the right group of folks to create a plan that would have broad support, that would integrate a lot of diverse viewpoints, and would be something different by type from anything the community had done previously.”

That last point was particularly relevant in Brunswick, which has a history of big quality-of-life initiatives that failed to get off the ground—a bit of background Allers credits to the process of listening to and understanding the community before attempting to solve anything. “There’s been a lot of skepticism, and understandably, as to whether the Blueprint would even see the light of day,” said Allers. “So we intentionally seeded the leadership with folks who were not the usual suspects.”

The three “champions” recruited to lead the project are Jack Kilgore, a president at multi-billion dollar food industry pioneer Rich Products; area philanthropist and Agnes Scott College trustee Jeannie Manning; and Glynn County Judge Orion Douglass. With the UWCGA and GCN, these three leaders recruited the rest of a 25-member Blueprint Commission from all sectors of the coastal community: education, media, business, finance, real estate, religious institutions, nonprofits and government agencies. “We’ve built integrity through diversity,” said Allers.

The Process Begins

The Commission’s job began with a Graduation Summit, held in April, that pulled in scores of parents, teachers, students, nonprofit service providers, school administrators, and experts. During the two-day event, the commission led discussions regarding specific challenges, measures currently in place, areas of needed research and potential solutions with more than 180 area stakeholders.

With Glynn County graduation rates averaging just 72%, the community saw improving education outcomes as a way to improve the lives of young residents while heading off poverty, unemployment and crime.

The result was a set of 14 recommendations, including a mentoring initiative, expanded afterschool services, a family assessment center and joint student-parent “learning spaces,” that went to workgroups for further development. To gather deeper input, the Commission and GCN set up a series of educator focus groups with teachers, counselors and school social workers; interviews with key stakeholders like school administrators, corporate leaders and potential funders; and a research effort to, among other goals, document best practices from successful programs across the country.

Though a deliberate process, the Blueprint was developed with what Allers calls “a bias toward action,” emphasizing practicable solutions and proven methods. “The workgroups brought nonprofits to the table early,” said Allers, “asking them to help go through the data and figure out the model of a meaningful strategy for, say, tutoring.” And while workgroups on tutoring, mentoring, and family intervention cultivated those strategies, a Data Sub-Committee worked with Brunswick school records to identify students with the greatest “at-risk” indicators for non-graduation. Thanks to those efforts, at-risk students can be found with about 75% accuracy in the 7th grade—meaning intervention services can begin immediately in the 8th.

The Draft Emerges

The Blueprint presented in November is organized around eight points, all aimed at reducing dropout rates in Glynn County by more than 35% by 2017. Those points, backed by specific strategies in the full Blueprint document, are:

- Implementation of a data-driven “at-risk” student identification system
- Outreach to identified students and families
- Student tutoring
- Mentoring support
- Family support services
- Case coordination
- Marketing and community awareness campaign
- Formation of a Blueprint “Implementation Commission”

Nonprofits that deliver education and family services, already a part of the planning process, will play a vital role in the Blueprint’s execution. In September, the Commission invited nonprofits back to the table for a Capacity Assessment Conference that began the work of pairing potential service providers with proposed strategies. There, the Blueprint Commission met with potential providers to find out how they were interested in helping, and what their abilities allowed. “Some organizations are interested that may not have the capacity now,” said Allers, including groups involved in the Blueprint’s design. “But we’re going to work with them to make them service ready.”

The final roster of service providers won’t be announced until after the formation of the Implementation Commission, which will oversee the pilot program starting in January with at-risk student identification and outreach. The Blueprint Commission, meanwhile, is already securing funds for the pilot, with an initial target of $75,000, and has been priming the community awareness effort for months with an informal but effective word-of-mouth campaign. “Brunswick’s a very small town, so you tell someone and most people know,” said Allers. That made the official, community-wide unveiling on Nov. 5 an especially big step: “This is our opportunity to wade into the deep end of the pool.”

Converging the Team and Pressing Ahead

With the Blueprint initiative, UWCGA joins a handful of innovative organizations across the country working to transform communities by reforming and realigning the dysfunctional systems that hold them back.

In bringing together a full community of stakeholders for such an ambitious project, UWCGA joins a handful of innovative projects across the country working to transform communities by reforming and realigning the dysfunctional systems that hold them back. Whatever form it takes—the High School Graduation Blueprint, the Strive Partnership of Greater Cincinnati, the Elizabeth River Partnership in Portsmouth, Va.—the model Mark Kramer describes as Collective Impact has the potential to bring about sweeping changes. The Blueprint produced by the UWCGA’s deliberate, data-driven process is just a preliminary step, but will serve as the foundation for years of work, bringing together the work of hundreds of independent stakeholders to improve the quality of life on the coast. As the process moves into a phase of resource-building and test-piloting before the full program swings into action across Glynn County and, later, McIntosh, Brunswick will undoubtedly be watching—and pitching in.

Marc Schultz is writer/editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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