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This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Chicago Benchmarking Collaborative (CBC), a partnership of seven well-established education and human services agencies that have committed to working together to implement data-informed program improvements. In honor of this milestone, the CBC has published a how-to guide to help other nonprofits increase their mission impact through collaboration.  

Over the last decade, foundations, government organizations, and sophisticated donors have demanded increased accountability for dollars invested in programs. Those of us doing the work have also learned that data-driven program evaluation produces greater impact. The CBC’s newly published guide, which is titled Increasing Mission Impact through Collaborative Learning, offers advice on how to leverage collaborative effort to increase the impact of evaluation. It is also intended to be useful to funders aiming to standardize data collection from grantees or convene grantees to share data in peer learning forums.  

While the CBC continues to refine its practices, the experiences and successes over the last 10 years have illustrated that effective collaboration is dependent on a few key factors. Among the most important is strong leadership committed to nurturing trust and data-driven work culture. A strong, consistent project facilitator ensures communication, workflow, and the productivity of the partnership. And it’s paramount to build a staff with the technical knowledge and skills to use available technology and reporting systems.  

The CBC guide breaks down the collaborative process into four crucial stages:  

  1. Establish Shared Visions and Goals: Collaboration is time intensive. To make sure all partners get out what they put in, it is important to create shared goals and language. Not every potential partner we invited into the CBC decidedto join and that was okay. We carefully selected partners with shared visions and goals to keep the CBC moving forward, and it was equally imperative that they could fully commit to collaboration.  
  1. Build Capacity for Data Use and Collaborative Learning: This stage is about making sure all the right systems and staff are in place to ensure that the shared goals and visions established in stage one areFor the CBC, this stage included identifying a project facilitator and a project team with defined roles. We also utilized external consultants to help identify what to measure, how to measure it, and how to finance collaborative program evaluation.  
  1. Use Data and Improve Collaborative Practice:If you’ve worked in a nonprofit, you’ve probably been required to load tons of data into systems, but how often was that data made to work for you? The goal here is to make data a tool rather than a weight. In addition to improving reporting systems at individual organizations, staff began meeting across sites to review regular data reports, identify practices that were improving student outcomes, and create professional development strategies for target growth areas. 
  1. Sustain and Institutionalize Systems: At this stage, the collaborative is up and running, your systems are in place, and you want to keep them alive and fresh to create sustained impact. This includes continuing to build trust among partners, developing strategic goals for the future, and creating training systems to onboard new staff. It may also mean developing processes to onboard new partners.
     

The publication of the how-to guide was made possible by a grant from Boeing Global Engagement, which recognized the CBC’s effective approach to collaborative learning and funded the guide to help other organizations replicate this successful model to increase their own impact. For more information on the stages outlined above including practical examples and key questions to ask, please visit www.christopherhouse.org/cbc/


Traci Stanley ensures that Christopher House continues to increase its capacity to have a positive impact on low-income children and their families. Traci currently oversees Christopher House’s evaluation efforts including implementation and maintenance of an agency-wide database system to track outcome information for all programs to help ensure participants receive the highest quality services. Traci is also leading a collaboration of six social service agencies engaged in a project to improve measured evaluation and program quality. 

Prior to her current role, Ms. Stanley previously served as Associate Director and, earlier, Director of Youth Development Services at Christopher House. Through her leadership, tutoring and adult literacy programs expanded to other sites and new program initiatives were launched including mentoring, family literacy, an apprenticeship program, and a college and career preparation program for youth. She increased quality of services by developing evaluation tools and systems to measure and monitor service delivery and improvements in participant status. Ms. Stanley has been with Christopher House since 2000. She is a graduate of DePaul University. 

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