Developing New Muscles: Communities Foundation of Texas’ Journey in System Fitness

Developing New Muscles: Communities Foundation of Texas’ Journey in System Fitness

Three years after making the decision to invest in Dallas’ working poor, guest bloggers Sarah Cotton Nelson and Wende Burton of Communities Foundation of Texas (CFT) reflect on the role of emergent strategy and how modest investments in system fitness can catalyze a community dialogue (moderated by Patty Russell).

You chose to invest in the Working Poor ecosystem before making individual CFT program investments. Why?

When CFT’s trustees first decided to focus on services and support for the working poor, we had very little knowledge of the space. We had to get up to speed on what was working nationally and learn who in our community was serving this just-above-poverty group. Taking a year off from programmatic grantmaking to learn as much as we could about working poor ecosystem across Dallas was an invaluable investment. This research gave us a chance to get to know the players, gain a feel for the dynamics, and fund research that helped inform our understanding of the community’s needs before making our own investments.

What did you learn about the community’s needs?

We identified two significant needs at the system level:

  1. a lack of up-to-date data on the needs and challenges of today’s working poor, and
  2. a lack of knowledge among many nonprofits regarding how to best use data to drive decisions and strategy.

How did you go about addressing the need for more data? What happened next?

CFT’s first system investment was a grant to gather and publish data about the working poor in the Dallas community. The resulting CFED Assets and Opportunity Profile for Dallas was the first local information about realities facing the working poor that had been compiled in more than a decade, and it revealed the sizable scope and scale of financial insecurity among Dallas residents. One key revelation: 39% of Dallas households could not survive for three months above the poverty level if they lost their job that day.

We were stunned by the community’s overwhelming interest in the data. More than 275 people (legislators, school board members, county officials, nonprofit staff) turned out for a standing-room-only CFED data briefing. We had unknowingly stumbled onto something for which there was pent-up demand. This modest investment helped to spark a city-wide conversation about the challenges facing the working poor.

These data also changed how we as a foundation interacted with the community. Although we weren’t yet making programmatic grants in this area, CFT suddenly found itself in the middle of the discussion, alongside knowledgeable partners familiar with the space who could serve as a compass for CFT’s next major system investment. Particularly beneficial teachers to us were the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Citi, and the Thomson Family Foundation, all of whom had already been working for years on helping low income working families increase their economic security and stability.

What were you able to do to address the need for more nonprofit capacity around the use of data?

While the release of the CFED report energized conversations around the city, focus groups with nonprofits told us that an even greater issue for many was a lack of a general capacity or technical expertise to source, interpret and use data when creating program and organizational strategies. Given this, our second systems-level investment was the creation of the Data Driven Decision-making Institute (nicknamed the D3 Institute), a year-long training program restricted to 16 agencies at a time focusing on data use in strategy development for working poor programs. D3’s goal: to not only strengthen the capacity of each agency to individually inform their own strategies based on good data, but also to cultivate new connections and partnerships across the working poor ecosystem to strengthen the sector as a whole. Sixteen agencies a year have now participated in the D3 for the past three years.

Is the D3 training working?

It looks like it, from all indications (link to report). Our developmental evaluation shows that D3 has already increased participating nonprofits’ capacity to effectively use data in their work, both in the year they participate, and also in the year (so far) following their time in the Institute. Similarly, the increased “connectivity” that naturally results from the program appears to be having a compounding positive effect on the social impact we are trying to achieve. As people and agencies reach out to partner and hand off, we see inefficiencies and redundancies being whittled down within the system. Finally, those on the front lines also benefit from the collective power of working toward a larger shared vision.

What are your reflections on what you have observed or learned from this process?

Admittedly, we benefited from incredible timing and partners in this project, but we do come away from the experience with three big reflections:

  1. You have to figure out what you don’t know. We were novices on the issue, which meant we never felt we knew the answer, or even definitively how to get the answer. This made us more dependent on listening, partnering, sensing, and tacking with community winds than most foundation staff (including us) usually are. There is often a great deal of wisdom in the “space between” that we foundation staffers don’t regularly stop to hear, or which our own systems are not ideally set up to capture and respond to.
  2. A supportive board is critical to success. While logic models can be good, they are often insufficient when working across a big space: you constantly need to recalibrate as assumptions (both small and large) shift and change, and the ability to do that takes awareness, discipline, and a “sensing” skill that is not often taught in the same course as logic model construction. We credit our trustees for allowing us the flexibility to operate in this fashion. While the goal and the vision were articulated by them and agreed-upon, the method for intervention day-to-day is not always as clear. An emergent approach requires trustees and leaders who are willing to let staff re-write portions of the playbook mid-game. A big thank you to ours for hanging in with us through the opaque start-up period, until the results of CFT’s investments became more tangible.
  3. Investing in organizational fitness across the ecosystem shifts the power dynamic for the better. There is no doubt that we as a foundation benefited from the system investments we made. We now have deeper, stronger relationships with 48 agencies than we ever had before. Closer and more regular contact with key stakeholders means we have a greater understanding and more real-time input on the needs, challenges, and triumphs of the organizations and their participants. It changes the power dynamic. We feel and behave as partners, rather than benevolent entities that parachute in to “save the day” with our dollars and our ideas. In the end, this shift allows us to navigate the system better, and to maximize CFT’s dollars by tailoring their use to the areas most likely to result in the greatest total positive change. We get a greater social return for our investment because our grants are informed by the very members of the community that know the problem best.

While still a work in progress, this experience has afforded us a new lens on the role CFT can play in our community. Darren Walker beautifully captured our shared perspective in his recent comments in SSIR, a notion we hope others in the field will embrace in the coming years:

“…we in philanthropy need to reorient the way we see ourselves. We frequently assume that foundations are central protagonists in the story of social change, when, really, we are the supporting cast.”    – Darren Walker


Sarah Cotton Nelson serves as CFT’s Chief Philanthropy Officer. Prior to joining CFT, Ms. Nelson spent 12 years as a survey research methodologist with the RAND Corporation.

Wende Burton is Community Philanthropy Director at CFT and oversees the Data Driven Decision-Making Institute.

Patty Russell is a Managing Director at FSG, co-author of Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World, and led the consulting team that collaborated with CFT on its initial working poor strategy.

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