Living SJ and CFICE: A Case Study on Improving Evaluative and Communicative Practices

Summary

Living SJ is network of community leaders from business, three levels of government, non-profits and low income neighbourhoods committed to ending generational poverty in Saint John, New Brunswick. Using a collective impact approach, Living SJ works collaboratively with community stakeholders to achieve its goals. Living SJ worked closely with Community-First: Impacts of Community Engagement (CFICE) within our poverty reduction hub, with a focus on effective evaluation and knowledge mobilization.

The Background

Saint John, New Brunswick has a 33 per cent child poverty rate—double the national average—a large part of which is the result of generational poverty. Saint John, with a population size of 70,000 and a history of collaborative action taken on social initiatives with business leaders and the University of New Brunswick, demonstrate the why and how policies might be changed to positively impact generational poverty.

Living SJ provides a platform where community stakeholders can come together to work on the shared goal of reducing generational poverty, rather than a single organization working alone. This collective approach ensures that the challenge of reducing poverty rates is tackled from as many angles as possible, with the idea being that no single organization or entity is responsible for taking on the challenge unilaterally. A collective impact approach ensures that community members and stakeholders are working in unison on a common agenda with measurable targets, as opposed to working in silos.

Those involved in facilitating poverty reduction in Saint John include a network of over 100 non-profits, business leaders, all levels of government, academic institutions, community members and neighbourhoods. Living SJ follows the five key tenets of a collective impact strategy, including developing a common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support. It has received funding in part from the province of New Brunswick, from a number of philanthropic organizations and from CFICE.

The Challenge

Living SJ established four main priorities which serves as long-term goals: transform low-income neighbourhoods into vibrant mixed income communities; close the education achievement gap; improve the health of residents through neighbourhood-based models of care; and create education and training opportunities that lead to employment for low-income residents.

Living SJ serves as a facilitator for knowledge mobilization amongst its collaborators and the communities and neighbourhoods. This needed to work both ways, with academic and other institutional knowledge being applied at a ground level, and with community-generated knowledge being effectively heard and incorporated into strategies by stakeholders. This involved the development of practical strategies and initiatives involving multiple stakeholders and elements of the community, to address the four priority areas of neighbourhoods, education, health, and employment. Integral to the initiative was mobilizing and sharing the knowledge being produced within all of the priority areas as the project progressed. Having resources for an evaluation would mean helping to facilitate this knowledge mobilization of progress and areas to strengthen.

The Insights, Process, and Solutions

In 2014/15, CFICE worked with Living SJ on its Social Renewal Strategy, which served as a roadmap to achieving the organization’s goal of ending the generational poverty cycle.

A key step in developing a unified approach was effectively evaluating progress and results on an ongoing basis, so that areas that were working well could continue to do so, and other areas that were in need of attention could make the necessary adjustments in order to progress. In 2015/16, with CFICE funding, Living SJ hired a professional evaluator to assess the status of the collective impact strategy and to provide recommendations to improve progress where needed.

Former Living SJ Executive Director Cathy Wright has identified the freedom with which CFICE funding can be utilized as an important element of a collaborative community approach, wherein the community can ultimately decide what to do with the funding.

The first project CFICE and Living SJ undertook together focused on education. The Promise Partnership, a community engagement program at University of New Brunswick (Saint John) wanted to gain further knowledge about the populations they worked with. Partnering with CFICE and Living SJ presented an opportunity to conduct research that could be shared with the broader community.  The team embarked on a two-phased research project that surveyed parents in one of Saint John’s low income neighbourhoods and surveyed UNB Saint John students who volunteered for the Promise Partnership. The findings of this research helped the Promise Partnership with program development and aided the team in understanding more about the populations they worked with. The Promise Partnership supports Living SJ’s goal of closing the education gap.

The Role of Knowledge Mobilization

Knowledge mobilization involves transforming the research and expertise conducted by entities such as academic institutions and non-profits into practical and policy-based results. From the beginning, Living SJ’s approach has been largely supported by a commitment to knowledge mobilization, both in terms of inter-project communication in developing goals, sharing information and results, and in knowledge dissemination to the community-at-large.

Shared goals and cross-sector engagement are both crucial aspects of the collective impact approach, together with consistently sharing knowledge as it is produced. Living SJ’s Social Renewal Strategy, developed in 2014, outlined clear social priorities to reduce generational poverty in Greater Saint John. The four main priorities (as outlined above) were the result of 12 researched issue papers and 27 focus groups. From these, 472 critical needs were identified, which were grouped into 62 issue areas, and finally, four main priorities were developed as a wholesome and results-based approach to tackling poverty reduction. These four priorities were easily communicable to stakeholders, funders, and interested community members.

One of the ways CFICE supported Living SJ’s knowledge mobilization was through facilitating feedback from the community to the program leaders. CFICE research showed that, as a result of the mentoring program between the University of New Brunswick students and children at local public schools, parents and families of the children were more inclined to believe that post-secondary education was within their child’s reach. This shift in attitude among youth and families in the community helped to garner momentum for relevant policy change, coincided with New Brunswick’s Free Tuition Program for low-income households, and is an example of practical knowledge mobilization.

The Results

By providing an external evaluator to measure ongoing initiatives within the collective impact approach, CFICE assisted Living SJ in setting practical and tangible goals. This in turn allowed Living SJ to foster its results-driven approach, something which funders often look for when deciding to contribute to community-based projects. In 2017, Living SJ received provincial funding in the amount of $10 million over five years. The purpose of this Social Innovation Fund is to demonstrate evidenced based initiatives that can be more effective in ending generational poverty and provide a foundation for investing our government and community resources differently.

Through increased measurement of ongoing initiatives, CFICE was able to assist Living SJ in facilitating the communication of shared goals, by way of communication tools such as a website and infographics. Two such infographics were developed, one of which outlines the Living SJ initiative, goals, and priorities, and another which visually identifies the Living SJ partners, and their respective places within the four sectors –business,  government, non-profits and neighbourhoods.

Overall, the collaboration between CFICE and Living SJ served to better facilitate evaluative and communicative practices within the initiative. This in turn functioned to mobilize knowledge between stakeholders, community members, and institutions, in a circular rather than a top-down way. Overall, the partnership contributed to strengthening Living SJ’s effort to end generational poverty.

Visit the Living SJ and CFICE websites to learn more.