United Way of Steele County

Report date
March 2016

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

Early in our grant we were very successful in bringing many voices to the process of identifying the community’s need(s) for innovations that would address the barriers that residents of our community were experiencing in achieving good health, a living wage and an education that prepared them for success. This community assessment phase was both socio-economically and racially diverse and used multiple methods (focus groups, surveys and a town hall) for residents to share their experiences, frustrations and successes. Community members spoke of the profound experience of being heard and of hearing from some parts of the community for the first time. This launched our innovation process on the foundation of inclusion and collaboration and gave legitimacy and genuine purpose to the work. The community voices framed the problems to be addressed and began to talk about the solutions that they thought would meet their needs. There were so many important and interconnected issues raised that we set out to accomplish multiple innovations rather than just the single initiative we originally envisioned.
Another key component of our work was convening across organizational boundaries. As we began to change our role in the community, we convened and aligned new partners with shared interest and expertise who had not been working together before. Public Health, health providers, local food businesses, the City of Owatonna, and nonprofits working with low income residents worked together to provide affordable local produce that could be purchased with SNAP. We are now able to go back to our Farmers Market to see if they will adopt the program.

Presented with the need for financial stability for low-income community members, bankers worked with financial advisors and a non Profit called Exchange Club Center for Family Unity to develop and implement a program called Incent to Save where systematic small savings are paired with financial literacy coaching and matched with private and non-profit funds to help clients establish an emergency savings account.
Getting things done early, including having the funding to back up innovative ideas resulted in greater awareness and acceptance of United Way as a partner. Personal relationships that developed during the community assessment and early implementation phases built momentum on multiple other projects. A leading manufacturer and employer in town, a private bus company and the United Way are piloting an affordable shuttle service to work at shift change times when no public options were available. This pilot got additional private funding from the Otto Bremer Trust and has already attracted other businesses in town interested in participating. A successful pilot will result in a new public option for mass transportation that was not justifiable to the state of MN without proven ridership. In early childhood education, public and private preschools joined together with the regional public transportation provider to address the lack of transportation as a barrier to preschool enrollment. This group is currently planning to launch a preschool transportation option that is affordable for all our families through grants from MNDOT as well as local private funding support.

Key lessons learned

We underestimated how labor-intensive innovation is in its early phases! It seemed early on that a lot of energy was being expended without much result. We have begun to talk about innovation with a Flywheel analogy. When there is considerable inertia, considerable torque is needed to change the direction of the momentum. We spent considerable staff and volunteer time on building trust and communication across stakeholders on the issues that were identified early in the innovation process. Then suddenly the direction changed, energy was released and there is now considerable momentum in projects to address many of the needs we identified as well as new solution ideas being generated. Now this momentum is being shown in the work described above as well as new health partnerships and school-health business partnerships.
Innovating and implementing innovation presents a challenge to old stake holders who thought they were the primary players on an issue. We have gotten either pushback or nonparticipation from the Food Shelf as we began to take a broader look at innovations in food access and food security. Similarly with center based preschool providers as we are now beginning to innovate around making sure all children are ready for Kindergarten through better assessment of preschool students and communication with kindergarten providers. We are questioning our processes around how we lead in this new space without others getting territorial.
We recognize the importance and the challenge of continuing to identify needs and increase collective understanding of issues as they change. For example, we just discovered that now that we think we have achieved a breakthrough on affordable transportation for public and private preschool children, we have learned that the local Head Start has made significant cuts in their services for the upcoming year. This points to the fact that increasing the collective understand is not a one-time process and so requires a mechanism to continue engagement across race and class, which is still hard. It also points to the difficulty of ongoing communication across race and class. While families talked about transportation as a barrier to enrolling their child, there are other barriers to them enrolling in Head Start that include perceptions and attitudes around racial diversity in our community. We are still working on building in mechanisms to continue to listen while we innovate, especially regarding how we continue to engage people of color and diverse socioeconomic groups.

Reflections on the community innovation process

As we begin to see innovation happening in our community and are identified as facilitators of innovation, we are experiencing the bottom arrow in the innovation process diagram which sends us back to the beginning for new issues. We feel that this shows that we are building a culture of innovation. Our partners now see the ups and downs and swirls of that creative capacity building and problem solving which represents the move from Identify need to Community Innovation and are building a tolerance for the risk it takes as individual stakeholders and as collaborators to make innovation happen within a community. We, as leaders, and they, as participants, are gaining that confidence inspiring experience to know that this change is not a straight line, nor is it strictly predictable in any sense. If we have patience, take our lessons from our “failures”, look for unseen pathways, and work together we will be able to navigate problems through to innovation.

Progress toward an innovation

We have achieved breakthroughs in the working processes and relationships within our community. As a result of this work, those relationships are more inclusive, equitable and sustainable. As an example, when the hospital used to do a health assessment as part of community engagement they would have 5-6 hospital employees make decisions about community priorities. Now our hospital CEO and the hospital community engagement director are on several community-wide working groups. These groups consist of the other top level decision- makers in community health (Public Health Director and staff members, Mayo Clinic staff, South Country Health Alliance (regional provider of health insurance for Medicare/Medicaid populations) but also lower level staff members working in health and health insurance agencies, mental health and nutrition providers, and representatives from nonprofits who serve all sectors of our community.

What it will take to reach an innovation?

Although we are starting to see real momentum in innovation in our community, we know that we will need to continue to convene community members to assess how new projects are going and what needs are still not being met. In addition, we plan to do a deeper dive/ community assessment on at least one area- income, education and health each year with a three year rotation. We also recognize the importance of engaging members of the population who receive these innovative services to ensure the new programs are meeting their needs and, if not, what could be changed to improve the outcomes for them. Ultimately, engaging or identifying and training leaders in those populations would create the most meaningful innovation in our community.

What's next?

We are planning to continue the pilot projects we have begun to launch in 2015 and are launching some new ones in 2016. In addition we are starting to align our own grant making portfolio with our new strategic objectives. United Way is working toward funding programs that create opportunities for academic success, to escape poverty, and increase health rather than just meeting basic needs. As we move forward we are looking at how we continue to get innovation and alignment to the vision in our partner agencies. We have gotten some pushback from basic needs organizations like the Food Shelf who are hesitant to change their work to incorporate new partners or new projects that address health and obesity.

If you could do it all over again...

Continue to invite people to the table. This is exciting work which inspires people. They have a greater ownership of the outcomes, and pride in the better community on the other side, if they’ve been involved in the hard, sometimes tedious work of discovery. The pride our partners are now displaying is profound and creates its own invitation to others in the civic arena. Those of us who work in nonprofit or aspire to change our community sometimes worry about exposing the “movers and shakers” to the un-pretty side of making change. But many of them are looking for a way to make real improvements in their environment and rarely get the opportunity to do so beyond planning meetings and steering committees. Our partners are creating broad confidence in the process by their experience. This will allow us to continue our pathway to innovation.

One last thought

This work has leveraged community resources. There are now collaborations with 44 Partner Organizations in the Community. We had 1,237 volunteers working on planning and implementing one or more aspects of the Strategic Plan with a total of 2,454 volunteer hours which equates to $53,000 in in-kind value. This is a tremendous success for a community of 35,000 people.