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Getting Started

Whether you are starting to explore ways to grow and sustain an effective initiative or are just starting to understand and coordinate activities around a particular issue, you will need to:

  • Develop both a network of organizations and individuals who have an interest in the work that you want to pursue and an action team of people and organizations who will work closely together on the initiative and are willing to be engaged long term.
  • Develop a goal or vision that is broad and encompasses multiple sectors and multiple problem areas.
  • Determine and define the terms you will use and how you will communicate your initiative both among your partners and with your targeted audiences.
  • Understand the context in which you are doing this work:
    • What challenges do students, families, school staff, and communities face?
    • What resources are already available?
    • What resources are already available and how do they fit within a three-tiered framework?
    • What policies, practices, and funding sources are already in place or being discussed?
  • Develop strategies for how to reach your goal.
    • Is there a disconnect between the available resources and the challenges faced by students that can be addressed?
    • What issues that impact your goal are not being resolved? For example, do you have substance abuse counselors that work with students one-on-one once they have a problem abusing drugs or alcohol, but a poor school climate that causes stress?
    • Is there a state-wide safe school or bullying policy that you can connect to? Or is there a coalition already working in your community on suicide prevention, but they haven’t connected to schools?
    • The strategies could take any number of forms: new policies or practices, realignment or blending of resources, finding programs to fill gaps that were identified, communicating the issues to the community, government officials and more.
  • Collect information to see if your strategies are accomplishing what you want them to and adjust them as necessary.

The activities when you are just starting out closely mirror the four prongs, just at earlier stages. You will still use the worksheets aligned with each prong and continue to add to and change them as your initiative advances.

These nascent steps for each prong are not activities that you do one time and never revisit. As with the prongs, the outlined steps are dynamic. They involve a continuous process. Each iteration builds on previous work and is refined for the most recent information or circumstances.

While you may want to start with the first activity and then follow the activities in sequential order, recognize that just because you have moved on to the next step does not mean that you are finished with the previous step. As you continue to collect information about potential new partners, your goal may adjust over time. The context will continually change and you will need to keep adapting your strategies to meet new challenges.

With a new initiative, there may be a more chronological order to activities, even though they may overlap. Changes and adaptations will also occur at a much faster rate than they will as your initiative matures and takes shape. In the early stages, your network and your knowledge of your community’s assets, challenges, and policy environments will grow rapidly and you will need to be flexible and adjust your strategies and goals to reflect the new information. As you gather more information and broaden your network, there comes a point of recognition that it is time to move towards action and really focus and define your initiative and vision. The work done in the four prongs will help you to this stage. Reaching this point and moving to actions that generate change and continual improvement is the final goal.


Starting to Build Your Action Team and a Stronger Coalition

One of the first steps is to locate and connect with people and organizations who share a similar concern. Start by finding people who are interested in a similar topic or are critical to the success of your initiative. As discussed in the next step, you will want to determine an initial goal or ways to communicate the issue to gather more people to your initiative, knowing that it will need clarifying and revising as you proceed.

Think broadly about who else should be involved. The Identifying Potential Partners worksheet in the Building an Action Team prong provides suggestions on who you should contact. In these initial stages, the goal is to obtain more knowledge about the issue, those already involved, activities already occurring, and the policies and procedures already in place. To do this, you will need to expand your network.

Expect the shape of your meetings to change as you develop a clearer understanding of the landscape and you gather more interested parties to the initiative. A typical progression involves meeting with a small group of friends and colleagues, expanding your network to a large group, and then establishing a more moderate-sized coalition within the broader network. It is also possible that once you start to connect to others, you will find that a coalition is already working on this issue or something similar and you will want to link to them or start a subcommittee. For example, many schools have School Health Advisory Committees (SHACs) or School Wellness Teams, and in some communities, hospitals, government agencies, community organizations, or local foundations may already have a committee or coalition working on your concern and it may be best for you to join or link to them in some way.

From the beginning, it is useful to establish logistics, such as a standard meeting time (typically every 1 to 2 months), and a general purpose for the meetings, such as to discuss the issues, learn from each other, and gather information. Early meetings will probably involve reporting out on new information about the topic, discussing potential partnerships and how to engage them, and what kinds of data would be useful and how to potentially obtain them. Consider inviting expert speakers and practitioners, as well as students, families and others who are impacted, to further inform the issue. Work together on collecting and mapping data and assets.

As the networks grow, start to think about the organizational structures that will enable the work to move forward. While there is not a set structure, many groups have several layers: a small Action Team that guides and leads the initiative, a broader coalition that undertakes activities, and a large network of organizations and people who are interested and willing to help.


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Sometimes the coalition will be organized into committees, such as communications, advocacy, programs, or data collection. There is not a one-size-fits-all way to organize, so choose what works best for your group. Your structure will be guided by your activities, and what and who is available in your community, but the broader you think about your issue and the more encompassing your network, the more influence and impact you will have and the more sustainable your initiative. Rural areas in particular will need to think beyond their usual networks and may consider forming regional coalitions to support the work.

The Action Team prong also has steps and tools on developing a leadership group, but some basic tenets include:

  • It should be a small group of people from diverse sectors, small enough to develop trusting relationships, large enough to ensure diversity.
  • All of them should be senior enough to influence their organization’s agenda and/or leadership, to be able to make and act on commitments. You might consider obtaining organizational commitment from participants as well.
  • Ensure that at least one person has credibility as a neutral party and is strong enough to provide for backbone organization to the effort over the years.
  • They should be willing to invest time and energy to champion the initiative without short-term reward.

Key Actions:

  • Find partners, i.e., additional people who will have ideas about the problem and solutions. Make sure to include the voices of families, students, teachers, and others directly affected.
  • Find allies with authority and with potential to become a champion in time.
  • Look around to see if any organization or small group is working on the issue and build appropriate alliances.
  • Look beyond your usual connections to people and organizations that you may not have known about previously.
  • Determine logistics, such as how frequently you will meet, where you will meet, who will take the lead.
  • Continue to grow and revise your list of partners.

Framing Issues and Challenges

Early on, you will need to start clarifying the issue or area of improvement that you want to work on. Ultimately, it should be specific enough to elicit action but broad enough to encompass many of the partners working in the same area.

Some of the most effective initiatives start with a general concept which evolves and expands with the broader coalition to encompass a variety of concerns. By engaging more partners in the process of developing the goal, you also enable more engagement and loyalty to the initiative. The Action Team will then be guided by this goal. For example, the United Way of Northern New Jersey gathered a cross-section of organizations, businesses, families, and students to talk about the issues faced by middle school students. As a coalition, they identified improving climate as an overarching goal. Armed with this broad objective, each sector focused on ways they could influence the climate (for example, local businesses worked on welcoming teenagers to their businesses) while the Action Team worked on connecting resources, policies, and programs to the school environments.

Key Actions:

  • Formulate the challenge, at least in an initial iteration of the issue. Note that ultimately, you will want to put this in positive terms – how do you picture the ideal outcome and what do you want the community to look like, rather than focusing on the negative aspects of the current situation. This will probably be one of the first steps you take once you have found a small group of partners. You will need to be able to communicate what you want to address so that you can grow your coalition.
    • Write down characteristics of what you see, i.e., a short problem statement, as well as a statement that focuses on strengths.
    • Identify existing efforts and thoughts on places to look to identify others who may also be interested or concerned about these issues.
    • Get beyond a single child’s problem or a single solution to understand the broader situation:
      • What are the difficulties children and families are facing?
      • What are social and environmental factors that impact the immediate problem and that likely create challenges for children and families in the community?
      • How can the issue be addressed earlier in the child’s development and academic career so it does not have a large impact when the child is older?
  • As your coalition grows, you should revise your vision as a group so that it includes the information you have gathered, as well as includes the ideas or objectives of the whole coalition. You will want to:
    • Reframe the issues – which may seem to be “problems” at first – to consider multiple perspectives on the circumstances and use positive, strengths-based terms. Reframing from problems to positive statements can be tricky. It might be useful to think about what an ideal situation would look like rather than what is missing or detrimental.
    • Shape the issues in actionable terms, that is, in ways that you can see what you could do to find solutions.
    • Begin to outline the common goal:
      • What precipitating issue or challenge brings you together?
      • Why is this a concern that crosses agency or sector boundaries?
      • How will meeting this challenge have a positive impact on student success and development?
      • What can we do to make this situation better? (This is also useful when communicating your purpose to others for it engages them in the discussion.)

Examples of goals include: Provide children with a stable housing situation, or create a positive climate for middle school students so they feel accepted and respected.

Additional information on creating goals and worksheets for communications and developing a strategy are available in the Communications prong.



As you continue to develop your Action Team and coalition and refine your goals, it will be important to better understand what is happening in the community around this issue. What programs or services are already being provided? What is happening in the community, local government, and the state that could impact the issue in either a positive or negative way?

Key Actions:

Environmental scan

Conduct an initial environmental scan, an inventory of programs and other resources, with perhaps a simple audit of program strengths and shortcomings in relation to student well-being. Programs should be vetted for evidence base, quality and outcomes and possibly realigned to use resources effectively and efficiently. Your network and defined goals will be useful in identifying resources and communicating your purpose.

This is where the three-tiered approach is crucial. As your team identifies these programs in the school or in the community, organize them by reviewing which tier they fit into: are they for all children, some children, or those who need individualized attention? Be aware that some programs may encompass more than a single tier and that different communities may view a similar program in a different light. Each community is unique, which is why planning must be done by multiple members of the community.

  • Tier 1 (universal programs for all children):
    • Examples might be: Social and emotional learning curricula, conflict resolution, anti-stigma campaigns, school-wide climate strategies and practices, restorative practices
  • Tier 2 (early intervention programs for some children at elevated risk):
    • Examples might be: group counseling for students experiencing stress, study skills for those with attention/concentration problems, behavior management for children lacking impulse control, parenting classes
  • Tier 3 (targeted programs for students with identified problems):
    • Examples might be: individual therapy or referral to off-site therapy for students with diagnosed conditions, medication management, family therapy

Use the Mapping Assets tools to help you start on this step. The tools will help you identify areas you may have overlooked and organize the information to see how the various programs fit together.

As you move forward,

  • Start to collect data about the extent of the problem/challenge and about any remedies that may be available.
  • Think about what data you require to solve the problem and cross-walk data from various agencies.
  • Look for publicly available data, such as from your local hospital or health agency (non-profit hospitals, for example, are required to conduct a Community Health Needs Assessment), state agencies, schools (ESSA requires school report cards with specific indicators such as chronic absenteeism), local agencies (for information on areas such as homelessness), and more.

This environmental scan and initial data collection effort may help you refine the issues:

  • You may conclude that you cannot find data on your first iteration of a challenge or that the data tell you something other than what you first thought.
  • After mapping existing programs and resources against the three-tiered framework, you may see a gap you had not seen earlier.

A certain amount of questioning uncertainty will help your action team find its way to a plan and strategy.

Start to collect information on the state and local policies, practices, and procedures.

Use the Connecting to with the Policy Environment tool to help you explore the policies and programs that could be available in your state or community.

Devise an Initial Strategy with Goals and Objectives

With the identified partners, examine the challenge you have identified and the initial data you have obtained.

This is the step where you are moving from vision and information collection to strategies and action and it is a pivot that is difficult for many groups. Ultimately, you want to pinpoint some reachable changes that will improve the situation and initiate actions to make it happen. If you identify a number of changes, prioritize them by those that will have the most impact and be quickest to achieve. Once accomplished, attempt those that may take more long-term strategies.

Lay out a common agenda:

  • What may be causing the issue? What social determinants of the problem do you see and that you have the ability to change?
  • What kinds of actions could you envision for changing the situation?
  • Who is in charge of these processes, e.g., state or local officials, private agencies?
  • What data/information will help you make your case?
  • What data will help you measure success in your actions?
  • Will changes be necessary in data collection to measure collective impact?
  • What state or local processes would you envision impacting?
  • Can you see possible re-alignments of current resources?

Discussions and negotiations with a coalition or network focused on a related topic will influence the strategy you pursue.

Since this is an initiative that focuses on processes that link multiple pieces, your strategy should examine:

  • Financing opportunities in state and local budgets.
  • Capacity development and professional development work with stakeholders to engage them in systems change.
  • Ensuring that data provide your work with realistic updates on change.

You may identify numerous programs at the Tier 3 level and fewer at the Tier 1 level, a common finding.  Or, you may find major gaps in one of the tiers. Often essential programs exist but a realignment of how they are used is necessary.

  • What opportunity for programmatic and systems change does your leadership group see?
  • Can you identify the social determinants of the challenge you are focusing on? What environmental conditions serve to keep these challenges fixed?
  • What strengths are you bringing to the effort? What weaknesses can you identify and can you find a way to overcome them?
  • What resources (money, people, political support) do you need to pursue that change?
  • What barriers might stand in your way (money, people, political opposition)?
  • Can you break the tasks down into manageable chunks? (Those might be goals.)
  • What specific activities can you foresee and who might carry them out? (Those can become your objectives.)

Talk with local and state elected and appointed officials to understand the environment in which you plan to pursue the identified changes. These people can provide valuable guidance on opportunities for policy, program, and practice change or link you to other people – advocates, elected or appointed officials, business leaders – pursuing change in related areas.

Use Connecting with the Policy Environment to help you ascertain what issues are percolating in your locality or state and discuss whether they are pertinent to the challenge you wish to take up. Then you can determine what type of intervention or interventions will address the issue.


Updated June 2018

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