By Sarah Johns and Osnat Zur. Johns is a Senior Research Associate and Zur is the Director of Early Childhood Learning and Development; they both serve at WestEd.

Collective impact initiatives bring together community members and leaders from various sectors to tackle complex challenges faced by children and families, such as racial disparities in poverty. These initiatives aim to

  • establish ways of working together;
  • develop a shared understanding of community problems and assets;
  • define short- and long-term objectives and identify success metrics;
  • identify key drivers of inequities; and
  • address inequities and promote whole-family, two-generation support.

This post shares insights into measuring the progress of equity-focused, community-driven collective impact initiatives. This information may be helpful for

  • community leaders, including local government officials, school district leaders, and advocates for early childhood development; and
  • evaluators searching for effective ways to track the success of collective impact initiatives striving for equitable outcomes for children and families.

Challenges to Assessing Collective Impact Initiatives

Complex and continually evolving, collective impact initiatives involve various individuals with diverse roles, and the dynamics of their relationships and connections evolve over time. These fluctuations are often shaped by changes in the local sociopolitical environment. This complexity presents a significant challenge in assessing their progress as a unified, long-term effort toward specific goals.

Evaluating collective impact initiatives that aim to promote equity and community engagement in early childhood systems poses distinct challenges. These initiatives often take several years to transform existing systems and make substantial improvements for children and families in specific communities.i

Evaluators shoulder a significant responsibility in this process. Their primary task is to assess whether the foundational work required for meaningful and enduring transformation within the community has been adequately established.
This assessment holds immense importance because it provides critical feedback to communities about their progress toward achieving sustained success in the long term.

In the past, evaluation methods for systems change initiatives did not explicitly include considerations for promoting racial equity and increasing community decision-making power.ii This underscores the pressing necessity of innovative approaches and techniques to assess progress in these critical domains.

Creating Rubrics for Fresno County’s P–5 Program

In a collaborative effort, WestEd and Fresno’s Cradle to Career evaluated Fresno County’s Preconception to Age 5 (P–5) portfolio.iii This initiative, part of Fresno County’s Developing the Region’s Inclusive & Vibrant Economy (DRIVE) plan, aims to foster inclusive economic growth and create a culturally responsive family support model to enhance child outcomes, including a reduction in preterm births, improvement of kindergarten readiness, and a boost in 3rd grade reading and math proficiency.

The P–5 Portfolio focuses on equity and community engagement, especially for Black and African American families and families in poverty. Initial investments (2020–22) aimed at expanding access to culturally responsive services; empowering community-driven decision-making; and building civic infrastructure, including a dedicated team for guidance and efforts in data sharing and integration.

WestEd evaluated the P–5 portfolio during its initial 2 years of implementation. The goal was to measure its progress in promoting equity within early childhood systems in the short term and in ensuring sustainable impacts on children and families in the long term.

To evaluate progress, WestEd designed four rubrics outlining key milestones for successful equity-promoting systems change initiatives.

7 Strategies for Promoting Equity in Early Childhood Systems

Systems change rubrics serve as more than just tools for evaluators. They incorporate essential strategies from research on how to create lasting impacts on children and families in local communities.iv

In the case of the P–5 portfolio evaluation, these rubrics outline seven crucial strategies that local leaders should consider including in their efforts to build equitable early childhood systems.

Establish a Shared Vision With Equity at the Center. To empower historically excluded communities in decision-making, we must transform mindsets and narratives concerning racial equity and community engagement.

“I think the way that [our initiative] has benefited is in part, the focus on equity and just being able to talk about equity and what it looks like, and how it is perceived from different places and spaces.”
—Interview with a P–5 Initiative Leader

Place-based systems change initiatives typically begin this monumental task by

  • creating a shared vision within the initiative, defining what racial equity and community engagement mean in this context;
  • enhancing collaborators’ understanding of equity’s benefits for the entire community and the group’s collective equity goals; and
  • devising and sharing common strategies to align current practices with equity objectives.

As your initiative progresses, spread awareness of equity beyond your partners by sharing equity-focused messages with the broader community. In this journey, the backbone team plays a crucial role in nurturing a strong shared vision and laying the foundation for essential civic infrastructure.

Focus on Changing Systems, Policies, and Environments. To promote equity in early childhood systems, the initiative must prioritize changing systems, policies, and environments. Begin by enhancing organizational practices and services for greater equity while monitoring equitable access, quality, and impact. As time progresses, shift your focus toward broader policy, environmental, or systemic factors perpetuating disparities.

Develop a policy agenda, allocate resources for policy change efforts, and disseminate equity data within your communities. This transition necessitates increased backbone team capacity to aid policy development, data infrastructure, and public communication.

Engage Communities in Systems Change. To support community residents to engage in systems change, provide opportunities for their active participation and ensure their readiness to engage.

“Suddenly, the door was open to a different type of engagement, where the people directly impacted by the policies and discussions around children’s policy could be integrated. … We want to bring resident voice to the forefront, and that really manifests through the Residents Council.”
—Interview with a P–5 backbone team member

“The biggest reason why I made the decision to belong to this Council is the opportunity to hear the needs of my rural community. So I believe that where we are right now, each one of us (on the Residents Council) is in the perfect place to be heard and to be able to take our ideas to our community, and then all of us together are going to achieve great changes.”
—Residents Council member focus group participant

Initially, leaders can create formal roles for community members in planning, decision-making, and communication. Invest in building resident capacity through training on community organizing principles, issue identification, and community interventions. Promote diverse participation by offering accessible materials and meetings for residents with varying literacy levels and languages. It is essential to compensate residents for their time.

As your efforts gain momentum, advocate for increased resident influence in broader community systems and authentic opportunities for residents to participate in decision-making processes.

For more information on engaging community residents in equity-focused, systems change work, refer to WestEd’s recently published guidance.v

Expand Access to Culturally Responsive Services. To overhaul systems for historically marginalized communities, prioritize family services that are both high in quality and culturally responsive. Engage the community in choosing investments, striking a balance between evidence-based programs and innovative programs codeveloped with specific communities.

Allocate resources for recruiting a diverse workforce, crafting accessible program materials, and offering continuous training to an early childhood workforce capable of delivering culturally responsive services. Guarantee that families can participate in high-quality services by providing access to materials, additional services, and monetary stipends.

Establish and execute a plan to monitor the delivery of culturally responsive services effectively and to evaluate the effectiveness of innovative services codeveloped with community residents.

Leverage Data for Equity. Data-driven decision-making is fundamental for equitable systems. Early in implementation, initiatives typically focus on utilizing available data to make decisions that prioritize equity in resource allocation, determining data types by identifying the types of data that need to be collected for equity-focused assessments within the initiative, building data capacity by strengthening partners’ capacity to collect and utilize data for effective decision-making, and creating data infrastructure to establish an integrated data and reporting system across partners, facilitating collaborative decision-making.

In choosing data to collect, initiatives addressing inequitable systems must consider qualitative and quantitative indicators, data that can be disaggregated by race or other priority factors, indicators of the functioning of systems and individuals, and implementation and outcome indicators. Community involvement is crucial in developing the shared measurement system, interpreting data, and making necessary adjustments.

“And for me, [the data] was a really important picture to show how chaotic our systems of care were. And yet we all realized that these are all the same families and children that we would like to be serving. And there were all these disconnects [in] services.” —Interview with a P–5 initiative leader

As your initiative advances, integrated data allow for regular publication of local data, aiding in community planning.

Foster a Culture of Collaboration and Learning. Create a culture of collaboration and learning within your initiative. Encourage ongoing collaboration among diverse stakeholders, emphasizing shared learning and adapting strategies as needed. Celebrate successes and learn from failures. Foster open communication and create spaces for continuous improvement and innovation.

“I give a lot of credit to C2C [the P–5 backbone team]. I think they’ve really allowed us to get to know each other as an organization and really see what each of our organizations are able to bring to help support the community, where it’s not about an organization—rather it’s about the community needs.” —Interview with a P–5 Initiative Leader

Secure Long-Term Investment in Equity. Lastly, secure long-term investments in equity.

“But at the end of the day if they’re not investing into our communities, and they’re just making these empty promises, then nothing’s really going to change. So that’s why I say we need these investments into communities. …So that one day all these investments are going to pay off and that everyday people like us from these neighborhoods are going to end up in these positions of power where we could continue those investments into our community, so that all our communities would be equal one day.”
—Residents Council member focus group participant

Recognize that implementing these strategies requires substantial investment in community capacity building and local civic infrastructure. A dedicated backbone team is essential to maintain momentum across diverse actors working toward a shared community vision. Encourage funders to consider sustained investments over time to bring about meaningful improvements in local communities.

Together, these strategies can pave the way for equity in early childhood systems, creating communities where all children can thrive regardless of race or zip code. Make equity the driving force in your initiatives rather than an afterthought, and evaluators should focus on measuring progress toward equitable early childhood systems. It is a collective effort that holds the promise of brighter, more equitable futures for our children and families.


i Equal Measure. (2019). StriveTogether evaluation report: 2015–2017: Executive summary. StriveTogether.

ii Wolff, T., Minkler, M., Wolfe, S. M., Berkowitz, B., Bowen, L., Butterfoss, F. D., Christens, B. D., Francisco, V. T., Himmelman, A. T., & Lee, K. S. (2016). Collaborating for equity and justice: Moving beyond collective impact. Nonprofit Quarterly.

iii Cradle to Career. (n.d.). Early childhood. Fresno County.

iv Wolff et al., 2016; Hilliard-Boone, T., Lavelle, M., DePatie, H., Adhikari, S., Ali, Maliha, Childers, T., Firminger, K., Ogletree, A., Pathak-Sen, E., Powell, W., & Schultz, E. (2021). Aligning systems with communities to advance equity through shared measurement: Guiding principles (Prepared for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation). American Institutes for Research.; Holley, K. (2016). The principles for equitable and inclusive civic engagement. The Kirwin Institute. Fresno Cradle to Career, personal communication, January 2022); StriveTogether. (2021). Theory of action.

v Valdez, A., Cerna, R., & Hashmi, S. (2023). Participatory systems change for equity: An inquiry guide for child-, youth-, and family-serving agencies. WestEd.