How can a system map inform your work?

Many funders of early childhood who want to have an impact on really large numbers of children are realizing that funding individual programs isn’t enough. Instead, they have to target the systems and policies that shape early childhood programs throughout their community. Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to bring lessons in evaluating systems change from California to Arizona through an interactive conference session at the First Things First Early Childhood Summit. First Things First, similar to First 5 California, is a voter-approved initiative in Arizona that uses tobacco taxes to ensure high quality child development for children ages 0-5. The annual summit is a great platform where early childhood professionals, stakeholders and supporters can share strategies, research and best practices.

In our session, we shared insights from our system evaluation of a county-wide Healthy Cities initiative supported by First 5 San Bernardino. Over the past several years, First 5 San Bernardino has supported eight of the 26 Healthy Cities and Communities in the county. Healthy Cities and Communities seek to increase health outcomes of a community by bringing together residents, city leaders, programs, and primary care providers to analyze the local needs and assets, and collaboratively address community health needs. All the Healthy Cities and Communities sites in San Bernardino County include cross sector partners and are using customized strategies to reach their goals. Examples of Healthy Cities and Communities strategies include:

  • Changing the built environment of a community to support active lifestyles (e.g., adding sidewalks, parks, or bike paths)
  • Integrating and creating programs to improve health and wellness (e.g., connecting recipients of nutrition classes to local farmer’s markets)
  • Creating organizational and city-wide policies that support health (e.g., lactation accommodation policies for city employees or healthy vending machines for recreational events at city locations)

This mix of strategies makes for a complex evaluation of the Healthy Cities and Communities work, so we focused on three key questions: What is this system trying to accomplish? Who are the “players” in the system? And, how do they interact with one another?

Our system evaluation found that “champions” really matter – Healthy Cities and Communities initiatives with strong city-level support were able to effect more substantial systems change than those without such champions. We also found that, in order to be successful, funders seeking to support existing system interventions need to consider their role in the system. This sometimes means getting out of the way!

During the Early Childhood Summit we took our three evaluation questions and invited First Things First leaders to engage in some live mapping of their own systems (PRO TIP: Check out the ToP Sticky Wall for group mapping exercises). This exercise reflected two key things that we’ve learned in our work:

  • Mapping a system can be helpful to understanding the system and what it’s trying to accomplish, as well as being an evaluation activity that can be replicated at various points in time; and,
  • You can’t do this alone – system mapping only works if all participants map their system together.

This interactive session provided an opportunity for funders, policy makers and program staff in Arizona to “zoom out” from their day-to-day activities and apply a systems lens to their own work—that is, focus on patterns and relationships among the system players as a whole (e.g., nonprofits, policy makers, residents, etc.) rather than between any two players in isolation. Zooming out helped participants—both in San Bernardino and at the Early Childhood Summit—consider how investing in an existing system can impact the community’s youngest children. It also showed them a fun and engaging tool for measuring and sharing that impact.

Check out our First Things First presentation here.

You can also see our Healthy Cities and Communities evaluation report here.