My Day at the White House

I was surprised (no, stunned) and honored with an invitation to the White House early last week for a meeting that took place at the end of the week. I was clueless why I received the invitation, especially on such short notice, so I called and asked if it was a mistake and, if not, what were they thinking? It wasn’t a mistake but the person I spoke with couldn’t tell me why I was invited (which is not exactly a confidence builder). It was all a bit mysterious but I went anyway thinking it was probably a mistake and I would either get thrown out or picked up by the Secret Service. Still, just in case, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

After five security stops (one online and four in person), I got into the building and I learntjust-me why I had been invited. It seems a recent research paper that Ed Saunders and I published earlier this year in Community Development, the journal of the Community Development Society, got some attention. Ed, who is the former Director of the School of Social Work at the University of Iowa, and I have been collaborators for 25 years, since 1991. Our recent research and paper on the integration of community engagement, collective impact, and sustainable community development grabbed the interest of a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official and that person, in turn, moved it up to the White House.

I was invited to the meeting as a way of introducing me and our work to the people in the Administration and around the country who are working on the President’s Promise Zones initiatives in 22 disadvantaged communities. (Also, my Midwestern self-deprecating roots tell me I should note that I was an easy “get” for the meeting because I live only 30 minutes away.) Because this is a 10 year initiative that is not tied to a Federal budget line, it is expected that the Promise Zones initiative will survive the change of administration later this year.

The unique, and apparently appealing, facet of our work is that it situates the social change phenomenon of collective impact within the larger framework of community development. Collective impact has been widely adopted by government, funders, and communities around the globe.

Many thanks, and kudos, to Norm Walzer, the editor of the special collective impact issue of Community Development.  I’m sure Norm is always pleased to know when people are reading the journal.

Thanks as well to Paul Born and Liz Weaver and their crew at Tamarack Institute for giving me the blogging and workshop space to vet, and vent, some of our ideas to their constituents in Canada. Tomorrow I head back to Toronto to be with them again in the Community Change Institute this coming week where I’ll be a learning lab leader and also lead a couple of workshops. It is always great fun to work with them!

Ed Saunders and I have enjoyed a long collaboration on program development, evaluation, theory development, and testing. It is gratifying to know that people are reading and finding value in our work. My work with Ed has been some of the most enjoyable and satisfying of my career.

It is even better if our hard work contributes to making the world a better place, especially for those who are disadvantaged and marginalized in our society.

It was a far more interesting and amazing day than I expected. I didn’t get thrown out or taken away by the Secret Service, but it was still an exciting day.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every day.

Tom Klaus

A Community Thrives in Baltimore

Baltimore is a city with challenges. Trials of the police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 are currently ongoing. Both this year and last, in the week before Memorial Day and in an unsettling coincidence, the city recorded its 100th homicide of the year. One television station even reported the mark was reached on the same day, May 27th. To many outside of Baltimore all of this seems a little too much like the fictional Baltimore portrayed in the popular television show of a few seasons back, The Wire. Despite both the reality and perceptions of Baltimore, there is at least one place with a deep, thriving sense of community.

The concept of “community school” has been making a comeback. Community schools are “centers of the community and are open to everyone – all day, every day, evenings and weekends.” Today this is considered innovative. In the past, particularly in rural areas, the school was the center of the community. There are still some communities, where consolidation could not take hold, where it is still true.

I attended a community school…Morning Sun Community Schools, more precisely. Morning Sun, Iowa is a tiny rural community (population 836 in the 2010 census) in Southeast Iowa, only a few miles from the Mississippi River. Today, because of school consolidation that swallowed it up in the early 1990’s, it has only an elementary school. Nonetheless, that elementary school, with 145 students, is about the same size as the whole district at the time I graduated from high school. My graduating class was 24 students, which actually seemed pretty large to us at the time.

In my hometown the school was the center of community life. The school and its grounds hosted every aspect of social and cultural life in the town. It hosted scouting programs, the local Lions and Lionesses Clubs, summer Little League, Memorial Day and 4th of July celebrations, community dinners and dances, and the social event of the year: the Junior/Senior Prom. It was where we voted and received our vaccinations. It was the cultural center where band concerts, theatrical productions, and “donkey basketball” matches were staged. Okay, so maybe donkey basketball is not really a cultural event but the donkeys were pretty classy. It was the sports arena where we gathered to watch junior high and high school football, baseball, softball, basketball, and wrestling. Like today’s community schools, it was open every day of the week and it seemed like something was always happening there. Our school was the glue that held the Morning Sun community together.

In Baltimore there is another school, Wolfe Street Academy, which is doing something similar today to knit together its community within Baltimore. Wolfe Street Academy is a part of the Baltimore City Public Schools. The school’s focus on integrating academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement through community partnership causes it to stand out and bring hope to a city that too often struggles to find and hold hope. Wolfe Street Academy is a Pre-K through 5th grade school and historically has served the most recent immigrant populations. Today over 80% of its students speak a language other than English at home. Ninety-six percent of its students are from low-income households. As a community school, Wolfe Street Academy is a place which ensures students succeed academically, socially, and emotionally through a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.

Wolfe Street Academy is a success story of deep community, collective impact, collaboration, and hope that needs to be told.

Fortunately, the people at Washington, DC’s public television station, WETA, thought so too. WETA has produced How a Community School Helps English Language Learners (ELLs) Succeed, a 13-minute feature on its ¡Colorín colorado! website about the Wolfe Street Academy.  ¡Colorín colorado! is a bilingual site for educators and families of English language learners.

In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit some bias about the work being done at Wolfe Street Academy. I have been there a couple of times in the past to help my spouse, Clemencia Vargas, with her students and I have been amazed and moved by what I have seen. Clemencia’s students, though, are the dental students from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry who provide oral health screening to Wolfe Street Academy. My role is typically to take pictures and otherwise stay out of the way. I see enough, though, to know this is a special place for many children and their families. It is truly a community school.

By the way, you will see Clemencia in a couple of fleeting scenes in the WETA video but you can see a longer interview with her about the dental screening program at Wolfe Street Academy and partnership with the UM School of Dentistry. When you view this video on the YouTube website you will see the interview continues with her in 11 segments total. In the additional segments she discusses the partnership with the school, the connection between good oral health and school success, and tells the story of one child whose life was changed as a result of the screening program.

The story of Wolfe Street Academy reminds us that community is defined by more than geography. Community is a place, a spirit, and a home where caring kindness wins out over rightness. May we all be so lucky to find such community in our lives and, then, welcome others into it.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day.

Tom Klaus

Community Mobilization, Red Noses & Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month

Yesterday (Tuesday, May 24) I finished a multi-month project with Child Trends for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) teen pregnancy prevention grantees.

Today my heart is full of appreciation for an incredible experience.

My assignment over the past few months has been to design, develop, and deliver two 2-day long training events in Denver, CO and Washington, DC for teen pregnancy prevention grantees on the topic of community mobilization. It was a capacity building training event that focused on teaching them to use a number of tools and processes to more effectively lead mobilization efforts in their communities.

The OAH staff was terrific to work with. Jacque McCain and Tish Hall were the “point people” on this project for OAH and I could not have asked for two better folks to work with. They thoughtfully considered the training design and materials I submitted, provided useful feedback, and were willing to let me do a few unconventional things to make the training more meaningful and memorable for the grantees. In DC, ten of the OAH staff were also able to attend and it was great to have them there too.

Maryjo Oster and Kristine Andrews of Child Trends were the official liaisons between me and OAH. They were also training colleagues who were willing to do whatever was needed to make sure both events ran smoothly – from managing handouts, to helping people use the Catchbox microphones, to assisting grantees with their learning activities, to providing orientation instructions for “The Community Mobilization Game.” Even more, despite the long hours and hard work, they kept their wits and senses of humor about them. I especially appreciate that they were willing to try some out-of-the-box participant engagement strategies with me. For example, Maryjo, who is also an outstanding professional musician, brought her guitar to both events and led the groups in just the right songs at the right times.

Margaret Black and Stephanie Hines of Capital Meeting Planning were incredible for their ability to manage the travel and lodging arrangements for nearly 250 people, deal effectively with hotel and audio-visual staff, and also manage all of the materials I needed for the training events. They did all of this…and more…with grace and humor!

Ideas & Insights from Denver CM Training
A moment of clarity for a grantee.

Finally, the 235 grantees (120 in Denver and 115 in DC) attending the events were absolutely amazing! They participated with wild enthusiasm – whether they were listening to a mini-lecture, engaged in one of the many group activities, doing some reflective writing, giving in to the Cha Cha Break, speaking up into the Catchbox mics to share their ideas, trying on Red Noses, throwing themselves with gusto into “The Community Mobilization Game,” or smiling and laughing with one another throughout the event. It was incredible – and was made incredible – by the grantees! Grantees traveled from all over the United States and the Marshall Islands to attend the training events. I feel honored and humbled by the efforts each made to be with us. 

Finally, as you will see in these pictures, Red Noses were an important part of these events. There are two reasons. First, Thursday, May 26th is Red Nose Day and I made sure I gave out about a dozen Red Noses as prizes, recognitions, and just for fun, all to call attention to the day. You see, Red Nose Day is about raising money to help children and youth who are in poverty. Last year about $33 million was raised in the United States for this cause. This brings me to the second reason: May is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month in the United States, which was founded by my late colleague and close friend, Barbara Huberman. The correlation between poverty and teen pregnancy has been well-established. Community mobilization, Red Noses, & National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month – to me, they all just seem to make sense together.

Be Greater. Do Good. Every Day!

Tom Klaus

© 2016 by Thomas W. Klaus

Hey, What’s that Buzzing Sound?

A buzzing sound can mean many things. When I was a kid growing up on an Iowa farm, Bumble Beea buzzing sound usually meant bees were near by…typically a scary thing since I was pretty sure they had me in their tiny stinger sights. Ah, but there are buzzing sounds that are not at all scary and indicate good things are happening. I heard one just like that last week in Buffalo, New York.

It intrigues me that I can almost immediately distinguish the type of buzzing that is happening, even before I know the source or the cause. Last week in Buffalo there was definitely a strong, positive buzzing sound. It was the buzz of genuine participation.

For the past few months I have been working with a group of volunteers in the community who have come together to see what can be done about teen pregnancy in Buffalo. Last year the community was funded through the Office of Adolescent Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to replicate prevention programs and facilitate referrals to youth friendly health centers in an effort to reduce the teen pregnancy rate by 30% over the next five years. That is a tall order. The effort, known as the Buffalo Collaborative Community Initiative to Reduce Teen Pregnancy (BCC), is led by Cicatelli Associates Inc. (CAI Global). The BCC includes partnerships with key organizations and groups throughout the community, including the Erie County Department of Health, numerous community based organizations (CBOs), the faith community, and “just plain folks.”

The group, known as the Community Action Team or CAT, was originally convened about six months ago and I had my first meeting with it in December 2015. I was asked to help the group get a better understanding of its community mobilization work and how it relates to the overall project. In that meeting the group was still new and forming and there was not much to buzz about…except for just a little bit of confusion about its role. This is pretty typical for new groups in the early stages of development.

Last week I returned to Buffalo to work with the group again. This time there was a different kind of buzzing. Early in the meeting I led the group through a series of exercises that were designed to get them moving about, meeting other CAT members, and having substantive conversations with one another. There was a buzz at that time because the members really put themselves into the exercises and, yes, they were participating.

But the real buzz of participation was the one I heard after the exercises were completed, and the CAT divided into its five different “action groups” and went to work. Now, overall, the CAT has responsibility to lead effort to mobilize the community in support of the teen pregnancy prevention work. I decided to sit in with a group that was working on a survey for new and recent parenting teens. As part of their contribution to community mobilization, members felt it would be motivational for the community to know more about what it was like to be a parenting teen today compared with “back then” (10 or more years ago). Mostly I listened in to the conversation and only occasionally asked questions or offered ideas.

There was this moment when my ears and mind, though, were pulled away from my action group by a buzzing sound. The room was alive with buzzing, and not a bee was in sight. All five groups were meeting in the same large groom and the sound that had arisen in the space was the strong, positive buzzing of engaged people working together in genuine participation. Wow! What a sound! What a moment!

How is that groups come to make this kind of sound together?

I believe it happens when we, the “experts” who are often asked to lead such groups, allow it to happen. To allow it, though, we have to let people actually participate meaningfully. Meaningful participation is, in part, what I mean by genuine participation.

The temptation we often face in leading community change is to be in charge, set the agenda, make the decisions, and “demonstrate” collaboration by recruiting members to a group like the CAT, yet without really allowing them to have a meaningful role. That is, we create the appearance of community participation without actually having community participation.

Look, I know just how tempting it is to do that. We often work with tight deadlines, and too few staff, so we feel pressure to shortcut the process by convening groups and, mostly, having them “rubber stamp” our ideas and plans so we can “check the box” of community involvement for the annual report to the funder. I have observed a lot of that and research I have recently published with a colleague supports that observation. (See the contact box below to request more information on this research.) Also, frankly, I have experience doing the same darn thing…much to my embarrassment and shame.

We can do better though, right? Of course! We will know we are doing better by the kind of buzzing we hear. Listen carefully. Token participation creates a buzzing from discontent, disappointment, frustration, and irritation as people grow to feel ignored, over-ruled and used. Genuine participation generates the buzz of excitement, enthusiasm, hope, and empowerment that comes from having a meaningful role in community change. I know which kind I want to hear.

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.

Tom Klaus

To Engage or Mobilize? A Leap Day Meditation

Recently I have been ruminating on the difference between community engagement and Leap Daycommunity mobilization. “Ruminate” is a great word for a Leap Day because the extra day gives us more time to really think on something, right? In the United States, where I do much of my work, we seem to prefer the term mobilization more than engagement, though we sometimes refer to mobilization as engagement and vice versa.

The more I have studied and practiced both, the more I find the mixing of the two terms to be confusing, problematic, and incorrect. I can hear at least a couple of my colleagues say, “Whoa, Tom, aren’t you splitting hairs? It’s all the same, come on.” I will grant this much: there are elements of each in the other. However, the priority and emphasis we give to each is important because they are not fundamentally the same.

Whether we choose to prioritize and emphasize engagement or mobilization, it will make a difference in how we work with the community.

In my efforts to parse the difference between the two, I have identified some important distinctions. These need to inform our choice of engagement or mobilization and how we do them.

  • Personal v. Public Approaches: Engagement is a relational approach that taps the power of personal social networks to systematically build an ever expanding circle of participation and support. Mobilization is a more public approach as it tends to use group and mass promotion and marketing strategies via traditional and social media.
  • Less v. More Resources: Because engagement is relational, it requires fewer resources. Often it just needs people who have friends or acquaintances and a social network they are willing to engage. Okay, maybe it will sometimes cost the price of a soda, a cup of coffee, or another beverage to lubricate the conversation. However, mobilization can be more resource intensive because many traditional outreach strategies are expensive. Even social media is increasingly finding new ways to charge for expanding one’s reach.
  • Empowerment v. Compliance: A key aspect of engagement is empowerment: it draws communities into meaningful participation which also empowers them to be the decision makers for their own future. This is because, in the best engagement scenarios, the agenda for change is generated by the community, with the community, and for the community. In this sense, community change through engagement is intrinsic, arising from within it. Mobilization tends to enforce an extrinsic, pre-determined agenda on a community. Communities may go along (comply) with the agenda of the funder or a powerful local group or organization. Often they do so hoping they will eventually get what is really needed in the end. Sometimes it is merely to get along with the powers-that-be in the community to make life a little bit better.
  • Ownership v. Buy In: Engagement and empowerment fosters ownership of the community issue and its solution as people become invested through relationships and personal stories. These make it “personal.” Mobilization build interest, and even some commitment, as people acknowledge the importance of the issue. Yet, because of the impersonal nature of mobilization, people may be less likely to fully participate in the change or feel a sense of personal empowerment and ownership.
  • Long Term v. Short Term: Community engagement may not be as flashy as the strategies used in mobilization, but engaged communities which change through participation, personal empowerment and ownership tend to maintain the change longer. They are also more resistant to “snapping back” to the way things were before. Mobilization strategies can get faster change, which may be why they are used instead of or with engagement strategies, but it may not be change that is deep enough to last. If you want something to “stick,” engagement offers greater promise.

Merriam-Webster.com offers definitions of “engage” and “mobilize” which are noteworthy. “Engage” – “to hold the attention of” and “to deal with especially at length.” “Mobilize” –  “to bring people together for action.”

This brings me to this final distinction between community engagement and community mobilization.

  • Slow Food v. Fast Food: Community engagement is like eating and sharing food cooked with friends, made with fresh ingredients, and enjoyed together. It often results in a meal that is satisfying and an experience that lasts in the collective memory of the group. Community mobilization is like fast food. You can get it by yourself through the drive-up window, you can get a lot of it, it feeds your hunger, and yet it is not particularly memorable nor long-lasting. In fact, you may be back at the fast food window in just a couple of hours to get another dose.

My bias toward community engagement is pretty clear in this blog, and many others I have written. Community mobilization does have its place. Sometimes mobilization has to be the choice because that is what the funder, the timeline or the circumstances support. Also, there are some mobilization strategies that do support quality community engagement.

Nonetheless, whenever you have the choice, choose engagement. The dividends are higher. Even when you must choose mobilization, look for ways to infuse it with engagement.

Enjoy your Leap Day!

More later,

Tom Klaus

Who is the Leader?

This week I’m at the 17th Annual Global Conference of the International Leadership Association in Barcelona, Spain. This morning the keynote speaker, John, Lord Alderdice, of the United Kingdom, said, “The leader is not necessarily the brightest or best person, but it is the right person for the time.” Again we are reminded that context matters in leading change, whether it is in organizations, communities, and whole societies.

image

Here’s the question we were asked to discuss and I pass it on to you for your reflection: When in your work has the situation or context required you to go beyond the typical and usual idea of leadership to arrive at a solution?

On Saturday I’ll be presenting on the Roots to Fruit (R2F), an ecosystem for sustainable community change and tool for measuring change. R2F is a model created by Dr. Ed Saunders and me, over the past several years, that first and foremost considers context in creating change. To learn more, send me an email – twklaus@nonprofitgp.com.

Be Greater. Do Good. Everyday.

T.W.K.

What if…”Better Practices” not “Best Practices?”

An emphasis on using “evidence based practices” is stifling experimentation. This was the statement I posed in a poll within my last blog, back in February 2015, just before I got sucked into a vortex of Federal grant writing from which I am only now extracting myself. The results are in and a full 77% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the statement is true.

Before we run out and create an “evidence based practice” of wild experimentation on the basis of this finding, however, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, this was a highly unscientific poll that was not intended for grounding a new discipline but only for stimulating dialogue…which it did. Second, I am not really a “best practice” or “evidence-based” curmudgeon, but I am not an uncritical fan of them. On some days, I may even be more critic than fan.

In fact, we need “best practices” and “evidence-based practices.” I was particularly taken by the comments of my friend Andy Penziner who offered this defense of evidence-based practices in a comment on my blog at www.nonprofitgp.com:

First, evidence-based solutions/best practices would seem preferable to pet solutions or random practices. Second, context and generalizability should always be acknowledged and considered. Third, a creative, open mind should never be stifled in favor of blind deference to whatever the best practice d’jour might be; they can coexist. Finally, as for pleasing funders or conforming to their priorities…well, it’s kind of a fact of life, eh!

I would like to add two additional points to these. One is that there are some situations in which “evidence based practices” are the best and only practices you absolutely want. For example, do you want to see a doctor that is not using evidence based medicine in providing care for you? Probably not. Do you want to live in a high rise building that has not been built to the standards of evidence based architecture and building construction? No way! Do you want fly down the highway in heavy traffic inside an automobile that has not been built to evidence based standards and carefully tested? Absolutely not. Keep in mind that my previous blog was a bit of a rant about using “best practices” and “evidence-based” practices to address complex social problems. A complex social problem is one that eludes solutions proposed by “best practices” and “evidence-based” solutions because it shares the characteristics of a complex adaptive system. It is dynamic; has many interdependent agents or factors; one change in the system affects changes throughout the whole system; and it is robust in its ability to do all of these things. Within complex social problems, there may be a place to use some “best practice” or “evidence-based” interventions for very specific purposes. However, to believe that one or two or even three or four “evidence-based” interventions can solve the whole of the problem is just wrong thinking. It is also to commit the error Andy warns about: failing to acknowledge the role of context.

The other thing I would like to add to Andy’s list is that “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” also have useful historical value. They tell us what did and did not work well in the past, which may have value for our current situation. Considered in this light, “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” can suggest to us “better practices that may work” though they offer no guarantees of working in our situation. I bristle against “best practices” and “evidence-based practices” when they are presented as the “solution” regardless of the context, which, in the case of social problems, is usually complex.

I have become increasingly fond of the idea of “better practices that may work.” This allows me to feel comfortable standing in both the worlds of “evidence-based” practice and “what if” experimentation. On the one hand, it allows me to consider the evidence of proven and best practices. On the other, as Andy indicates, it helps me to keep a creative, open mind; always consider the context; and avoid uncritically adopting the evidence-based practice of the moment.

The key word in the phrase “better practices that may work” is “may.” “May” does not offer the guarantees of “will.” To say something may work is to say just as clearly that it may not work which is a loaded proposition for many folks.

It is loaded with the risk of failure. It is loaded with the humility required to admit that one does not have all the answers. It is loaded with the requirement to engage in the uncertainty, angst, and, some would say, joy and excitement, of “what if” experimentation.

Over the past few months I have been compiling some “what if” experiments with regard to community engagement on complex social problems and have been discussing them and exploring their implications with increasing regularity with my clients. If you work with communities to address such problems, here are a few of my questions to help you think of your own:

  • What if…people with lived experience of the social problem we are trying to address were really welcomed into our coalitions, leadership teams, and other planning groups? (As my friend Tommy Ross has said, “There is a big difference between an invitation and a welcome.”)
  • What if…that welcome included having the same decision making power as the rest of us?
  • What if…we valued and prioritized relationship building and social networking as community engagement strategies more than using social media and marketing?
  • What if…we focused more on creating community ownership of change than “buy in” to the change?
  • What if…we used principles to guide our work rather than checklists, protocols, and performance measures?
  • What if…we were to build trust before trying to change things?
  • What if…we shared the leadership and did not insist on being out front?
  • What if…we were to conduct evaluation that is focused on developing a better effort rather than measuring achievement of outcomes?
  • What if…we were to embrace the risk of “better practices that may work”?

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

Tom Klaus

Shared Experience: The Crucible of Community

This week I had a chance to meet up with a special group of my lifelong friends. They are not my best friends and we have known each other for barely five years. However, we have a bond that knits us together in a way that ensures our friendship will endure through the rest of our lives. What is that bond? Suffering. At least, that is what one of my friends says it is. In fact, we bonded through the shared experience of a grueling paper chase. For over five years we have lived together in the crucible of higher education in pursuit of the Doctor of Philosophy in Organizational

(L to R) Kay Nussbaum, Brian Albright, Denise Bell, Brian Leander, Daniel Gluck, Tom Klaus & Anita Gregory celebrating Daniel's successful dissertation defense at Minella's Diner in Wayne, PA in January 20, 2015.
(L to R) Seven of the 15 lifelong friends, Kay Nussbaum, Brian Albright, Denise Bell, Brian Leander, Daniel Gluck, Tom Klaus & Anita Gregory, celebrating Daniel’s successful dissertation defense at Minella’s Diner in Wayne, PA in January 20, 2015.

Leadership. Together we have been afraid, angry, hurt, exhausted, frustrated, on the edge of total collapse, and ready to walk, no, run away. Also, together, we have wept, laughed, comforted, celebrated, supported (even with calls and texts in the middle of the night), forgiven, and lovingly kept one another close so that running away was not possible. In this crucible we forged a friendship, a community, to which we will belong and cherish for the rest of our lives.

Much of my career’s work has been in community social change efforts. I have been in innumerable meetings in which someone would raise the question in that hushed, quasi-philosophical tone, “So, what do we mean by…community?” What usually ensues is a debate about geographic boundaries, homogeneity, ethnicity, etc., etc. Too rarely have I heard “shared experience” raised as a means of defining community. Considered individually, there is little that our group of 15 lifelong friends has in common. We are racially diverse, professionally diverse, and geographically diverse (Calgary to Addis Ababa to Malawi and all points in between). We are from different generations and different faiths. And yet, we have among us a single shared experience that is unique to us as a group. It is this crucible experience that has forged us into a community.

In fact, is it not shared experience that defines a community more than any other characteristic? For this reason, when we attempt community social change it is important that we understand that shared community experience. There is no better place to begin to increase our understanding than with the people who have lived the experience personally. These are also known as “context experts” because it is their first-person knowledge and understanding of that experience that helps us understand the community context. Without the context experts and an understanding of that shared experience in the community, our efforts will always be less effective and more short-lived.

In our next community change initiative…whether it is focused on poverty, homelessness, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, violence prevention, or something else…let’s call in the context experts first to help us understand what the community is really all about.

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.

T.W.K.

Is the answer, after all, simply “kindness”?

Today I am doing something I do not usually do and it is not something I plan to do as a habit. I am publishing the same brief article I wrote for my newsletter as a blog, though I have expanded on it a bit more here. My sole reason for doing so is that I saw a short video today that moved me so much I wanted to make sure I shared it with as many people as I can. I hope you will take a look for yourself and share it as well. Who knows? Maybe we will change the world! Here’s the article:

What makes a “happy” new year?

As I was preparing to open a consulting practice exactly a year ago at this time, I began to wrestle with the question, “What will make me happy in this new year as my practice starts up?” The question of what makes one happy, new year or any other time, is not a simple one at all. Of course, the consummate answer to the question is “it depends.” However, to answer the question at a personal level, we are pushed to consider our values and then consider how our actions align with those values. In the end, according to many happiness researchers, we are likely to discover that our happiness is anchored in an overall satisfaction with our values and how we live our lives in relation to those values.

In this past year I have come to acknowledge and own that my core value is a belief in the “greater good,” which I understand to be the idea that each of us have an ethical obligation to leave the world a better place than we found it when we arrived. Further, I have come to understand that I live out this belief best when I do good for someone everyday. Now if this sounds a bit familiar (and I hope it does) it is because I have tried to capture this philosophy in the tag-line I use for my practice and which appears regularly in my on-line and print material: Be greater, do good, every day.

Recently I came across an incredible video that captures and powerfully illustrates the essence of this idea. It is the six-minute story of Josh, a young man from London, Ontario, who was bullied by other students in his high school. In one simple act of doing good to others, he stopped the bullying and transformed his school and his life. Josh’s story is a testimony to an important truth about doing good: it changes both the recipient of the act and the doer. Since I did not know what I could give you for the holidays, please accept this amazing video as my gift to you. May it inspire you to be happier and greater by doing good, every day in 2015.

Can you imagine what our neighborhoods, communities, and world could be like through simple acts of kindness like Josh’s? In this space I often write about strategies for community and social change and, frankly, I sometimes forget that the simplest, smallest acts are often the most effective. Relationship building is a key to facilitating social change and simple, small acts of kindness – done over and over again – are often the most effective relationship building tools. Many of us who are working on Collective Impact and other social change initiatives are eager for change to come and it cannot come quickly enough for us. We cannot, however, let our impatience convince us that we do not have time to be kind, for it is through kindness that our initiatives can be propelled at greater speeds to achieve greater impact.

Josh’s story reminds me of something I heard a couple of years ago when I was doing interviews in a research project on organizational leadership. I asked each interviewee this question: “What is the most important lesson you have learned in your years of leadership?” I will never forget this one response I received because for it has forever changed my own interaction with people: “It is always better to be kind than to be right.”

For me, this wise counsel and the illustration of its truth in Josh’s story raises this question: In all of our searching for the right frameworks, the right programs, the right strategies, and the right tactics to change our communities for the better, might the answer, after all, be found in kindness? 

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Be greater; Do good; Every day,

T.W.K.

P.S. Please join me for “Creating Change with Collective Impact,” a GrantStation.com webinar on February 12, 2015. Whether you are new to the idea of cross-sector collaboration to solve complex social problems through Collective Impact or have been working with Collective Impact initiatives, I think you will find this webinar useful and valuable. In 2011 “collective impact” was identified as the number two philanthropy buzzword of the year by a writer in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Since then the “buzz” around collective impact has only continued to grow. In this webinar we will take a closer look at the collective impact phenomenon, tackling some of the most important questions: What is collective impact? How does it differ from other collaborative approaches? Is it merely a new name for collaboration? How does collective impact work? How has collective impact changed since its introduction? How do you decide when a collective impact approach is the best fit for your project and your funder? This webinar is designed for grant writers, executive directors, project managers and staff, as well as development staff. The webinar will be held on Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 2:00 PM Eastern (U.S.). There is a cost involved, payable to GrantStation.com upon registration: $89.00 per person OR $150.00 per site for multiple participants. To register, click here or click on the title of the webinar above. I hope to “see” you there!

“The Least of These”

My life is haunted. Some of the things that haunt me are the ghosts of stupid things I have done over the course of my life. Many, though, are the spirits of compelling ideas that just will not let go of me. One of those ideas is captured in the phrase “the least of these.” The phrase “the least of these” comes to me from the Christian scriptures, the spiritual text with which I am most familiar, though it refers to an ethos to be found in many cultures and faiths. The ethos is that members of the human race, and the societies they form, have a moral and ethical responsibility to care for “the least of these” in their communities. “The least of these,” in one sense, is a relative term as it can refer to those whose needs are greater than our own. However, it more generally refers to those who have found themselves in great need and difficult, even desperate, circumstances, through no fault of their own. They are often known to us by their status in society: marginalized. The failure to care for these others, in fact, is a failure of our humanity and to the whole of humanity, and some would also believe, to God.

“The least of these” are the reason for my career. It was a calling to serve “the least of these” that led me to ministry within the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) when I was a young man. It was the same call that led me into mental health counseling and then the field of adolescent sexual health. It is the call that today has guided me to focus my work with social sector (non-profit) organizations, including faith communities, in order to help them become the best guardians and providers of “the least of these” that they can be.

This blog often finds me writing about community engagement and Collective Impact. “The least of these” has also been haunting these subjects for me as well. Yet it is with regard to these two topics that my thinking is still forming and for which I hope to receive greater light from others. Therefore, I am just going to put my ideas out here for your consideration and invite you to have a conversation with me.

Why Find a Cure 2
Bumper sticker seen in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, April, 2014

If a social change movement is not about “the least of these,” then it is just a business and social change is just another industry providing greater benefit to those working within the industry than to those whom it is supposed to serve. Earlier this year I was working on an organizational study for a client and in my research came across a compelling article[i] in which the authors made this point with what they called the “health disparities industry.”  The authors cited the literature that defines “industry” as a sector of the economy that manufactures goods or products or provides a service. An industry has an elaborate infrastructure, a specialized set of activities, and stakeholders. Then the authors made the case that the health disparities movement had, in the United States, become an industry that more often used the issue of disparities to sustain itself than to help those who actually experienced the disparities. My own research has similarly found that an industry has grown up around the issue of the sexuality education of young people in the United States, the field in which I have worked for many years. The industrialization of the field has meant, among other things, that concern for its own sustainability has contributed to the institutionalization of the decades’ long intractable conflict over sexuality education in U.S. public schools.

Collective Impact is a framework for social change that has really caught on since its introduction in 2011. Actually, that is an understatement. More accurately, and metaphorically, it has taken off like a rocket and it is yet to be seen just how high it will fly. Through it community change initiatives of all sizes and many organizations have been introduced to its five conditions, the concept of emergence, and the power of backbone organizations. Some are taking time to learn, understand, grasp and implement the ideas undergirding Collective Impact and others are simply slapping the cool new name onto their existing work to impress funders and garner media attention. I am an early adopter and fan of the Collective Impact framework and have used and extended it in my own work.

Yet, I worry.

I worry that “the least of these” are left out of many Collective Impact initiatives. Yes, I know leaders of these initiatives would likely argue that my worry is absurd. “After all,” they might argue, “the initiative exists to help ‘the least of these,’ does it not?” Okay, so it might. HOW it does this, I argue, is at least as important as WHAT it does, especially if sustainable community change is to be achieved.

  • Does it invite “the least of these” to the table where the COMMON AGENDA is created that impacts their lives?
  • Does it train and equip “the least of these” with the skills and knowledge to participate effectively with other initiative partners?
  • Does it build and maintain a culture among all partners that values the participation of “the least of these” in the selection of the BACKBONE ORGANIZATION, SHARED MEASUREMENT strategies, and MUTUALLY REINFORCING ACTIVITIES to be undertaken?
  • Does it use an inclusive decision-making process that ensures the voice and vote of “the least of these” counts?
  • Does it have CONTINUOUS COMMUNICATION systems in place that ensure equal and equitable access and participation of “the least of these?”

Collective Impact initiatives that leave out “the least of these” are just the same old coalitions involving the usual same old players doing the same old things in the same old way. As such, it is business as usual and business as usual is not social change.

I believe community engagement that values “the least of these” and seeks to include them as full partners holds the promise of keeping Collective Impact on track as a powerful framework for social change. Yet, there is still a need to keep “the least of these” at the heart of community engagement. Without “the least of these,” I worry that community engagement merely becomes the industry of marketing.

Hoping this will be a conversation that continues to shape my thinking on these issues, here are my questions for you:

  • What worries do you have about either leaving out “the least of these” or, conversely, fully involving them in your Collective Impact initiative or community engagement work?
  • What is working for you to keep “the least of these” at the forefront of your Collective Impact and/or community engagement work?
  • What would you like to do more of in the future to ensure “the least of these” stay front and center in your work?

Thanks for allowing me to think aloud in this space. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Be greater; do good; every day,

T.W.K.

[i] Shaw-Ridley, M. & Ridley, C. R. (2010). The health disparities industry: Is it an ethical conundrum? Health Promotion Practice, 11(4), 454-464.