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Will You Risk the Money?

May 21, 2008

(Rich Harwood is founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people imagine and act for the public good. He is also the author, most recently, of Make Hope Real. This post first appeared on Rich's blog.)

What if the more attention we paid to issues of equity and race, the more supporters and funders of "community causes" dried up? That's the question I posed at two events last week. For me, the issue is whether we are prepared to lose precious support by seeking to see and hear all people in our communities, or will we take the path of least resistance and follow the money?

Fork_road02 First, some context: The ease with which we can actively turn away from those we don't wish to see or hear makes it increasingly difficult to address issues of equity and race. For instance, we can pick and choose our own news on the Internet, screening out unwanted or undesirable stories. Meanwhile, many of us have retreated into close-knit circles of families and friends, essentially turning away from public life and those who are not like us. According to The Big Sort, a new book by Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing, more of us are moving into increasingly homogeneous areas. And many people report feeling "fatigued" by pictures and news from one tragic disaster and horrific war after another.

Against this backdrop I found myself face-to-face with these concerns last week. First, in a small conference room over delivered pizza, I met with a handful of incredible school and community change-agents in Baltimore. We talked about their efforts to re-engage parents, neighborhood leaders, businesspeople, and others in support of community-based schools. These change agents believe their current efforts give them a real chance to move beyond lip service in seeking to achieve their goals; but they know that if they are successful, they might just upend the ill-fated status quo in the city and the web of relationships that support it.

Traveling just a handful of blocks to the imposing Baltimore Convention Center, which for me was like entering a parallel universe, I moderated a discussion in a gigantic ballroom filled with nearly two thousand attendees at the United Way of America Community Leadership Conference. The topic: "Advancing the Common Good."

At the conference, Brian Gallagher, the visionary head of United Way of America, unveiled their new campaign and tagline: LIVE UNITED. It's a terrific approach (a topic I'll leave for another day). But my point is this: to "live united" means seeing and hearing one another; it means that the poor, minorities, people living in particular neighborhoods will not be pushed aside and made invisible; that the voices of such people will be heard and heeded; that people's concerns will be on the public agenda and actively addressed. If we were to live in a community united, people would not be seen as victims or wards of the state, somehow incapable of managing their own lives, but as individuals with crucial knowledge and passion and agency.

In both sessions I asked whether funders and donors supporting groups like local United Ways, community foundations, public broadcasting, local education and community groups would continue their support as we aggressively seek to "live united" -- that is, as we worked to see and hear everyone in communities. More to the point, would funders and supporters see their discomfort increase as they confronted issues and situations not easily solved, not amendable simply by giving handouts, that required genuine change -- even change in relationships and power? Would they balk and backtrack when they realize that to have true impact might mean shifting funding from their "favorite" groups to others whom they do not know and may have dismissed in the past? 

If we are serious about seeing and hearing all people -- if we wish to act on issues of equity and race -- then we must be prepared for some funders and supporters to say, "No, thank you"; we must be ready to see some of our money and support pulled. We also must know that our operations have to become more ruthlessly focused, and that we may lose support in some quarters before we marshal new support in others.

Of course, none of this is easy, and much of it is riddled with uncertainty and ambiguity. There are no guarantees that new money and support will follow, even as we pursue a path we know will make our communities stronger and healthier. And we know that in tackling issues of equity and race, progress can be slow and supporters can become impatient.

But there's a silver lining here. My good friend Paul Light, a thought leader on high-performing nonprofits, says his research shows that Americans will support groups that do good work and produce real impact. To produce impact means we must turn to our communities to understand and work with them; and we must develop new pathways for making progress. When we do, I believe, we will find new supporters and donors -- individuals who know we can do better and who themselves yearn to have an impact. But that may require us to let go of money now in our own grasp to reap the potential benefits of a clear-headed decision.

-- Richard Harwood

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