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Top 10 Lessons Learned on the Path to Community Change

July 10, 2013

(Robert K. Ross, M.D. is president and CEO of the California Endowment. In part one of this two-part series, Ross shared three "aha" moments from the first two years of the the endowment's Building Healthy Communities initiative. This post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's Transparency Talk blog.)

Headshot_robert_rossAt times I step back and look at the BHC initiative and wonder, Could we have made it more complicated? Fourteen sites. Multiple grantees in each site. A core set of inter-linked health issues. Multiple state-level grantees. And the expectation that the parts will add up to something greater than the whole and catalyze a convergence that builds power at the community level and leads to greater impact.

But then supporting an agenda for social and community change requires multiple strategies operating in alignment; good data, message framing, and storytelling; influential messengers and convening and facilitating champions; innovative models; "grassroots and treetops" coordination; and meaningful community engagement.

Our Top Ten Lessons for Philanthropy

As we engaged in the BHC planning process, we tried in earnest to stick by a key aphorism, one I learned from colleague and mentor Ralph Smith at the Annie E. Casey Foundation: Make new mistakes. With that in mind, I want to share some lessons regarding planning and implementing a community-change initiative.

1. Take time to plan, and plan to take the time. We planned on a nine-month community engagement process at our fourteen BHC sites and ended up taking twelve to fifteen months (depending on the site). Nobody died, and nobody got fired. Community engagement in planning processes is simultaneously exhilarating and messy. If it's going too smoothly and well, then something could be wrong -- like the possibility that a foundation may not be receiving candid input from local leaders. If, in contrast, the process of getting to consensus and clarity is bumpy and messy and taking much longer than you originally planned, it may mean you're gaining the trust of and empowering leaders to raise thorny, difficult issues. As a general rule, we took the time that was needed for local leaders to develop their local BHC plans, and we did not pit individual sites against each other or against an imaginary clock. Community leaders want a compass more than they want a clock.

2. Don't lead with the money. The issue of whether to announce in advance the actual dollar amount of a foundation initiative is a tricky one. On the one hand, a major dollar-commitment announcement by a foundation can generate excitement and mobilize civic and community support. On the other hand, "leading with the money" can incite all manner of posturing, controlling behavior, and political gamesmanship among potential grantees. We decided to quietly announce the breadth and scope of our commitment -- $1 billion over a ten-year period -- but veered away from formally announcing precise budget commitments for each site. In other words, we wanted to send a message that our commitment was serious without manipulating the ensuing conversations with grant-dollar puppetry.

3. Date logic models, but get married to learning. There is no doubt that engaging in a disciplined exercise to discover how you think -- and what community leaders believe -- leads to positive results and change. But it's also important to recognize that positive results and community change in the context of complex social and political systems often defy tidy models. We provided logic-model training for leaders at the fourteen BHC sites, with varying degrees of success. Instead of getting married to such models, it's wiser to commit to the process of active, real-time learning. That said, we have been clear that such learning is not optional -- for grantees or our own program staff.

4. Be transparent about desired results. There are a number of written (and unwritten) axioms about the need for philanthropy to be one-hundred percent community driven when engaged in community-change work. Our experience is that this is a truism that isn't entirely true. For starters, our foundation is legally chartered as a health foundation, and although we employ a broad definition of the word health, there are limitations and constraints about what we can and cannot fund. This led to considerable tensions within the foundation (at the board and staff level), as well as with grantees and stakeholders about prioritized community needs that were outside the scope of our mission. In the context of a persistent economic recession, the most obvious and recurrent tension-generating themes involved issues of economic development, job creation, and mortgage foreclosure. The battles over whether and how we, as a health foundation, should enter the economic development "space" were intense and emotional. Ultimately, we landed on a framework (using mission-investing in our investment portfolio) for how to move forward without "mission drift" and have been communicating that approach to our program staff and stakeholders (though it hasn't always been easy). But the worst of all worlds would have been to promise community leaders a course of action that we were forced to either abandon or renege on somewhere down the road.

5. Be dogmatic about results, but flexible about strategies. While the work of community change is noble, funders cannot afford to fall in love with the process at the expense of meaningful results and desired impact. Once community leaders and funders agree on a set of outcomes and objectives, those outcomes and objectives must become your "true north." In planning and early implementation phases of BHC, we gave community leaders and organizations involved in the process a blank slate on which to create their strategies, but insisted on those strategies being results-driven and supported by a logic model. The good news is that across our fourteen BHC sites today, there is a significant level of community and resident ownership with respect to the strategies being implemented. And while these strategies vary from site to site, we are seeing growing convergence as the sites engage with and learn from each other.

6. Listening is a form of leadership. Irish poet David Whyte underscores the importance of "leadership through conversation." We have been quite intentional about active listening at all stages of the planning and implementation process, as well as being mindful of closing the feedback loop with community leaders and grantees. To that end, we used a fairly simple "what we said, what they said, what we heard, what we'll do" format. At the conclusion of the one-year planning process, former endowment board chair Tessie Guillermo and I co-authored and -videotaped messages for the fourteen sites summarizing the key themes and priorities articulated by community leaders, as well as what to expect in terms of support in the months ahead. We have now begun to bring site leaders together with foundation staff twice a year so that leaders and staff can share stories of progress, struggle, and hope. All of this in service of the critical "t-word": trust. Trust is the mother's milk of community-change efforts, and active, engaged listening is the foundation upon which trust is built.

7. Make "patient" grants and "urgent" grants. Investors engaged in place-based community-change efforts typically have to manage several tensions -- among them, the tension of patience versus urgency. As efforts like the Harlem Children's Zone, Market Creek Plaza in San Diego, the Skillman Foundation's work in Detroit, and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston have demonstrated, positive community change takes time. A two- or three-year grant just won't do it; indeed, most change efforts require seven, ten, or twelve years of "patient money" if they are to be successful. The most thoughtful investments on this front involve leadership development, organizational capacity building, and collaborative efficacy, but "impact yield" from these investments typically takes years to bear fruit. "Urgent" money involves investing in short-term campaigns or capital projects where tangible results are realized within twelve to eighteen months -- nice but not always possible. On the other hand, too much of a bias toward "patient" investments leaves investors and partners vulnerable to allegations that some money has been spent, some meetings have occurred, but nothing "tangible" has been produced. As a result, confidence in the effort dissipates. In its early stages, our BHC effort has exemplified the importance of both "patient" and "urgent" (or "early win") grants.

8. Storytelling is part of the doing. The two-most under-appreciated and under-invested in themes in social-change philanthropy are power-building and storytelling. Having been at the helm of a large foundation for more than a decade, I am guilty as charged on this score, and in retrospect I would gladly trade half the (often expensive) academic and research-oriented reports we have commissioned in my twelve years as CEO for an equal number of interesting "stories" of community-level change that illuminate a path to achieving healthier, more vibrant communities. Storytelling by community leaders, young people, and/or community-based organizations can work to advance change in multiple ways: local residents and youth experience the power and passion of their own voices; local media are inspired to re-tell the story in ways that scale to their audience; policy makers pay greater attention to the issue being raised; civic engagement and participation is served; cynicism, disengagement, and disempowerment are reduced. Utilizing multiple tools and platforms, from social media to flip-cam videos to more traditional approaches, we have been assertive in providing support to community leaders and youth eager to tell their stories, and the results have been inspiring to witness.

9. Spend the damn brand. Institutional philanthropy is risk-averse. We worry and fret far too much about how our brand, reputation, and civic standing might be compromised by associating with potentially controversial efforts or organizations, and as a rule we tend to keep our heads and profile low. But in the first few years of the BHC effort, we have discovered that thoughtful, surgical application of our reputation matters to community leaders -- and that they want us to spend "it" on their behalf. Sometimes it comes in the form of convening a meeting, writing and placing an op-ed, making a phone call to a civic leader, or taking out a full-page ad in the local newspaper. We have done all these things with regard to healthy-food options for youth and families, health insurance coverage for the uninsured, gang prevention and intervention strategies, and school health efforts. Yes, we know there's a school of thought in philanthropy which holds that our job as funders is "to make the grant and get out of the way." But we would argue that our job is to advance our mission, by any means necessary. On occasion, this requires stepping out of character on behalf of our grantees and adding our voice to theirs. Why build, preserve, and protect your respective brand if you aren't going to spend it? Spend the damn brand.

10. Build a highly engaged board. In the early planning stages of our BHC effort, our board made it clear that it understood the value and importance of a ten-year commitment, but it also made three points clear. The first was the importance of honesty, candor, and trust with respect to our progress. The second was a complete commitment to an evaluative approach framed by "learning through impact." And the third was their request to be kept apprised of developments for the purposes of learning and governance, not micromanagement. We accomplished the latter by organizing our quarterly board meetings in or near a BHC community site at least three times a year, and by assigning each board member to a specific site. Now board members share the in-depth learnings and observations they've formulated as a result of those assignments over dinner at our board meetings.

In closing, we have found the work of community change in pursuit of our health mission to be an exhilarating journey. Among other things, we have gained a new appreciation of the importance of the "right brain/left brain balance" in this work: having a theory of change, logic models, and metrics are important, but trust-building, power-building, and the spiritual dimension of the work constitutes the real glue that holds partners and relationships together over the long haul. And we have developed a special appreciation for those foundations and institutions -- the Aspen Institute, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Skillman Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and the Northwest Area Foundation -- that have traveled this path before us and have been willing to share tidbits of wisdom and lessons learned, allowing us to "make new mistakes" in the battle for community improvement and health justice.

-- Robert K. Ross

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