Philanthropy That Fits: Defining Your Impact With the Community, Q&A with Rich Hardwood

Defining the impact you seek is the first step towards becoming a high-impact giver. So, how can you make sure you’re doing it right? In our recent “Five Myths and a Question” series, we talked about a key question underlying any impact definition process: Who defines impact, and for whom? In particular, how can the voices of beneficiaries be heard and included so that the impact a donor seeks is meaningful to the communities they hope to serve?  We hear from many donors eager to tackle this challenge and achieve a greater and more meaningful impact, but it can be difficult to move from good intentions to real-life practice.

In our new blog series on “Philanthropy That Fits,” we’ll present resources to help donors bridge the divide from intention to practice. For our first installment, we sought out Rich Harwood, founder and president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and a long-time practitioner in community change, politics and public life. In our interview, Rich talked about the steps the Harwood Institute takes to incorporate the beneficiary voice in practice and gives some concrete tips for donors who want to do the same:

Can you tell us a little bit about the Harwood Institute’s approach to community change?

The Harwood Institute teaches individuals and organizations to “turn outward”—to turn toward the community they serve, using that community as a reference point for day-to-day and strategic decisions. You can’t be turned outward without deeply understanding your community, getting beyond the usual suspects and the official leaders of a community, and getting into neighborhoods to listen to the people whose lives are affected by the problems you seek to fix. When you do that, you supplement “expert” knowledge with “public” knowledge: the knowledge created when everyday people get together and talk about their aspirations, why they matter, the obstacles they see, and how they could move forward together.

Would you share an example of where your work ensured that beneficiary perspectives were integrated into the decision-making and/or implementation process—not just after the project started, but in shaping the project’s goals from the beginning?

In Hartford, Connecticut we’ve been working with the United Way and The Hartford (a financial services company) to support a neighborhood called Asylum Hill. In initial talks with community leaders, the main issues were jobs and education. But when we engaged people there, they told us something quite different: they want a safer, more connected community. Asylum Hill is a transient neighborhood, where residents report a lack of trust and sense of connection. Their number one desire is to come out from their homes and get to know, interact, and work with their neighbors to create a safer, more connected community. But crime, or the threat of it, drives people back into their homes—for example, when police see two or more people gathering, they sometimes assume they are loitering and disperse them. All of this undermines the very community residents there seek to build. But now, with that community-based public knowledge in hand, community leaders are considering how to harness their collective efforts to effectively address people’s real aspirations and concerns.

How might that work in Asylum Hill have gone differently without the effort to include that public knowledge and beneficiary voice?

I suspect, as I’ve seen over the years, that it would have been business as usual: Organizational conversations that don’t include a community perspective; no real effort to combine evidence and best practices with public knowledge; efforts that are well intentioned but are done to the community, rather than with the community. And when the funding dries up, the efforts fade and the actual civic capacity of the community – the thing that makes communities work and makes change sustainable – isn’t strengthened. It’s a wasted opportunity.

What suggestions do you have for a donor who wants to integrate beneficiary input into their grantmaking? In other words, what do you want donors to know to translate this into action?

This is an important question. Grantmakers have a profound opportunity to support and strengthen the notion that community change only happens when professional strategies are aligned with the community context. Data and best practices – expert knowledge – certainly matter. But we need organizations and people to hold up public knowledge as equally important, so that solutions that fit the context and change can be sustained or can even grow.

If I were a grantmaker, individual or institutional, I would be looking for ways to:

  1. Build grantee capacity to turn outward, towards public knowledge. This kind of capacity building is often an after-thought for funders, when in fact it’s absolutely central to progress on the issues we all care about.
  2. Invest in grantees that clearly offer context-based approaches to solving problems. In other words, ask how grantees bring public knowledge into their thinking—not just through surveys, but through real conversations.
  3. Work with other like-minded donors, amplifying the message that collective efforts can’t leave the community behind.

What’s the question that you wish we had asked?

I do think it’s important to underscore that the voice and context of the community has to be factored into planning efforts if there is going to be any chance of lasting impact. And this doesn’t happen automatically; it requires a deliberate choice to turn outward. To accomplish this, there are five ideas to consider (to be detailed in an article we’ll be releasing soon):

  1. Actions must be owned by the larger community: this means deep engagement that goes beyond the usual suspects.
  2. Strategies should be calibrated to the community’s capacity. Many strategies are built on the assumption that the conditions are ripe for collective action, but often that’s not the case.
  3. We need to strengthen the enabling environment so that change has a chance of taking hold. Our work should build the norms, networks, relationships and structures that make communities work.
  4. We must avoid an overly narrow idea of impact and results; along with our stated purpose, our work should bring beneficiaries towards a sense of confidence that change is possible.
  5. Sharing data and results is important – and sharing can-do narratives is equally important in order to strengthen the story a community tells about itself.

Many thanks to Rich Harwood for a thought-provoking discussion!

We’ll be continuing to explore this topic in early 2014, so stay tuned! You can also check out our white paper What are we talking about when we talk about impact? for more on defining impact meaningfully, effectively, and practically—for yourself and with the communities you serve.