Where We’re Going

Note: This is the third in a three-part series exploring the history, activities and future plans of The Harwood Institute. Read the first two installments: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are.

“Scale” and “scaling change” are terms that are thrown around so much in professional circles that they have become cliché. Yet, for all of us in the business of improving lives and building stronger communities, they are the terms that often are the source of both our frustration and our inspiration. For to scale is to expand the positive impact one has and to do it in a way that sustains your ability to keep going. And who wouldn’t want either of those things?

At The Harwood Institute, my colleagues and I have wrestled with notions of scale for years. In my last blog, I noted that our work has led us to the conclusion that communities need new kinds of leaders. We call them public innovators — leaders who bridge dividing lines and not only solve problems, but strengthen the capacity of communities themselves. We have set a bold goal to develop 5,000 public innovators by 2016 to create a stronger force for change in communities and across the country. To get there will require us to tackle this vexing issue of scale. (Truth be told, I actually like the term “spread” better than “scale” — when things work well, our approach is spread to others by those who are using it.)

Today, our Institute develops public innovators by teaching and coaching them to turn outward — to use their community, not their conference room, as their reference point for their judgments and actions. We know through experience than when people and organizations turn outward, they produce greater impact and relevance in their communities.

Our approach includes initial training in our core frameworks on how communities work and the kind of leadership required to drive change, with follow-up support from our certified coaches, usually by phone. We often supplement this support with in-person “innovation spaces” designed to surface shared learning as well as certify local coaches so that we are leaving behind additional capacity. We deliver this support to individual organizations, groups of organizations working together in a community, and to various organizational networks like United Ways, libraries and public broadcasters, among others.

Since we started counting just a handful of years ago, we’ve developed nearly 1,400 public innovators and hundreds of organizations to turn outward and have supported hundreds more leaders while we created this approach. Our work has spread to communities across the country and around the world. But we know we can’t develop public innovators fast enough or in sufficient quantities with our current model, which is why we need new ways to support people that are hungry to deepen their impact and relevance in communities. In other words, we need to scale.

So how do we plan to do that? We don’t have all the answers yet, but here are some of the things we know we need to do in 2015:

1) Redesign our Public Innovators Lab. Our Labs, offered both nationally, to community coalitions and to networks of organizations, are the place where people bring their challenges and learn how to apply our frameworks to addressing them. It is typically the kickoff to any long-term engagement we have with our partners. Our new Lab will be even more practical, more “hands-on,” and more rooted in the challenges participants bring into the room.

2) Launch a new virtual product. We know that we need new ways for people to enter into this work that don’t require travel. This year, we are going to make a down payment on meeting this need by creating a new product for people to get practical support in turning outward. I’m especially excited about this because this particular product will allow participants to have virtual “face time” with me over the course of 12 months.

3) Grow and strengthen our certified coaching corps. We know there will always be a need for person-to-person coaching, because it’s simply too easy to fall back when all the pressures in our communities are pushing us to turn inward toward our own programs and processes, often at the expense of community. And we have been blessed to have a great corps of certified coaches that are both personally and professionally committed to helping improve communities. This year, we plan to develop new ways to onboard and support even more coaches so we can better meet demand.

4) Form new alliances. We have alliances with individual organizations, community coalitions and networks of organizations to deepen their impact and relevance and also strengthen the conditions in communities. These include groups such as the American Library Association; Pikes Peak United Way in Colorado Springs; USDA Rural Development in Maryland and Delaware; a coalition of organizations in Battle Creek, Michigan, supported by the local United Way; the Local Community Services Association in New South Wales, Australia; and others. This year, we will add to this list and are actively looking for organizations and groups that are interested.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I started the Institute because as a young boy who was sick and spent much of his childhood in hospitals, I learned what it was like to be without a voice and to be invisible in a system that was supposed to be there to support me. As I grew older and became frustrated with organizations and efforts focused on their own good at the expense of the common good, I realized we needed different institutions and different leaders to create the kind of society we all seek. Like you, there are days when I get frustrated with what often seems like a perpetual uphill battle. On the whole though, I am still phenomenally optimistic about our potential to make community a common enterprise again and give everyone a real chance at the American dream.

Why? Because throughout our history, this country has shown an enormous potential to self-correct itself and move ever closer to the ideals we espouse. We’ve seen this in the struggle for workers’ rights, women’s rights, in the Civil Rights struggle. Some of you may have heard me speak or read some of my writings on the idea of Americans as builders. Indeed, I believe we are builders by nature, and our history of coming together time and again to build a more perfect Union bears that out.

Mostly, though, I’m hopeful because of what I see and hear when I’m in communities. Even though it can feel like so much is moving in the wrong direction in our country, Americans want to be builders again. Despite the narrative that we are divided, people still yearn — deeply — to come together across dividing lines and find common ground and get things done. And in community after community, I see it happening.

I’m in this fight for both for the people driving those efforts and those whose lives they seek to better. I’m in this fight for all the people who still feel pushed out of politics and public life — who feel voiceless in a society where their voices absolutely must matter. I’m in this fight because, like you, I believe we can be better. That’s why I am so committed to growing the Institute’s efforts. And that’s why — as cliché as it may be — we do, in fact, need to scale. I’m looking forward to the challenge.