About Rich Harwood
President & founder of The Harwood Institute
Led, in part, by the example set by his parents – who built the community’s first halfway house to support those with mental illness following de-institutionalization, re-energized the NAACP, spoke out for the voiceless on urban renewal, and founded their local synagogue – Rich grew up in a family that believed everyone in the community should be seen and heard and treated with compassion. As a sick child, he spent much of his childhood confined to hospital beds, while doctors hovered over him speaking to each other about him, but never to him, and there he learned first-hand the pain and loneliness of being neither seen, nor heard.
His parents’ example, along with those of mentors, coaches, and teachers who reached out to him, and his deep faith, all left a lasting impression on Rich, who vowed to dedicate his life to working so that all people are seen heard and that, together, we can take our best shot at creating a better society and making hope real for all people.
In 1988, after working on more than 20 political campaigns by his 23rd birthday, going to Princeton for a Masters in Public Affairs, and working for two highly respected non-profits, Rich, then 27, set out to create something entirely different. Disappointed and impatient with non-profits with laudable missions but little real affection for the community or taking on the toughest challenges, and campaigns that no longer sought to repair breaches but instead sought to win at any cost – he left his job at a major non–profit to create a highly entrepreneurial, public–spirited for–profit company. Everyone told him setting out on his own and pursuing his vision would not work – but despite the risk and challenges, he went ahead. He wanted to demonstrate that there was, in fact, a market for a hard-hitting, highly-entrepreneurial approach to tackling tough issues and making society work better, while still operating with the highest integrity and ethics. Fear of failure was nothing compared to the fear of failing to act – and to the possibility of abandoning the lessons of his childhood.
His firm, The Harwood Group, started out of his one bedroom Washington D.C. apartment and quickly grew into one of the most widely respected companies in the country working to address tough public concerns. Along the way, Rich demonstrated that there was a market and that people would invest their limited time, resources, and gifts because of proven results.
Soon after its founding, Rich wrote the ground breaking report: Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street which uncovered not apathy as most argued, but instead a deep sense of anger and disconnection among Americans. Spurred by the success of Citizens and Politics, Rich soon became a national leader in rethinking how to improve politics and public life, generate the civic capacity needed to move communities forward, and spur news media to reconnect with their communities, provide more relevant news coverage, and improve public discourse.
Then, in 1998, Rich faced another choice. National foundations and other supporters came to him to expand his work, and so he made the decision to close the successful for-profit model and open a nonprofit, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Becoming a non-profit resulted in forgoing significant personal financial gains, but it meant the work would be able to spread to more communities and reach more people. Facing that choice, there was really no choice. The nonprofit would keep the nimbleness of an entrepreneurial enterprise, but now focus on expanding access and use of the work.
By 2005, with its strong and growing staff, rising funding from many of the most well known and respected foundations, and requests from across the country to partner, the Institute was, by most standards, a runaway success. And yet Rich realized that despite the expectation that every leader wants a bigger staff, better offices, a larger budget and more funders – these signs of success would not lead to the kind of impact he was seeking. Rich believed that the staff could never grow large enough to meet growing demand. And he had deep equity concerns about how the work could spread to the hardest hit communities.
These choices came to a head, when, while working with local groups serving vulnerable children and families in Newark, Rich got a call that the project’s key funder was pulling out, and would leave the community without support to finish its work. That night, Rich decided that rather than abandon the community, the Institute would continue its work pro bono. But he never again wanted a community that sought to act on its aspirations to lack access to this approach. This would mean fundamentally changing how the Institute worked with communities.
Spurred by the visceral memory of the people in Newark, Rich made another hard choice, this time to flip the Harwood Institute’s business model. He chose to reduce staff to just three people and turn down funding in order to re-focus. Yet again, Rich chose to make a difficult choice, when easier ones were available. Instead of pursuing short-term growth opportunities, the Institute would focus on what it would take to make the work even more accessible to more people, in more places.
The hard choices are paying off. Today, Rich is the driving force behind the Institute’s partnerships with some of the largest, most respected non-profits in the world. Even in partnering with groups such as United Way Worldwide, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, American Library Association, and AARP, Rich has been dogged in maintaining the Institute’s nimble core staff, while dramatically expanding access to this work. By focusing on impact and not funding, he has created new ways to support small individual groups and the hardest hit communities. He continues to be a leader in how we can think about moving communities and the country forward, through his books such as: Hope Unraveled, Make Hope Real, Why We’re Here, and The Work of Hope. Increasingly, people across the country and around the world have access to Harwood ideas, innovations, and approach.
Rich Harwood has never forgotten the feeling of being sick, unseen, and unheard – but today as a national speaker, author, and leader he is able to lend his voice to the fight for a different kind of public life and politics – one where we see and hear all people, face up to the tough choices to reach our shared aspirations, and make hope real.
Rich keynotes events all over the world, talking about what we can do to make community a common enterprise again and combat the divisiveness and acrimony holding back progress.