Find Out How the Lab Helped a Calif. United Way Develop New, Stronger Partnerships

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Countdown to Sign Up: Harwood Public Innovators Lab  Dec. 16-18Find Out How the Lab Helped a Calif. United Way Develop New, Stronger Partnerships

On Dec. 16-18, The Harwood Institute will host its fourth annual Harwood Public Innovators Lab in Washington, D.C. at United Way Wordwide’s Mary M. Gates Learning Center. The learning experience is open to everyone. Click here to find out more information and register.

Read about how the lab inspired Della Hodson, President and CEO of United Way of Kern County in Bakersfield, Calif. and her entire organization to become more community-focused, which led to new and stronger partnerships. A Transformational Experience for United Way of Kern County By Della Hodson

In December 2012, I sent our Vice President of Community Impact and our Community Investment Manager to the Harwood Public Innovators Lab co-sponsored by United Way Worldwide. I had been exposed to the Harwood approach at various United Way conferences and I was curious to learn more. Little did I realize at the time that this decision would be the first step on a transformational journey for our United Way.

My Vice President, who has extensive experience in community organizing and social justice, returned to Bakersfield full of excitement and enthusiasm for the Harwood practice. We knew we had to share this with our community, so we arranged for Rich to deliver the keynote address at our annual Professional Development Conference for Nonprofits in March. Rich’s speech captivated the audience of more than 200 nonprofit staff and volunteers. We arranged for him to meet privately with key board members, who immediately saw the potential of turning outward. The transformation was on!

We entered into a year-long engagement with Harwood during which we received additional training for our entire staff and key partners. With guidance from our coach, Jan Elliott, we embarked on an ambitious schedule of community conversations across our 8,000-square-mile county. As we compiled results of the conversations, we realized that “community” was the unifying theme of every single conversation. Building community became the central theme in everything we did: we focused on creating community among volunteers, partners and our own team.

We began to strategically share the public knowledge we had acquired with our board, our volunteers, elected officials as well as other social service organizations and community leaders.  One of the ways we did this was by dedicating most of a board meeting to talking about the information we had learned from community conversations.

During the course of these meetings, we reviewed recurring themes and gave specific examples of language people used. When we talked about community, for example, we noted that here in Bakersfield, people talked about a need to bring together people from diverse neighborhoods. In smaller, outlying towns, we found that people spoke of the need for a physical gathering place, such as a community center. Board members were surprised by how consistent the themes were across very different communities.

We did the same thing at one of our weekly staff meetings.  In fact, you might even say that holding these meetings every week was a result of determining this was a "community" need.

We also set appointments with individual elected officials and community leaders to talk through various community concerns and themes we had learned, enabling us to provide them with specific examples of the most pressing needs and aspirations of the constituents in their very own districts.

As we started to change the way we worked, talking and acting in a more authentic and accountable way, others began to notice. We were putting community at the center of our work. Organizations that had never partnered with us began to reach out to us in search of new alliances.

Our existing efforts took on a new feel. We learned to relate to volunteers in a more collegial way, and that brought new volunteers to our work. Before we developed outcome metrics, we looked for ways to increase the sense of community. We started a special bi-weekly e-newsletter for our volunteers and held pizza parties to create a greater sense of belonging. We learned to relate to volunteers in a more collegial way, seeking their input on program design and tailoring training to their schedules.

Organizations reached out to us to learn our newfound skills and help them convene community conversations. We learned to scale and adapt our programmatic efforts to the aspirations and realities of the communities we serve.

We haven’t begun any major new initiatives, but that’s because we have plenty of work already and we’re putting an emphasis on making existing programs even better. And, more importantly, we believe it would be premature in our current stage of community life. What am I referring to, you ask? It’s just one of the many valuable concepts you’ll learn at the Harwood Public Innovators’ Lab.