Ten Ways to "Live United"

About one year ago the United Way of America unveiled its new brand and tagline, “Live United.” This week United Ways from across the country are reconvening in Detroit, and the question is: What does it mean to Live United in tough times? I remember sitting on stage with four colleagues during the opening session of the United Way of America’s annual conference last year in Baltimore. As moderator of the panel, my job was to shine a light on the challenges inherent in the Live United approach. Brian Gallagher, head of United of Way of America wanted folks to see what it would take to move the needle. I admire his vision and willingness to put tough issues on the table.

When I returned from that conference I wrote a piece entitled, “The Top 10 Ways to ‘Live United.’” In the past twelve months times have changed; the challenges we face have become only more difficult to address, with fewer dollars to go around.

Nonetheless my counsel for United Ways, and other public-spirited groups, remains. So, here, I repeat the Top 10 ways to “Live United” and in doing so I ask all United Ways and other groups to use these 10 points to see how much progress you’ve made over the past year, and what remains to be done. Engage yourself and your staff, boards and supporters on these.  Let me know your thoughts once you do.

1. We must help people in our communities to see and hear those individuals who are different from themselves, or who live in other parts of the community. At the heart of living united is the ability to see beyond ourselves so that we can begin to understand and work on common challenges, or support others who face challenges different from our own.

2.  We must root our work in the public knowledge of our community - for instance, in how people see and define their concerns, the values they wrestle with, the aspirations they hold for themselves, their neighbors, and their community. This public knowledge then must be used to inform the ways in which we do our work internally and the how we shape our programs and initiatives

3.   We must act as boundary spanners in our communities, working to bring people and organizations together across real and imagined dividing lines. Too many efforts these days are fragmented, isolated, or even redundant. We must find ways to work across boundaries and leverage one another's efforts.

4.  We must focus on undertaking "galvanizing projects" - efforts that by their very nature bring people together and demonstrate that we can step forward and work collectively. In these efforts, impact is less important than galvanizing people's sense of connection and momentum. We need early wins and they must visible to everyone.

5.  We must orient ourselves toward the "public good," which in practice means seeing people as citizens not "consumers." Too often our volunteer programs become more focused on the "volunteer experience" rather than creating positive impact for communities.

6.  We must be incredibly hard-nosed about selecting the right partners to work with. Well-meaning partnerships and coalitions often die from too much talk, too little action, and overblown promises. Stay focused on who you can run with.

7.  We must not confuse our desire to imagine a better world with the need to root our work in the daily realities in which people live. False starts or false promises made because of our own hubris or fantasies will only bring about more cynicism and lead to further retreat from public life. For us to live more united demands our willingness to face up to the hard truths of reality.

8. We must tap the energy and enthusiasm of young Americans, who bring into public life a sense of tolerance, can-do spirit, and a practical bent. Thus, our challenge is to redefine "public service" for this new generation, rather than trotting out warmed-over ideas from the past.

9. We must learn to tell stories of hope and change - what might be called civic parables - so that people can see themselves in public life. But this requires us to reject the usual hype and glossed-over public relations, and instead turn to authentic reflections of people's journeys around change, including why they started out where they did, how they progressed, what went wrong along the way, and what worked. Then maybe more people will step forward.

10. We must be willing to take on enemies of the public good - enemies like inertia, cynicism, mechanized responses to human problems, false hope, distorted reality, and superficial efforts to take on real challenges. Bringing about hope and change was never easy, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that our current time will be any different.

Use these 10 points to help you propel forward. Let me know how you came out on them, and your thoughts for moving forward.

The Harwood Institute joins the United Way of America in holding its key events in Detroit. June 2-5 the Harwood Public Innovators Lab will be held in Detroit.