Keeping it Real

Reflections from Greg Braylock, Jr. Education Impact Specialist for United Way of Greater Toledo Early in the 3½ day Harwood Lab, the message sank in: organizations that seek to serve people too often know of the people they work to serve, but don’t really know the people they serve. This subtlety becomes the difference between failed or mildly successful plans, policies, initiatives, and programs, and those that are successful, sustained, citizen driven and system supported.

In an effort to be more relevant to our changing communities, we as philanthropic and service organizations are immersing ourselves in data and statistics about those we seek to serve – which isn’t, as Harwood made clear, all bad. Although, more often than not, the top question in meetings of community leaders is some variation of, “What does the data say about this?”, or “What do the stats tell us about them?” Our ability to research and recite statistics about the people we are working to help seems to govern how relevant we are in circles of influence within our communities.

However, if we were to go beyond the research and recitation, I bet we’d find that very few of our organizations really know the people for whom the data seems to speak. The litmus test - If we were to go into the homes of the people on whom we gather data, and tell them what we know of them, would they say, “Yep, you’ve got me right on!” Or, would they say, “Ok, so what, you think you know me?”

This scenario, posed in a slightly different format by Harwood, made me re-examine my current thoughts on what it means to be a relevant and authentic organization. As a result, I framed this relevancy question in a way familiar to my generation - how real are our organizations keeping it?

“Keeping it real”, the urban millennials’ call for authenticity, has more to do with looking outward and being a reflection of the community than many realize.

Realities – Do we know and understand, and are we able to identify with and speak to, the daily realities of the people and community we seek to serve and empower? Do those realities direct our efforts?

Expectations – How deeply do we understand expectations the people and community we serve have of themselves and of us as philanthropic and service organizations? What drives the similarities and differences between their expectations of themselves, our expectations of them, their expectations of us, and our expectations of us?

Aspirations – How deeply do we know, and how clearly can we speak to, the aspirations of the people and community we exist to serve? How resolved are we to make the aspirations of those we serve our organizational aspirations and priorities?

Love – Do we love the people and community we seek to serve with a love rooted in relationship that says – I see you. I know you. We’re in this together, and together we will rise.

What I learned about looking outward…we’ve got to keep it real.

-Greg Braylock, Jr. Education Impact Specialist for United Way of Greater Toledo is part of the United Way Education Mobilization Group and a 2010 Harwood Public Innovators Lab Alum.