Where We Are

Note: This is the second in a three-part series exploring the history, activities and future plans of The Harwood Institute. Read the other two installments: Where We're Going and Where We've Been. 

By Rich Harwood

At The Harwood Institute, we have learned two things: 1) Public innovators are the leaders communities need to bring people together across dividing lines and get things done in environments where we’re continually told it’s not possible; and 2) We need those public innovators to be turned outward, with the discipline to use their community, not their conference rooms or their own programs, as the reference point for their actions.

Today, the Institute is squarely focused on developing these public innovators and boundary-spanning organizations to turn outward and solve our common challenges in a way that makes communities stronger. Our work has spread to hundreds of U.S. communities and 40 countries worldwide. We are aggressively scaling our approach in a number of exciting ways.

We have forged alliances with some of the largest nonprofits in the world, including United Way Worldwide, AARP, the American Library Association, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, among others. We are finding great success at the state level too; for instance, our alliance with the Indiana Association of United Ways is building a network of United Ways across the state of Indiana using our approach in local communities and generating a positive force for public innovation across the state. Recently our work has spread to Australia, where we’ve formed an alliance with the Local Community Services Association, a network of neighborhood centers across New South Wales. We anticipate announcing other Australia-based alliances in the coming year.

In addition, our work is being scaled in local communities. There, we are developing a critical mass of public innovators and boundary-spanning groups that can collectively address local challenges and shift the civic culture of those communities.

Through years of working in communities and learning and innovating on what accelerates change and makes it stick, we have developed an approach – a practice – that helps leaders and organizations deepen and accelerate their change efforts. Being turned outward, as we call it, begins with having a deep understanding of, and ongoing connection with, the community you serve. But it absolutely doesn’t stop there.

In fact, to get the kind of results we need in communities, it simply can’t stop there.

Our approach helps public innovators and organizations not only develop a deep knowledge of the community but then put it into practice in ways that build credibility, trust and ownership in the community. That means understanding the capacity of your community for change, then developing or enhancing strategies and programs that fit the local context. It means understanding the essential ingredients that make communities work, then creating efforts that achieve impact but also create those conditions at the same time. Finally, it means showing up at work, and in other aspects of one’s life, in a fundamentally different way. Our approach helps you understand what it means to be someone who is turned outward and the implications for how you conduct yourself day in and day out.

There are public innovators doing this already. Consider, for example, the team at United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region in Michigan, which launched an initiative to take on gaps in education after discovering that just 5 percent of kindergarteners could read proficiently. The United Way, together with the school district, listened to the community’s shared aspirations and then launched an initiative that mobilized the community and increased reading proficiency to 71 percent in a single year.

Battle Creek community leaders also have used the Harwood approach to provide health, language, job training and youth education services for a particularly disenfranchised ethnic community.  As well, public innovators in Battle Creek are using Harwood tools to redevelop their downtown with better transportation and other amenities the community seeks.

At KNPR, the public radio station in Las Vegas, public innovators revamped a news program, State of Nevada, that increased the station’s relevance and created greater engagement between local broadcasters and listeners. That and other changes to turn outward have translated to more funding, a larger audience share and continual vigilance by the station to ensure it’s delivering the kind of programming the community wants.

Library professionals across the country are using the Harwood approach to bring broad cross-sections of communities together to collectively identify and tackle their most pressing challenges. Community conversations and a variety of other tools that encourage people to articulate their concerns and aspirations – often for the first time – have enabled libraries across the country to bring about unprecedented change created and sustained by community aspirations.

And the list goes on and on. People from colleges and universities, faith leaders, government officials, business people – individuals from all walks of life – are now applying our approach to their personal, organizational and community challenges, all aim at creating greater impact and making their communities fundamentally stronger.

Because it’s a discipline, or an approach, we coach people on how to apply it over time. We are not consultants; our core belief is that communities must make decisions for themselves. Instead, our coaches guide people in using our frameworks and tools to support that decision-making. In fact I’m always careful to say, “Your role is not to give communities the answer! That’s for them to do.”

We announced a bold goal this year: to develop 5,000 public innovators by 2016. To date, we have formally developed around 1,400 of them, and many others have been exposed to our work in other ways.

We have a long way to go, but getting more leaders out there with the ability to show our communities that we can get things done for the common good is a fight worth taking on. And it is a fight, because all the pressures in society right now are leading us down the same path of the status quo we’ve been on –a path of more divisiveness, more acrimony, more finger-pointing and blaming and a focus on individual wins at the expense of the common good.  Our challenge is to forge a different path – one of hope, of coming together where we can find common ground, of taking action that will build community, not tear it down.

No single individual or organization – including my own – can solve these challenges. We are doing our part, though, to make an important contribution. In my next blog, I’ll talk about where our efforts are headed.