The first day of the conference presented several very interesting opportunities to expand our understanding of the issues that Community Foundations face. After a nice dinner with fantastic oysters at Bourbon House the night before, we were well prepared for the first day’s options. Because I am attending the conference as a member of the community rather than staff of the foundation my lens is that of someone who wants to see how best to help my neighbors and peers work within the constraints that foundations face. But as a former program evaluator, that role is colored by an interest in data. So it was great to see a session on “real” community engagement AND a session on data in the same day. After that, everything else was icing on the cake. And here are some of the highlights (including links to data, reports, articles and other fun tidbits).
In the first session (Beyond Grants: Strengthening Communities Through More Community Engagement), the CF Leads representative talked about (finally, in my opinion) going past faux grassroots to actual residents of communities. In some ways, as one of the “usual suspects” myself, I can relate to being one of the people that isn’t typically supposed to be the ultimate beneficiary of our foundation’s efforts. So it was interesting to engage in a rich discussion about how to better get past usual suspects and gatekeepers to the voices of the people in our neighborhoods. The idea was, essentially, that there is a difference between reaching the people who you want to help and reaching their surrogates. The panel hoped to articulate why the topic was important and identify strategies and practices to adopt and adapt to do community engagement better.
The first panelist talked about the role of his foundation in ensuring that individuals and foundations worked together. Next up was Alandra Washington, a representative of the Kellogg Foundation. She made several key points that foundations should heed. One: Authenticity is critical. It is important to genuinely meet and engage communities “where they are.” Foundations must go beyond the interests of donors. This can be uncomfortable for some, but is critical to developing trust. Two: Place matters. Although I didn’t really hear what she had in mind here, the reality of viewing communities through a holistic lens is a good one. There was a third point and I’m hoping someone in the session will read this and comment about what it was because my notes broke down a bit.
Mr. Robinson had several interesting points to make about the nature of civic engagement and how it is shaping the political landscape. Perhaps the two most interesting that I heard were a bit ironic. First, he mentioned that the Tea Party and Occupy movements were essentially creatures of the same distrust and disaffection of large government structures. Although the concerns manifest in different ways for each of these groups, it is definitely true that in some sense both are “engaged” communities. The second was a humorous anecdote that the talking heads on his network and others are in a space where they only stop yelling polarizing things at one another long enough to decry the extensive polarization in the country. I’m paraphrasing, but his point that more and more people are being driven away from being politically engaged because of the polarization into a more independent stance on how our communities work was a good one.
I couldn’t possibly recap the entire lunch session or the afternoon session entitled Community Indicator Reports: How Data Supports Action and Affects Branding. But here are a few highlights and links to useful materials:
Mary Thomas of the Spartanburg County Foundation talked about data and community indicators. She focused on the benefit her community has derived from having indicators and a team of organizations to help focus on the issues. She also highlighted creative ways for the team to work together, including the need to develop a new brand to help the partners share successes.
Mary Jo Meisner of The Boston Foundation led in her presentation with the great quote “In God we trust, all others must bring data” by W. Edward Deming. Her focus was on the Boston Indicators Project.
She was engaged in the democratization of data, which is great from my perspective because it can open up the conversation to more participants and, potentially create a new “table” at which foundations and community groups can sit as peers rather than giver and recipient alone. Ms Meisner also described an exciting new website that will use Weave (an open source software featured here) so anyone can use data. It wasn’t immediately clear how broad the “anyone” in this scenario was going to be, but the more access the better, in my opinion.
The Boston Foundation’s work also led to a report about the dramatic rise in municipal employee health benefits, which led to passage of key state legislation. According to the presenter, and this press release, the new municipal health reform law saved $178 million in one year. Her presentation showed a truily powerful example of how Community Foundation work can drive not just local community engagement, but also be the basis for important civic change.
Many other impressive points were made during the session and I hope to engage others who attended to carry some of these examples back to support community efforts in the San Diego community as well. The sessions on day one typified the type of healthy exchange that is really made possible by this conference.