Community Change Begins with the Heart

A recent partnership study by GCN and The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta on Nonprofit Performance in the 23-County Metro Atlanta Area found that nearly half of the organizations surveyed based their goals and outcomes on internal data, rather than a community-focused strategy. Here, expert community builder Jon Abercrombie offers his insight on how organizations can better include the community’s ongoing participation throughout the planning process.

Have you asked yourself where the real power in your planning comes from? Civic engagement and organization development expert Peter Block, author of Community: The Structure of Belonging, writes that the energy for change comes from asking the public we serve, “What are the deep commitments that you bring with you?” Those deep commitments must be the heart of any plan for community change that hopes to succeed; no amount of expertise can overcome the fact that change starts in the hearts of those being asked to change their organizations, schools, neighborhoods, and families.

So how do you determine if the public you serve feels that kind of deep commitment to the issue behind your latest campaign idea?  How do you know if there is energy available to act for the change you’re championing?

Everyday Democracy, the national organization that shaped Common Focus’s 16-year-old community alignment initiative, Decatur Round Tables, suggests a three-question test to determine whether or not the campaign you’re considering will attract the energy and commitment of the public.

1. Is the campaign relevant? If intended participants believe that the process is going to affect them, they are more likely to turn up. Nonprofits should explore in advance which of their issues people care most about. If you can determine which of the issues you address affects the greatest number of people, you can tailor your campaign to reach them. 

2. Are the conversation and work timely? Just because an issue affects them doesn’t mean people are likely to commit valuable time to it. Most people are already overwhelmed by demands on their time, so they need a compelling reason to participate now. When designing your appeal, emphasize the immediacy of the issue: Are we facing an imminent crisis? Is something bad likely to happen if we don't get involved? Is the timing right for us to make real headway?

3. Do I believe that this process and group of people can actually do something? Many issues are both relevant and timely, but this final question is the dealmaker. If people have no reason to think that your solution can really lead to change, they’re not likely to sign on. Always be sure you make evidence of your impact part of your appeal—the more vivid, the better (think stories and images, not statistics and figures).

In short: make sure the plan serves the public first, and not the planners.  If the hearts of the community are not engaged, even the most detailed and expert plans will have little impact. The only way to create sustainable change in the community is through the community’s ongoing participation, throughout the planning process. If your nonprofit has listened first to its public, it can plan with integrity and power, expect lasting change, and become a powerful role model of community change done right.

Jon Abercrombie is the director of Common Focus, and serves as an affiliate consultant for GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group. He is also the founder of Charis Community Housing, and the former director of FCS Urban Ministries, as well as a hands-on consultant, trainer, organizer, and facilitator. You can read more about Common Focus at


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