Helping residents find their ‘Heart & Soul’
Investing in people and places
How can foundations and philanthropic organizations engage residents? One way is by helping them find their ‘Heart & Soul’.
In “Four Traditions of Philanthropy,” Elizabeth Lynn and Susan Wisely reflect on the roles of philanthropy in the United States. Lynn, the founder of the Center for Civic Reflection, and Wisely, who spent a decades-long career with the Lilly Endowment, also used their 2006 essay in The Civically Engaged Reader as an opportunity to look forward with recommendations, concerned that “the future direction of American philanthropy is less clear.”
At the core of that history is “a vision of human connectedness,” they write, as they go on to detail the chronological emergence of the first three traditions – Philanthropy as: Relief, Improvement, and Social Reform.
Relief and Improvement might be understood, at their most basic level, through the adage: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” While noble, Relief can fall short of addressing the crisis – in this example, hunger – at its root cause. The shortcoming of Improvement: “Fishing lessons only help those with access to the pond,” Lynn and Wisely note.
In other words, not everyone may have access to the proverbial pond and equipment.
That led to the tradition of Social Reform with its efforts to change systems previously exclusive, whether unintentional or by design. But changing systems on behalf of, yet without, those affected by and participating in them does not lead to whole-of-community change or improvement.
If the tradition of Social Reform falls short, too, of realizing fully “a vision of human connectedness” how might we get there?
“To put it simply,” Lynn and Wisely write, “people need opportunities to learn from themselves and about themselves, from others and about others.”
To do that, they call for an investment in a fourth tradition: civic engagement.
Getting Engaged in Civic Engagement
Seventeen years since Lynn and Wisely’s essay, whether watching television, reading newspapers and magazines, or scrolling through social media feeds, it is difficult to escape today’s ‘Divided States of America’ narrative. There’s also the recent growing concern of social isolation, or a loneliness epidemic, in America.
Today, there may yet be a greater need to form and support relationships and cultivate conversations among and between residents. At the local level, fostering a connectedness is critical to healthy, vibrant residents and communities.
Who and how to do that? Turn to the people.
“The most fundamental freedom we have is the freedom to come together and determine our future. That, to me, is the real American dream,” Sterling Speirn, who recently served as the interim CEO of CF Leads, and has had a decades-long, illustrious career in the philanthropic sector, told me. “My hope is more community foundations will say, ‘We’ve got to get more involved in community dialogue and community problem solving at the local level’ and give people an experience that (shows them) we are pragmatic Americans, we are problem solvers.”
Brian Treece, the president and CEO of the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation, sees civic engagement through a philanthropic lens as the idea of working together to identify the priorities and ways to have an impact.
“It’s our responsibility, I believe, as a community foundation to participate in, fund, and facilitate civic engagement in our communities,” Treece told me.
The good news, as Treece knows from experience: foundations and philanthropic organizations don’t have to go it alone.
Residents Learn about and from Themselves to Inform Their Future
“Community Heart & Soul was the only model that met people where they were by going to every person to ask for their feedback on their community and on their county,” Kyle McEwen, the executive director of the Illinois nonprofit Mercer County Better Together, told me.
When looking to help better connect residents with each other and together better plan the towns’ futures, McEwen and a team of others throughout the county turned to the resident-driven community development model based in Vermont with a growing national footprint that includes over a hundred towns to date.
“I just totally just bought into that whole process – bringing people together, hearing their voices,” Nancy Van Milligen, the president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, told me. “When the community is engaged, it’s so much easier to raise grant money and move projects forward.”
The Community Heart & Soul principles – involve everyone, focus on what matters most, and play the long game – aligned with the foundation’s values and vision of how Van Milligen wanted to help surrounding communities move forward. That led to a formalized partnership between Community Heart & Soul and the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, where Van Milligen has a staff member dedicated to facilitating the Community Heart & Soul process throughout their multi-county region.
“We don’t come in with any political, social, or religious agenda,” Mark Sherman, the president of Community Heart & Soul, told me about the nonpartisan nature of their work. “We simply provide a framework, training, and support to help residents figure out their priorities and then turn these into actions that result in healthier and more vibrant communities. And when we find local organizations with similar missions, it creates exciting opportunities to work together to achieve enormous results.”
Why are residents quick to buy in to the process? Perhaps it is because Community Heart & Soul begins by asking residents: What do you love about your town? Then, the process encourages reflection from residents on what matters most about their community, the future they want for it, and how can they work collectively to achieve it through actions identified during the Heart & Soul process.
“That’s such a better place to start than with ‘we’re coming together because there is a crisis!’,” Speirn told me. By starting with storytelling, “you build relationships, and after you’ve built relationships, then you can move on to problem solving.”
And when space is created for people to share their stories and express their opinions on issues, “you start to see the more we have in common,” Speirn added.
The Community Heart & Soul process helps residents find and focus on a common good that unites them, encouraging them to think and then act together, Jenny Robbins, manager of community and leadership development with Georgia Electric Membership Corporation (EMC), told me. A certified Community Heart & Soul Coach, Robbins said the process changed the civic climate in towns she’s been involved with because it includes residents from the beginning.
The spirit of the process and the work is “This isn’t happening to you; this is happening because of you,” Robbins explained.
The “this” in Thomaston-Upson, a whole-of-county approach emanating out of the city of Thomaston with some 9,100 residents, included quantifiable outcomes, like an increase in volunteerism and identifying and prioritizing 20 action items that have become the community’s action plan. That involved attracting new businesses and restaurants to the area.
“The community leaders gave (those businesses) a data point they weren’t used to looking at,” Robbins said. “Because retail businesses care about data, it helped close the deal.”
The data point: Residents overwhelmingly voicing, “we want this.”
Getting Involved, Staying Involved
There are other civic engagement benefits that have been seen throughout the some-hundred Heart & Soul towns nationwide, from Maine to Washington, from Michigan to Texas. That includes Pennsylvania, where PA Humanities, the state’s humanities council, is also partnering with Community Heart & Soul.
“Creating spaces that are welcoming and belonging to people in the community, it sounds like a simple thing, but it’s not,” Laurie Zierer, the executive director of PA Humanities, told me, adding, that doing so is “muscle”, “a civic muscle, a social muscle, a social, emotional muscle that is absolutely necessary in order to bring diverse and different people to the table.”
And when you have different people who are seeing things from different perspectives, “it’s in that creative mix, in real time, adjusting and moving to what is new before you, that you can actually get traction to make change and to develop solutions together.”
In two Pennsylvania towns, women who participated in the Community Heart & Soul processes are now running for elected office. Will they be elected? That’s up to voters. But both credit their Community Heart & Soul experience for giving them the courage to get their names on the ballots.
Other ways residents are engaging civically can be seen in Pennsylvania’s neighbor to the west, Ohio, where the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation is a partner with Community Heart & Soul.
One example comes from the small village of Mt. Blanchard: A flowchart – which emerged during the town’s Community Heart & Soul process – that helps residents conceptualize how their ideas can become realities. As Brian Treece told me, it “has forever changed village council processes,” as the model is now an integral tool being used by various council committees.
“I get excited about what we can do today that will have generational impact,” Treece said.
Reimagining How We Engage Civically
Are Americans less involved in their communities today?
Perhaps another question to consider asking is: How can Americans become more involved in their communities today?
Foundations and philanthropic organizations play a critical role in helping to support the creation of that space – where they can hear from residents, and residents can learn from each other. Community Heart & Soul provides a turnkey roadmap of how residents can listen to each other and then turn their communitywide conversations into actions.
“In my experience when people give back to their community — whether it’s time, talent, or treasure — they’re more invested,” Nancy Van Milligen told me. “By incorporating philanthropy with the Community Heart & Soul model, we create new opportunities for people to get involved in their towns.”
About the Author
Ben Speggen is a learner, writer, editor, interviewer, reporter, connector, researcher, educator, and administrator with one foot in the think tank world, with the Jefferson Educational Society, and the other in the journalism sector, with the Our Towns Civic Foundation, Erie Reader, Craftsmanship Magazine, among others. You’ll find more about him and his work on his Substack, Ben Here. Saw That.