Now more than ever

… it is time to slow down. We know about slow food, slow medicine is on the rise and even slow travel and slow driving (which is wishful thinking in Atlanta!) I would add to that list, slow community development. There is obviously urgency in getting work done and fulfilling our missions but we will all be more effective if we take time to deeply engage with our communities — to actually take the time needed to implement change.

In the non-profit realm, we are all rushing around operating in sound bites and pushed to make change within the 3 year grant cycle so many funders seem to favor. We hustle to design great programs with meaningful impact and just when the program seems poised for success, Bam! There goes the funding. Or the funding is not robust enough to establish the full program but funds it only partially. And then there’s evaluation. I actually love evaluation though none of the grants I received during my time at my last nonprofit actually funded any. Grantors tended to ask what our evaluation and sustainability plans were and then proceed to give us $15,000 for a program that needed $80,000 to run fully and have evaluation. But I digress just a bit.

Many of the latest intervention attempts are pushing for best practices and scalability in order to prevent waste of limited funds. Which sounds great on paper. But there’s things several wrong with this. The best practices were developed from looking at data from multiple different communities which may have little in common or the best practices were developed in a “think tank” removed from lived experiences of the impacted communities. Then there’s the subjectivity of data generally and the risk of generalizing. Vu Le has a great blog about Weaponized Data and he says “People are so varied, and yet we have a tendency to assume that findings in studies can be generalized to everyone, and we make decisions based on those assumptions.”

My particular beef is that the urgency to solve long-standing problems TODAY with standardized programs ignores the very subjective realities and individual natures of communities and their needs. “Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever)” is the title of a new report put out by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. This fabulous report details the importance of avoiding top down community solutions under the guise of implementing best practices or data-driven approaches. At its essence, this report urges slow community development or, as they term it, “patient urgency.”

True community engagement is of necessity a slow process. The disenfranchised and disengaged need to be engaged in order to take ownership of the mechanisms of change. Too often, solutions are suggested and implemented by leaders thinking they know what’s best for communities or outsiders coming in to load a “plug and play” solution to education or housing or crime reduction or whatever is the issue of the day. It reminds me of the giant development programs implemented in numerous African countries in the 70s and 80s — think dams and schools and agriculture programs — all of which looked good on paper but were total failures due to lack of buy-in from local communities.

Successful programs are those which started with asking the community, “What do you want?” An oft-cited story is the Nigerian community of Umuebu which asked for a soccer field. From there, the schools and health clinics and running water followed. Soccer was the foundation for successfully learning how to work together.

I don’t disagree that there are some commonalities among communities. There may even be successful “plug and play” approaches but the only way to know that is to slow down and ask the community. Before bringing in the big impact, high-efficiency, data-driven program offering, take the time to invest in the relationships that will bring about change. Change is slow and needs long-term investments which can only be done with local stakeholders who are in it for the long haul. Outside entities need to take the time to build local capacity. And everyone needs to understand that change is complex, messy and slow. If it wasn’t, it would already be done…

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