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Australia Helping the World Turn Outward

24 March 2017 at 5:28 pm
Wendy Williams
Australia can help lead the world towards better community engagement by demonstrating what new and innovative place-based strategies could look like, according to the president and founder of the US-based Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

Wendy Williams | 24 March 2017 at 5:28 pm


Australia Helping the World Turn Outward
24 March 2017 at 5:28 pm

Australia can help lead the world towards better community engagement by demonstrating what new and innovative place-based strategies could look like, according to the president and founder of the US-based Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

Rich Harwood has been in Perth and Melbourne running Public Innovators Labs with the aim of teaching organisations how to make the community – not the conference room – the reference point for their choices and action.

His visit to Australia follows a partnership between ten20 Foundation, Woodside Energy, the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, and Philanthropy Australia that formed out of a shared desire to shift ways of thinking, to solve some of the nation’s complex social problems.

Harwood told Pro Bono News he was “genuinely excited” about being in Australia.

“I think Australia, in many respects, is moving faster to place-based strategies with a clear-eyed view that simply returning to old ways of doing business in places isn’t going to work,” Harwood said.

“I think there is genuine belief that government, business and NGOs and communities are going to have to work differently in place.

“In Australia what I’m finding, more than in the States, is a flexibility and a spirit of innovation and an openness to do things differently, or at least try things differently.

“One of the things I said in closing the lab here in Melbourne [was] ‘Australia is one of the leading democracies in the world, and I believe that Australia can help lead in demonstrating what new, smarter, more innovative place-based strategies look like’.”

Harwood founded the Harwood Institute in 1988, as a not for profit that teaches and inspires people and organisations to solve pressing problems and explore how to engage with communities to help them build the capacity to solve their own problems.

In particular, the labs are internationally recognised for supporting leadership in “turning outward”.

Harwood said “turning outward” was about putting communities front and centre and avoiding a situation where solutions to community challenges were divorced from the context of the community itself.

“Over the years I think so many of us have become turned inward, we are focused on our own organisation, we’re focused on our own strategies, our own programs, in some cases we are focused on protecting our own turf, and interests,” he said.

“What that has meant for communities is that even while our rhetoric has increased about being in service of communities, we’ve actually become more in service of our own interests and organisations, and have often lost sight of the very communities that we’re seeking to serve.

“So first and foremost turning outward is an orientation about what direction are we really facing when we do this work.

“Are we facing outward toward our communities? Are our communities our frame of reference? Or, are we really turned inward towards our own boardrooms; our own organisations and strategies are our first reference point and the community becomes more of almost like a playing field for us.”

He said the labs covered a number of areas to help drive the success and impact of local efforts.

“People learn a set of practices that enable them to turn outward and engage communities more authentically, think more about the readiness of communities for change, where is the best place to start change and how is the best way to start change, how do we create the underlying conditions that can support change, because as you know a lot of times we can have the best ideas…[but without] the right environment, the right civic culture, that change can’t take hold, it can’t grow, it can’t spread and it can’t be effective,” he said.

He said there were three main things he hoped people took from the labs.

“One is that they need to be turned outward toward their communities, if in fact they’re interested in creating change,” he said.

“Two that they need to be much more strategic in calibrating their change strategy so it fits the readiness and underlying conditions of their communities.

“Three, what I say to them is… as opposed to thinking about solving and fixing a problem, most of our social challenges can’t be fixed overnight, we should be thinking much more about what it means to create a trajectory of change which gets us moving in the right direction with increasing momentum and ever growing civic confidence.

“If you can get on that path, you will create a greater sense of possibility and hope.”

He said the labs in Australia had attracted an “incredible cross section of folks”.

“I don’t know what the word is but if I was in the States I would say I am just really stoked by the people I’ve met,” he said.

“At times in labs there is some resistance to people exploring ideas and thinking about how they can accelerate and deepen their change, we just didn’t experience that on this trip in either lab.

“There was a real hunger for knowledge and not just a hunger but also a willingness to challenge how certain ideas will work and can work, so a practicality, which I really like about Australians.”

He said putting communities first was a matter of trust.

“I think increasingly in our society, whether it is here in Australia or the United States or in other countries worldwide now, I think increasingly people are frustrated by the trend that they feel as though they are being acted upon, that solutions are being imposed upon them as opposed to solutions being calibrated to the things that really matter to them in their lives,” he said.

“If people are going to have faith in those institutions and that those institutions have their best interests at heart, we’re going to have to change the way we do work in our communities otherwise we’ve got a crisis of confidence and legitimacy.”

He said we were seeing a lot of disruption in the world that was symptomatic of people’s frustration with leaders and institutions.

“I think the changes that you are seeing whether it is in the election of the US president or in Brexit, or changes in Canada or the change in premier in Western Australia… all of these things have been brewing for years,” he said.

“[They] are signs of a crystallisation of people’s frustration and even more than their frustration their deep-seated anger and loss of faith in those organisations and leaders and institutions that are here to serve them but which are failing to serve them well.”

During the labs the Harwood Institute debuted a new Funders Roadmap tool that, created in partnership with ten20 and Opportunity Child, aims to help funders make more strategic choices about how to invest their resources given the context of the communities they support.

“The Funders Roadmap is based on a framework that the Harwood Institute has developed over the last 30 years called community rhythms,” he said.

“The essence of it is that all communities go through stages. There are five stages in all and all communities are in one of the five stages.

“Most community strategies for change are geared towards the fourth or fifth stage, most communities are in the first two-and-a-half stages.

“So the questions for funders, and funders in this case could be foundations, it could be government, it could be a group like the Red Cross or the United Way Australia, anybody who is supporting communities, the question becomes how do those funders calibrate their strategies in ways that fit the readiness and context of communities where they are, as opposed to where we hoped they would be.

“Another way to put this is how do we get real, how do we square up to reality and deal with the reality we are facing as opposed to our hopes and dreams of just wishing that a community was someplace else.”

He said the first stage was the “waiting place”.

“[It’s] where communities are kind of stuck, there is a lack of energy, it is hard to get people to define the problems because they’re kind of amorphous for folks,” he said.

“Often times that’s where governments and other funders believe that if they dump in the most amount of money they’ll somehow get the community to move forward and what we know from our experience is it doesn’t matter how much money you dump into a community in the waiting place, the conditions just aren’t right for widespread deep change.

“So if we get smarter about the investments we make and calibrate them better to where communities actually are then maybe we could actually save money in some cases and better invest it in others.”

In addition to the labs, Harwood Institute is also partnering with Opportunity Child and PwC Australia to lead a series of one-day trainings for Department of Social Services staff.

Harwood said Australia was “poised to put some runs on the board”.

“What I always say to folks whenever I come here is that I understand Australia is different from the United States, the conditions are different, the political environment is different, the philanthropic sector is different, but what I also know is that here in Australia, as I said before, there is a really keen desire to make place-based strategy work,” he said.

“It is clear that people believe that one size doesn’t fit all, it’s also clear that there has been some lost faith in government and it also is clear that not every Australia believes that they have a fair go.

“Within that context I am very hopeful about what Australia can do… and I’m also really quite keen to see how Australia can help lead and demonstrate to other countries and other communities outside of Australia what this work can look like and the impact it can create.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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