Investing in Public Life

by Scott London

A couple of years ago, the Pew Partnership for Civic Change and the Kettering Foundation invited me to take part in a series of dialogues among prominent foundation executives and nonprofit directors about the challenges of community-building. While the grantmaking community is reluctant to openly admit it, there is a pervasive sense today that community development programs, for all their good intentions, routinely fall short of their goals. All too often, they fail to tap into vital civic resources and energy, build effective relationships with the public, develop broad-based networks and coalitions, and sustain the commitment over the long haul.

What can foundations and nonprofits do to address the problem? This was the focus of three day-long dialogues, held over a twelve-month period, in Washington D.C. The conversations were rich, thought-provoking, perhaps even ground-breaking. Crafting more effective strategies, the participants believed, has to begin by paying greater attention to how communities come together to name and frame their problems, finding entry points for working with a diversity of people in the community, fostering integrative and sustainable partnerships, and developing more enlightened evaluation practices that reflect both qualitative and quantitative measures of community development.

The dialogues served as the basis for a report, Investing in Public Life, which was published last month. In it, I outline a range of strategies for accomplishing these goals. I also set forth some practical ideas for foundations and nonprofit organizations committed to building and strengthening local communities.