January/February 2017

Richard C. Harwood is founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. This document was prepared by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation in collaboration with the Kettering Foundation.

The “Ripple Effect” is about how change happens in communities.

It comes at a time when people throughout the country yearn to find alternatives to prolonged political gridlock, toxic public discourse and mistrust in a whole host of institutions, organizations, and leaders. At a time when significant trends, which have emerged over previous decades, are reshaping society — including dramatic shifts in family structure, widening income gaps, an uneven economy that undermines the vitality of many communities and poor education systems that fail to give many youth a real shot at the American Dream.

Amid this backdrop, community-based strategies are enjoying something of a revival. Many foundation executives and national and local leaders believe progress is more likely to come at the community level than it is nationally. The very idea of collective impact and its potential for community change is gaining currency. Indeed, there is a growing desire to figure out how communities can marshal their collective talents, assets, and people to address tough challenges. Communities are where people live; collective action is what makes communities work.

But how does such change happen — and spread? What’s in play? And how can one be intentional in their efforts to help bring it about? This is what The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, with support from the Kettering Foundation, sought to answer. More specifically:

  • How does change move from distinct “pockets” to the broader community — what does it take; who is involved?
  • How does momentum for change build over time in a community?
  • What does it mean — and take — for a community to learn as it goes?
  • Where does the narrative of a community fit into whether the community can make progress or not?

Start with embracing what we already know

There are certain realities about how change happens in communities that often seem ignored, despite what we already know. For instance, change in communities seldom happens in a comprehensive way all at once, though we keep trying. There is no such thing as a “big bang” notion of change — and yet we long for communities to re-invent themselves through some spontaneous combustion. Nor does change occur merely because we are able to corral a wide array of leaders who say they are willing to work together. Or because “enough” funding has been aggregated. And the use of data and evidence-based decision making — while important — is no guarantee either.

These and other approaches can be seductive — and they may work in some communities, for a period of time. But in order for communities to move forward, we need to take into account how communities naturally evolve and change.

Being in tune with the community

One way to think about this evolution is that communities go through stages. In previous research, The Harwood Institute found that there are five stages in all, each with its own implications — a set of do’s and don’ts — for how a community can make progress. In the Harwood Index, the five stages of community life are The Waiting Place, Impasse, Catalytic, Growth, and Sustain/Renew. Ignoring the stage that a community is in often leads to strategies that simply do not fit that community’s context. With the best of intentions, we can be starting at the wrong place, with the wrong set of actions.

The Harwood Institute has also identified a set of underlying conditions in a community (called “public capital’’) that, together, help to create an enabling environment for change.

These factors include different layers of leadership, organizations, and groups that span boundaries and bring people together, conscious community conversation and networks for learning and innovation. The problem is that in most communities, the enabling environment is weak and must be strengthened in order for a community to work together and make progress.

When approaches and strategies for change don’t take into account a community’s stage and don’t pay enough attention to fostering the right enabling environment, then we are not in tune with the community. At such moments, it is often possible to hear people in a community say, “Why is the approach we’re using working in other communities but not in our own?” And, “Despite our best efforts, why is our community not moving forward faster?” Or, “Why, despite our heroic efforts, are we not making more progress?”

A different way to move forward

The Ripple Effect is based on a different way of thinking about how change comes about, takes root, and spreads in a community. Some of the key ideas underpinning this approach include:

  • Our efforts can help to shape a community, but we cannot impose our will on a community.
  • Change in a community tends to emerge over time.
  • The key is to understand where and how to get started — what’s ripe for positive movement — and then how to actively grow change.
  • We must develop a community’s enabling environment for change — the conditions for innovation, emergence, and spreading change.
  • Intentionality in our engagement and actions is essential.
  • Finally, we must work with the community, not apart from it.

What all this adds up to is the need to embrace the idea that change spreads in a community. This happens when a certain dynamic is unleashed that sets in motion a whole host of cascading effects. As initial ripples of action spread, momentum in a community starts to build, the public will for working together in new ways along with a growing sense of common purpose emerges, the community’s capacity for change expands and deepens, and a new can-do narrative takes shape. Over time, what one sees is that a community is able to generate all-important staying power to stick with efforts and engage with entrenched issues; it is able to use its newly formed capacity to address new issues that arise. The result is short-term wins, longer-term sustainability, and a much stronger and more resilient community that can adapt to future challenges.

These are insights for all of us who hold affection for communities, seek to strengthen them and tackle their pressing challenges. At the heart of this story is how people and groups have created a common frame of reference for how they see the community, its challenges, and opportunities.  

Editor’s Note

This article is excerpted with permission from “The Ripple Effect: How change spreads in communities.” In the remainder of the full report, the Harwood Institute illustrates The Ripple Effect through the progress of the city of Battle Creek, Mich., over a period of about six years. Battle Creek’s story is emblematic of the type of change The Harwood Institute sees in its work each and every day in communities of all sizes and shapes.

The Illinois Association of School Boards encourages boards of education to engage their communities. IASB’sFoundational Principles of Effective Governance note that the primary task of the school board is to continually define, articulate, and re-define district ends to answer the recurring question: “Who gets what benefits for how much?” In order to define those ends and clarify the district’s vision, mission, and goals, the school board needs to connect with its community around the aspirations that people have for their local schools. We offer the Harwood Institute’s insights and perspective here as part of IASB’s ongoing community engagement conversation.


Read the full report, including THI’s work in Battle Creek, Mich., here: www.theharwoodinstitute.org/reports/

The Harwood Group, Community Rhythms: The Five Stages of Community Life. Flint, Mich.: The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation (1999).

The Harwood Group, Public Capital: The Dynamic System that Makes Public Life Work. Dayton, Ohio: The Charles F. Kettering Foundation (1996).

Connecting with the Community, IASB’s Community Engagement piece: www.iasb.com/training/connecting.cfm