Change That Abides

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Flexibility and patience. Everyone wants a funder who approaches complex change initiatives with these attributes. But to be fair, wouldn't we as a field have to first make the case that unplanned, unanticipated, unpredictable and even serendipitous outcomes can in fact be traced back to these skills and investments?

A Brandeis team and I have recently concluded a project for the Annie E. Casey Foundation that is a highly unusual retrospective exploration of planned and unplanned long-term outcomes. The study - of three New Futures' sites in Dayton, Little Rock and Savannah, along with the Codman Square Neighborhood Health Center in Boston, Mass., and an Oakland initiative to build linkages between the county and city through leadership initiatives - looked at outcomes a decade or so after the projects' initial funding and a good number of years after major outside funding ended.

Among the findings:

      *A concentrated effort to locate services and community-enhancing activities in distressed neighborhoods in Savannah's Area C and Boston's Dorchester was followed by impressive outcomes tied to the interventions.

      *Full-time nurses and adolescent health services expanded to all the high schools in Dayton.

      *Replication of a policy and advocacy entity, the "Family and Children First Council," spread throughout Ohio.

      *Expansion of an initiative that began simply - with incentives to get physicians involved in a poor community - led in part to a comprehensive community-building initiative in the Codman Square area of Boston.

      *A cadre of Little Rock, Dayton and Savannah leaders developed their unique organizing skills in the formative New Futures projects, then utilized these skills in countless policy, program and organizing venues.

      *A systems reform agenda brought Oakland regional resources to bear on city problems through a Policy Academy designed to get people to level and trust one another.

       * Little Rock voters approve a 1994 half-cent sales tax increase. The proceeds help create and sustain a network of nearly 30 community-based programs that provide a base for employing and training youth workers.

Most funders miss the joy of looking back at what happens in the years after a grant ends. Even worse, armed with their short-term perspective, they may put the squeeze on local initiatives, punish when short-term goals are not met, and hold back the flexibility that could make possible the results reported above from the five cities.

In our "20/20" look-back, we learned that although not all five communities progressed as anticipated, good, fascinating and significant things have and are still happening in each. You might say that each has laid a foundation for sustainable change, and each has its own experience and legacy - its own change that abides.

Two patterns stood out from our research that have profound impacts for the field:

1. Projects made continued progress after grants were completed. Those that had appeared successful at the close of the initial grants grew and changed. Those that had appeared less successful looked much more successful a few years later.

2. Original grantmaking intentions took unexpected, often unpredictable turns, and changed to meet local needs.

Some helpful behaviors turned out to be central themes explaining success, such as financial supporters who helped to cultivate "ripeness" for change and who sought opportunities to enhance social capital; and funders who made a commitment to the long term and who were flexible and respectful to emerging local exigencies.

Will there be a collision in the future between the bottom-line oriented accountability-focused crowd and the social capital crowd, with its greater tolerance for iterative, circle back, two steps forward, one step back kind of change? Can these be joined in a new approach to promoting deep social change?

Our study shows that it might be helpful to begin seeing twists and turns not as messy distractions toward some quantifiable marker of success, but as the heart and soul of youth and community work. This is the real key to understanding change that abides.

Andrew Hahn is professor and associate dean at the Heller School for Advanced Studies, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., and co-author of Change that Abides: A Retrospective Look at Five Communities and Family Strengthening Projects, and Their Enduring Results.