Philanthropy and Community Change: Can Networks Improve the Lives of Children?

June 11, 2013
By John McDonald

“Can networks and collaboration help foundations and community organizations create the kind of large scale community changes needed to address the problems confronting Los Angles and other communities?  At a time when the challenges are tremendous, but the resources of philanthropy are constrained, that’s the idea we are going to discuss as we explore new ways for philanthropy to have real impact,” said Fred Ali, President and CEO of the Weingart Foundation, as he set the stage for the latest installment of the Conversations on Philanthropy series hosted by The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Ali, who chairs the Board of Advisors of The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy, made his remarks and led a wide ranging conversation with Alex Morales, President and CEO of the Children’s Bureau of Southern California exploring ideas, strategies and the potential of networks and collaboration via a case-study of the Magnolia Place Initiative, a collaborative partners network that is seeking to transform the lives of some 35,000 children and their families in a five square mile area east of downtown Los Angeles.

“These conversations are an opportunity to bring a wide spectrum of the philanthropic community together with an expert to dig deeper into issues of importance, “said James M. Ferris, Ph.D., Director of The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy.  “There is great interest in better understanding how philanthropy can use networks to foster collaboration and improve outcomes and we couldn’t think of a better example to explore than the Magnolia Place Initiative.”

The Magnolia Place Initiative — The Big Idea

“When we began our work we were struck by the volume of children in trouble in the neighborhoods the Children’s Bureau was trying to serve,” Morales told the audience of foundation executives and philanthropists as the conversation began.  “We were struck by the limited resources just one organization would be able to bring to bear on such large and complex problems.  We needed breakthrough thinking.”

Morales compared the need for such breakthrough thinking to the development of the hybrid gas-electric Toyota Prius engine – which not only increases gas mileage, but also created a new role for the engine: to charge the battery so that it has the power to run.  What, Morales wondered, is the 21st century engine needed to power our communities and neighborhoods?

In the Magnolia Place Initiative model, the answer is that the parents and the neighborhoods themselves can become the new energy source for making the difference to help families and communities to be successful.

The Strategy — Beyond Service

As he discussed the Initiative, Morales made clear that he believes a service oriented approach was too late and too expensive, cautioning funders at one point that “there is no way there are enough resources in the philanthropic or government sector “to provide the needed services as they are costly and can present challenges in delivery.  Instead, the Magnolia Place Initiative strategy is to foster the development of what Morales called the “protective factors” in the community: harnessing the power of parents themselves and trying to create a neighborhood effect. “It’s not only a teach-to-fish strategy, but also a teach that person to teach another person to fish strategy.”

To do that, the initiative focuses on helping organizations to be more empathetic, working to support and nurture organizations and policies that help parents to be successful in ways that create the scale of effort needed to really make a difference.

“We’re not the type of model that goes to a community and says, ‘We’re here to help, what would you like us to do?’” Morales added. “Instead, we say, ‘We’re here as an organization that wants to see the children in this community be successful.  What can we do together?’”

A Different Kind of Network Collaboration

The Magnolia Place Initiative engages 75 organizational partners, more than 100 community groups, 500 neighborhood ambassadors and 14,000 families.  The initiative operates as a collaborative community network seeking to strengthen parenting and promote educational success, good health and economic stability.  But it’s not a traditional network.  Instead, Morales describes the collaboration as a voluntary network or a ‘wiki’ network in which organizations voluntarily come together, follow a theory of change, try to align what they are doing and form peer production workgroups that take on areas of work such as evaluation, or training or fundraising.

“It’s not a traditional network that gets bogged down with ‘where are the memorandums of understanding’ or ‘what are the bylaws’” says Morales.

Morales also describes the collaboration as a learning network.  For example, one key goal of the initiative is to try to get parents to read more to their kids and the collaborative is trying to learn more about what it takes to make that happen.  “We asked parents and they said ‘Sure, we’re reading.’”  Morales said. “But we looked at the developmental scores and they were not moving and so we asked them again and they said ‘Well, we put down we were reading because we knew you thought it was important.’  So we are always finding what data means and what it means to people and trying to improve our actions.”

To facilitate learning, the collaborative is constantly in a ‘Plan, Do, Study’ process, and engages subgroups of the participating organizations in learning cycles to examine different components of the initiative.

New Territory on Evaluation

In response to questions from Ali and the attendees about the difficulty in measuring real community change, Morales described an evaluations process operating in new territory.  In addition to using an Early Developmental Index that measures how kindergartners are doing in five key areas of functioning, The UCLA Center for Healthy Children, Families and Communities is developing an evaluation learning system that will measure traditional outcomes such as high school graduation rates, as well as protective factors in a community.

“We’re going to go out and stand at bus stations, WIC Centers and street corners and get a thousand people to tell us if they have someone to help take care of their children, do they feel safe, do they know where to find resources,” says Morales.

In particular, the collaborative is hoping the evaluations will find progress in two key areas.  One: that people are less isolated and more socially connected.  And two: that people are reading more with their children.

Lessons for Philanthropy

As Ali pointed out in his comments, the Magnolia Place Initiative is “boldly about community change” and Morales agreed, cautioning that “this kind of community change is very new for philanthropy and one that philanthropy is trying to figure out.”

Rather than focus on traditional roles of funding services or limited advocacy efforts, Morales encouraged the audience of philanthropists to look upstream from traditional solutions to developing new strategies and to start thinking about replicability and scalability.

Morales also cautioned the audience to think carefully about the power of money.

“There is just something about encouraging people to come to a meeting around the table with a pot of gold on top that just doesn’t bring out the best in us.  There is a very delicate balance in how philanthropy can help, without taking the lead, without taking control, without disrupting the trust relationships that need to be built. Philanthropy needs to understand that there are some challenges to this and they need to think about how to participate.”

As the conversation concluded, Ali pointed out that the initiative does not necessarily have an endpoint, but instead appears to be a “movement” that hopefully perpetuates itself over time. “It’s a different way to look at community change and a bit of a different model,” he said, but “one that speaks to the importance of networking and collaboration. It’s based on getting assets in the community and getting organizations in communities to work better together, to collaborate better together and to better use our resources.  Those are important lessons being learned in the Magnolia Place Initiative, and something that those of us in philanthropy should learn as well.”

Read the release or learn more about the Conversation on Philanthropy series.