Helping build what we own

When working with groups, I like to begin with Margaret Wheatley’s observation, “People own that which they help to build.”  It neatly sums up the monumental shifts that can occur when we embrace a core truth of community building:

Engaging community in the process of change work is fundamental to design, impact and sustainability.

This is hardly new news. Practitioners of collective impact regularly strive to engage community in their work. We get the why of engagement – it’s the how of community engagement that presents challenges.

A few things first. I encourage teams to think of community as an ecosystem of people, organizations and patterns of interactions. I ask them to “get up on the balcony” to see the network of patterns and behaviors, ways that people, businesses and organizations navigate their community. This allows teams to see where they can leverage existing momentum, and where to anticipate roadblocks. Continue reading “Helping build what we own”

Planting Seeds of Change

Close-up of dandelion seeds on blue natural background.

This past winter was long, cold and hard. Weather compounded challenges with projects struggling for lift-off and slow starts to new endeavors.  Let’s just say springtime renewal is most welcome. Here’re a few things I’ve been learning along the way.

What Critical Shifts Do We Seek to Make?

Successful community change efforts need three things: a framework, principles and practices. (This is based on the good work of Tamarack Institute, which I blogged about recently.)  As a facilitative leader, I am always on the lookout for tools to help groups do their work deeply, efficiently and (hopefully) joyfully.

One of my favorite tools is CoCreative Consulting’s Critical Shifts, which helps a group prioritize actions to most powerfully move toward their goal.  I recently used Critical Shifts to help a newly forming civic engagement network design their year one workplan; a local early childhood coalition name missing partnerships; and a regional emergency preparedness team begin to identify a common agenda for a collective impact initiative. Continue reading “Planting Seeds of Change”

Pointers from Planet Earth

A wee structure sits atop my work desk, crafted out of clay. It’s two structures, actually: a lozenge-like disc depicting Planet Earth, and a nice, cushy blue couch with an overstuffed pillow. The outcome of a craft session with my daughters when they were young, Planet Earth lounges peaceably on the couch, taking a break from the hard work of being, well, a planet.

I keep Planet Earth on my desk for several reasons.

First off, she reminds me to spend each day doing my best.  Life is short, we only get so many runs around the sun, yet the needs of our planet and our peoples are tremendous. Seeing her provokes me to prioritize the high-leverage, impactful things on my daily list of To Dos.  To help me choose between tasks, I have long-relied on the Eisenhower Matrix, which Steven Covey popularized in his seminal time management book, First Things First. The matrix helps to organize tasks by urgency and importance. I’ve used it throughout my career to help me focus on important activities before they become urgent.

Seeing Planet Earth tucked into that cushy couch also reminds me to pace myself. Continue reading “Pointers from Planet Earth”

Building a Bigger Loom

weaving work

In a recent NYT column, David Brooks describes our current times as a war with two sides: those who sow division and discord in our communities, and those who nurture attachment and connectivity. “It’s as if we’re witnessing this vast showdown between the rippers and the weavers,” he writes.

Lest we feel too quickly our own superiority, Brooks observes that we are all part of the problem. We each struggle with overwork and a radical individualism that leaves us little time to know our neighbors. We are insulated from people who vote differently, dress differently, and use different words to express similar feelings of isolation, fear and concern for our future.

There are many more weavers than rippers, Brooks writes. There are more people who yearn to live in loving relationships and trusting communities, but they need strategies to strengthen their awareness and skills. Continue reading “Building a Bigger Loom”

A Jar Full of Jellybeans

close up of colorful jelly beans in a jar

I love walking into a room of people who want to make a difference in their community. Moms, doctors, elders, elected officials, teachers; people who are new to the work sitting with people at the height of their career. The range of experience and knowledge excites me. I’m confident that together they will yield new insights and approaches, and forge friendships that last beyond the project.

As a facilitator, I believe my best service to the work is to help draw out what I like to call the “wisdom in the room” – the inherent, sometimes dormant, intelligence that emerges when people feel safe, share freely, reflect on what they’re learning, and make choices on how to move forward.

It turns out that my belief that a group of people can be more insightful, more intelligent, than any one person, is more than just a belief. It’s also got some science behind it. Continue reading “A Jar Full of Jellybeans”

The Elephant in the Room

Oftentimes when working with communities, I retell the tale of the blind men who come across an elephant. One clasps the trunk and wonders, “Ah! But this beast is long and snakelike!” Another places his hand on a haunch: “No, it isn’t! It is coarse and broad.” “You’re both wrong,” says a third, who stands by a tusk. “It is smooth, hard and cool.”

The men argue. They are each correct in their experience, yet left to their own perceptions they are unable to discern the true nature of the beast.

I like to tell this story for two reasons. One, people like stories. They remind us “about who we are, why we are, where we come from and what might be possible,” as actor Alan Rickman once said.

The second reason is that the story beautifully illustrates why inviting in people with different perspectives is central to community building. Continue reading “The Elephant in the Room”

Collaborating With the Universe


I am lucky to live and work in Montana, which means I get a lot of drive time. Unlike my city-dweller friends, drives in Montana include mountain passes, buffalo herds, and irregular access to gas stations. Trips between towns can easily exceed three hours, and so podcasts are a welcome addition to the books-on-tape and agriculture talk shows that help pass the time.

One of my favorite podcasts is On Being with Krista Tippett– a show that explores the big questions of meaning in modern life: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And who will we be to each other? Two recent podcasts – one with Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek; the other with author Elizabeth Gilbert– tapped  my own ponderings about the work I do: What does it mean to be a “community builder,” a collaborator, someone who believes not only that good is possible, but that good is our natural state of being? Continue reading “Collaborating With the Universe”

Feeding the Light

My teen daughter is going through the anxieties and insecurities we all remember from those coming-of-age years. Adding to the stresses of her life are the much-noted amplifying effects of modern living: social media, 24-hour news cycles and the dehumanizing pace of an unbalanced world.

Modern culture has given my daughter and her friends heavy labels (bi-polar, ADHD, suicidal) to describe their teen tumult, and violent narratives to exacerbate their anxieties. All of this is very scary. I want kids to grow up grounded, resilient and strong.

It reminds me of discussions I have with colleagues around the country who are reeling from the daily onslaught – school shootings, “fake news,” a sense of loss in the promise of our collective endeavor. How, we wonder, can we stay grounded, resilient and strong when so much draws us into the chaos? Continue reading “Feeding the Light”

Community Narratives

This fall I logged over 1,000 miles traveling to towns in western Montana to talk about community, on behalf of the Headwaters Health Foundation, which sought to engage communities in the design of their strategic plan.

At each meeting, we asked participants – healthcare and mental health professionals, educators, local government and nonprofit organizations – to describe the strengths their community brings to tackling challenges.  These strengths included a history of working well together, having local organizations with the vision and capacity to lead change, and local projects that make a difference. Continue reading “Community Narratives”

Collaborative Frameworks

This blog was originally published by the Tamarack Institute.

Earlier this month I participated in a workshop on collaboration at a gathering of several hundred grantmakers, hosted by Philanthropy Northwest. During the session, Collaborative Exchange, I presented on Graduation Matters Montana, a public-private initiative that resulted in record-breaking high school graduation rates.

As I was preparing for the session, I was reminded of a Tamarack Institute talk in which Liz Weaver and Mark Cabaj described what effective change efforts have in common. There are three things, they posited: (1) a framework; (2) principles; and (3) practices. How, I wondered, could I describe our work raising graduation rates, based on Weaver and Cabaj’s insights? Continue reading “Collaborative Frameworks”