Anyone interested in making a difference in their community should read Breakthrough Community Change, writes Sherri Torjman. It is a treasure trove of wisdom gleaned from decades of experience, thousands of community stories, and evidence-based research.
Breakthrough Community Change: A Guide to Creating Common Agendas That Change Everything, by Paul Born. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2023; 216 pp; ISBN 9781523002177.
In his new book, author Paul Born brings a sense of hope and optimism to tackling the daunting challenges facing communities today. His words inspire a sense of confidence to help local leaders understand that their actions can have great impact. That they can make deep and long-lasting change in virtually all aspects of community concern. It doesn’t matter whether they are trying to reduce poverty, fight cancer, or clean the environment. Whether they want to promote the well-being of children, make the community a safer place, or revitalize its economic base. Whether they seek to ensure the inclusion of marginalized individuals and groups, increase the supply of affordable housing, or improve residents’ health and well-being.
By now, readers may be wondering how a single book can be relevant to all these objectives. How can one size fit these very different goals? Born skillfully answers that question early on. Regardless of the specific concern, the methodologies required to effect large-scale community change fundamentally will apply. This important breakthrough thinking provides the underpinnings to breakthrough action. Community leaders, no matter their path, can employ a common powerful tool kit to enable their journeys.
Breakthrough Community Change describes six recognized approaches to comprehensive community work.
Breakthrough Community Change describes six recognized approaches to comprehensive community work: asset-based community development, collective impact, community engagement, community innovation, collaborative leadership, and community change evaluation. Breakthrough community change is built by taking the best knowledge and skills from each of these distinct, yet complementary, approaches.
Born draws on all these sources of wisdom and his own extensive experience working with hundreds of communities to develop a step-by-step guide to the thinking, methods, and actions that have proven most effective in creating transformative change. He notes that the collective-impact approach has been particularly influential.
The vast scope of knowledge and skills presented in this book falls into three main themes: confidence, collaboration, and competence.
For me, the vast scope of knowledge and skills presented in this book falls into three main themes: confidence, collaboration, and competence.
To attain real results, communities must believe that they have the ability to make change that matters. They need to have confidence in their own capacity. But building confidence is easier said than done. Individuals and citizen groups can quickly become overwhelmed by the many problems that just seem too stubborn, too intractable, and too global. Communities sometimes feel that they are too small to scale the wall of obstacles they confront. In the face of big challenges, they often retreat and turn to governments to take action.
Governments do, indeed, have a vital role in tackling difficult problems. Their contributions and investments are needed more than ever in light of serious affordability issues, economic uncertainty, global instability, health shocks, and environmental degradation. But while governments are crucial, they can’t do it all. And they can’t do it alone. In fact, there are many things that communities can do far better than governments.
The book helps communities understand their magic. It helps them appreciate that they have agency. It helps them realize that they actually can make profound change on a large scale.
Here’s where Breakthrough Community Change breaks through. It helps communities understand their magic. It helps them appreciate that they have agency. It helps them realize that they actually can make profound change on a large scale.
Confidence sparks determination and commitment. Determination to meet their goals. Commitment to stick with these goals over the long term because that is what it takes to address tough problems.
The catch, of course, lies in how they go about achieving this change. The “how” is central to this equation. Where to begin?
Breakthrough Community Change explains why and how collaborative action is the most strategic way to achieve large-scale community impact.
Collaboration is the main ingredient in this secret sauce. Communities should start by identifying and pulling together their best assets – the people. Breakthrough Community Change explains why and how collaborative action is the most strategic way to achieve large-scale community impact.
But then what? Communities may have harnessed their collective wisdom and resources. They may have worked hard to pull together a strong and diverse team. Here’s where competence comes in. Breakthrough Community Change describes the skills that have proven successful in making significant advances.
The book first sets out a five-step approach for the common agenda phase of the work. A common agenda involves a shared understanding between partners regarding the overall goals and strategies for implementation. A common agenda is basically a road map for how the partners will work together. The text explores in detail each of the steps in creating this agenda: Form a leadership team and identify the top 100 leaders in the community. Devise a governance model to sustain the work over time and implement a shared engagement strategy. Develop action teams and formulate early-win strategies. The community is then ready to write its community plan.
Born argues that an intentional approach to this early phase of the work is essential. It helps avoid the ‘spinning’ that often occurs when groups are not quite sure how to proceed.
Born argues that an intentional approach to this early phase of the work is essential. It helps avoid the “spinning” that often occurs when groups are not quite sure how to proceed. Community leaders can become discouraged at this point and may drop out of the effort.
The common agenda phase then moves into the campaign phase. It is at this stage that the leadership team operationalizes the strategies developed in the common agenda. The campaign phase of the work comprises several actions. These include finding a legal and fiscal sponsor, creating a communications strategy, and organizing for community change.
A bold plan is critical to motivating people to action. A campaign motivates people and is highly effective in sustaining momentum.
Now you will set goals and establish target outcomes. You must do this in a way that excites and energizes people. In the next five years, you will achieve something spectacular! A bold plan is critical to motivating people to action. A campaign motivates people and is highly effective in sustaining momentum.
While the text focuses on the priorities of community groups, such as budgeting and fundraising, it also addresses the needs of funders. What are they looking for? What do they want to know? What kind of outcomes are they seeking?
Measurement plays a pivotal role when it comes to assessing the outcomes of any community effort. Collecting numbers at the outset helps define the extent and depth of a given concern.
Collecting numbers along the way helps communities track their progress relative to their stated objectives. It is important to track changes in individuals’ lives, community learning, and policies and systems.
Breakthrough Community Change includes a section on evaluation and the various methods currently being employed to capture the rich scope of community work. Evaluation should never be seen as just a report card. Rather, its purpose is to uncover new insights and encourage continual learning and quality improvement. But impactful community work also involves more than knowledge and skills. It requires positive “mindsets” – or attitudes that community leaders bring to their roles.
While local work tends to focus on beginnings, scant attention typically is paid to the renewal – or possible completion – phase of the work.
Finally, the book includes a section on the renewal or wind-down phase of the campaign, which is often overlooked in discussions of comprehensive community initiatives. While local work tends to focus on beginnings, scant attention typically is paid to the renewal – or possible completion – phase of the work.
Breakthrough Community Change left me with fresh excitement about the power of collective action and a deepened respect for the extraordinary results that communities working together can achieve. When all key actors, including people with lived experience, are rowing as one, there is no limit to the vast distances they can cover.
The book also helped me appreciate the unique quality of breakthrough community change as both science and art. It is science in that it involves observation, experimentation, and the testing of methodologies in the laboratory of life. It is art in that it embeds creativity, passion, and emotion.
At the end of the day, achieving breakthrough community change harnesses both head and heart. Or perhaps more appropriately, it harnesses many heads and hearts. There is no more compelling combination.