Catalyzing Communities: A Decade of Difference


The Foundation has invested in civic engagement, that's been really powerful. You'd be amazed how even the low-income community neighborhoods in Little Rock are a lot more empowered than some of the rural places where we're working. In almost every community they have never held a candidate forum in their lives. Now, in Monticello, we had 150 people show up to the last candidate forum for the mayor's race, and they've become an enshrined part of the community now. In just five or six years, we've made that shift. Every mayoral candidate is asking the group for their endorsement, participating in a public forum about it. We've trained a corps of people to develop their own platform about what they want – before they talk to anybody else. Now they're thinking, "Well, okay, we need to start developing our own people to run for office." It's all part of this development process of building, and I think the Foundation has really enabled us to have the patient presence in those communities to build the leaders’ analysis to do that strategy.

This stakeholder’s observation about the impact of Moving the Needle (MTN) over the last decade brings me back to one of the first times I heard about WRF’s approach to improving the lives of all Arkansans. NCRP was studying the impact of foundation-funded advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement in four southern states. The story of the Gould Citizens Advisory Council stuck with me most out of all the incredible progress we documented. Over several years, with training and coaching from the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, the frustrated residents in this small town of 2,500 learned how to overcome apathy, organize their neighbors, demand accountability from local elected officials, and develop their own leadership, eventually unseating five incumbents and bringing the town out of bankruptcy. However, the process of community change is never over.

WRF has thoughtfully embraced a number of successful strategies to make a difference for Arkansans over the last decade, including coalition-building, research, advocacy, convening, mission investing, and systems change grantmaking. Embedded in these mutually supporting activities is the through line of empowerment and agency.


WRF is the best kind of leader, one that knows that cultivating the latent leadership capacities in others is the surest path to success. WRF’s president and CEO and staff approach their relationships with grantee partners, local communities, peer funders, governments, and other stakeholders by first asking one important question: “How can we help people come together, build consensus, and take action?” WRF is not afraid to use its own bully pulpit, an important tool for any foundation with such a strong reputation and credibility. What is unique and not easily done is to know when to lead, when to work side-by-side, and when to follow; when to speak up, when to listen, and when to lift up the voices of those most often ignored. WRF is adept at walking this fine line.  

MTN has been a catalyst for a decade of difference, and that is in no small part because it has been driven by so many ambassadors, advocates, and activists across Arkansas and the US. As one of the Foundation’s partners has said, “People envision the change they want and need, and they organize themselves – whether it's through training or collective action – to make that change come true.” Beyond tangible progress in education, economic development, and poverty alleviation, the people of towns throughout Arkansas like Gould and Monticello are a testament to the value of investing in leaders, an investment that will far outlast this decade of difference, seeding the next decade of change.

We are sharing what we and our partners learned from our year of Analysis in our “Analysis: Digging Deep” blog series. This series is part of our Reflection, Analysis, and Planning (RAP) process, which the Foundation is engaging in as our Moving the Needle (MTN) 2.0 strategic plan draws to a close and we prepare for what comes next.

Disclosure: Lisa Ranghelli wrote this series of blog posts on behalf of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), in fulfillment of a contract between WRF and NCRP. At the time the consulting contract was initiated, WRF president and CEO Sherece Y. West-Scantlebury was Board Chair for NCRP. As with other consultants involved in the Foundation’s Reflection, Analysis, and Planning (RAP) process, NCRP was compensated for writing this content on what the Foundation learned during its year of Analysis.