Failing Forward: Charting a New Direction

Reflect | Analyze | Plan

When the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF) launched Moving the Needle in 2008, it embraced community change as a bold goal and place-based grantmaking as a core strategy. The Foundation dedicated its, to this approach, posing questions that would remain relevant:

What if...

  • The need for change was met with opportunity?

  • There were lessons to be learned, what would they be?

  • There were voices to be heard, whose would they be?

  • There were actions to be taken, where would they begin?

  • Change was influenced by the places where it is most needed?

What was our role?

To answer these questions, WRF invested in technical assistance and committed staff time to support community change in select Arkansas communities. For example, the Foundation learned residents in Mississippi County were interested in creating a workforce development center to match unemployed residents to local employment opportunities. To create long-term change, the Foundation envisioned a resident-driven strategy that addressed residents’ concerns, aspirations, and vision to share in building community-wide prosperity.

To gather data on employment and community needs, the Foundation suggested beginning with local conversations and data analysis to learn more about local challenges and opportunities. With WRF funding, a local nonprofit conducted research showing that more than 6,000 of the county’s 46,000 residents were unemployed, not in school, or both—a surprising statistic given the availability of quality job training provided by Arkansas Northeastern College and employment prospects in a county known as a national leader in steel production, light manufacturing, and agriculture.

The Foundation provided funding for partners to listen to resident voices through “story circles” across the county. These listening opportunities helped partners learn from residents’ wisdom and direct experiences with housing, education, and employment in Mississippi County. As a result, 400 residents were encouraged to share their stories, dreams, and barriers to realizing their aspirations. In response to the data collected from the story circles, community organizations also did their part to increase employment and education rates. The Mississippi County, Arkansas, Economic Opportunity Commission (MCAEOC), Arkansas Northeastern College, and the Great River Economic Development Foundation collectively launched the youth and adult Poverty Reduction Impacts Destiny Empowerment (PRIDE) and Workforce Orientation and Retraining Keys (WORK) programs. These programs convened local social service providers and offered structured job training and mentoring support for young adults seeking employment.

How did we fail?

While the Foundation invested in local partners who had reason to celebrate progress, we failed to achieve our goal of authentic resident-led change for two reasons:

  • The Foundation deployed consultants and provided staff support without building a local infrastructure for organizing and sustaining community change—in other words, we neglected to build residents’ capacity to follow through.

  • Foundation staff and consultants did not successfully balance the need for short-term, tangible outcomes with long-term systems change and vision. Consequently, in crafting solutions, community participants gravitated toward programs with easily measured results.

While the Foundation’s direct investment in community change in Mississippi County may not have yielded the intended outcomes, the process itself produced unanticipated positive results that created far-reaching collateral impact due to the commitment of local partners and programs. The relationship that the Foundation forged with the community was just as beneficial in some ways. Through engagement with the community, WRF was able to:

  • Recommend Mississippi County for the White House Rural Council’s Rural Impact initiative to pilot innovative two-generation strategies.

  • Assist MCAEOC in becoming a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site during the grant period, which increased the number of residents who benefitted from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit, to return needed tax dollars to the community.

  • The Foundation’s investment in resident engagement also transformed MCAEOC operations, which led to the development and implementation of a two-generation strategy to ensure children and parents would have access to comprehensive services to reach their full potential. Voices from the story circles influenced the program design in significant, meaningful ways. With a commitment to resident engagement but limited staff capacity and organizing infrastructure, the Foundation recognized that it needed to shift its strategy. Moving forward, it made a commitment to build the capacity of statewide intermediary organizations to engage and organize com

 What We Learned

  • CHANGE REQUIRES LONG-TERM INVESTMENT. Place-based community change is a complex process that requires commitment over time.

  • INFRASTRUCTURE AND LEADERSHIP ARE CRITICAL. The general lack of community organizing experience and infrastructure made it difficult to sustainably empower Mississippi County residents to lead to long-term, system-wide change.

  • UNANTICIPATED POSITIVE RESULTS SHOULD BE CELEBRATED. While the community change process may not have yielded the intended outcomes, the process resulted in meaningful community change.


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Our Moving the Needle story doesn't end here. We invite you to read Looking Back, Failing Forward to join us as we examine lessons from our failures and continue to make progress toward our founder's vision of a thriving and prosperous Arkansas that benefits all Arkansans.