Failing Forward: Diversion Ahead

Reflect | Analyze | Plan

In 2007, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF) Board asked its new president and CEO, Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury, to oversee the creation of a strategic plan that was relevant to the unique characteristics of Arkansas and addressed the most significant challenges in communities statewide.

Over several months, Dr. West-Scantlebury traveled to every corner of the state, met with nearly 100 community leaders, and explored the state’s most pressing issues. Her conversations, site visits, and research confirmed that high poverty and low educational attainment were significant barriers to building a thriving and prosperous Arkansas that benefitted all Arkansans. The Foundation used this feedback to develop Moving the Needle, a strategic plan to increase prosperity, increase educational attainment, strengthen communities, and build the nonprofit infrastructure in Arkansas.

The plan’s goals resonated with the community leaders and policymakers Dr. West-Scantlebury had engaged.

In 2008, Senator Joyce Elliott approached Dr. West- Scantlebury and other state leaders to create a legislative task force that would address poverty in Arkansas. This coincided with the aftermath of the Great Recession and the launch of the Moving the Needle strategic plan. Senator Elliott later introduced Act 722 to form the Arkansas Legislative Task Force on Reducing Poverty and Increasing Economic Opportunity. The task force consisted of more than 20 community leaders from government, philanthropy, nonprofit, and business. Its goals were to:

  • Aggregate data on the causes, risk factors, and impact of poverty on individuals and families

  • Identify the negative consequences of long-term poverty and the associated costs

  • Assess existing programs and policies to increase prosperity

  • Develop public policy recommendations to increase prosperity on a statewide and regional scale

  • Establish measurable benchmarks for the elimination of poverty

What was our role?

WRF saw the task force as an opportunity to inform public policy decision-making to prioritize increasing prosperity. In 2010, the Foundation funded Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families to collect data, conduct research, and write the task force’s published recommendations. In addition to funding the process, the Foundation also deployed members of its staff to actively participate in the task force.

To gather statewide input, the task force convened regional town hall meetings and focus groups at a two- year college, a community development agency, a home for families seeking to gain employment and economic stability, and other sites across the state.

With data from communities, focus groups, and state and national resources, the task force published the Arkansas Legislative Task Force on Reducing Poverty and Promoting Economic Opportunity: Final Report 2010. The report described poverty in Arkansas and identified five areas for improvement: economic and community development, education and workforce development, health, individual income support, and tax policy. The task force established short- and long-term benchmarks in each of these areas. If Arkansas met these benchmarks, the state would make major strides in its ability to compete in the global economy and equip residents with the tools to create a brighter future for themselves and their families.

In the following year, the Foundation and its partners set out to adopt, promulgate, and advocate for the policy agenda outlined in the final report’s benchmarks and recommendations. In response, Arkansas legislators passed 13 new laws in the 2011 legislative session to support the task force’s recommendations.

How did we fail?

The task force accomplished its initial purpose to make legislative recommendations and set benchmarks for progress. Ultimately, however, the task force was unable to sustain the attention, energy, and partnerships for continued progress. The task force’s final report suggested forming a permanent advisory council to monitor accomplishments, make adjustments, assess and respond to new situations, and evaluate research for new solutions. The task force needed to reach beyond the written recommendations and build a coalition—the basis for sustainable progress.

After the early legislative victories, momentum waned. The Foundation hosted a celebration after the 2011 session. WRF planned an ongoing series of conversations for the original task force members and planned a retreat to craft a 10-year strategic plan. However, excitement for the long-term plan dissipated as the organizations at the table were pulled to other short-term priorities. The Foundation reconvened the group in 2012, but little happened after subsequent conversations.

Though the task force stopped meeting, many new and deeper relationships formed through the process. This early stumble informed WRF’s future thinking and process around initiatives like ForwARd Arkansas.

How did we fail?

  • INFRASTRUCTURE MUST BE BUILT. The task force needed to reach beyond the institutional representatives that were part of the original task force to cultivate diverse leaders from across the state to serve as ambassadors, advocates, and activists to increase prosperity in Arkansas. 
  • PROGRESS MATTERS. Although incremental progress happened, champions for change lost steam without opportunities to celebrate shared accomplishments. 
  • OPPORTUNITIES TO ADDRESS GAPS AND RE-ENGAGE STAKEHOLDERS SHOULD BE TAKEN. When the task force reconvened, its members had an opportunity to reassess what they still needed to accomplish and why; without that clarity, they missed opportunities to adjust course and build new energy.


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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