This week my mailbox held the Kettering Foundation’s Annual Newsletter, Connections. The focus of this issue being The Changing Culture of Learning: 40+ pages on education, community and democracy. A heady collection of timely articles which have relevance in the nonprofit sector.
Most likely you’ve heard of the Kettering Foundation but might not be able to say exactly what it does, which is described in About Us on their website as “… an independent, nonpartisan research organization rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Everything Kettering researches relates to one central question: what does it take for democracy to work as it should? Or put another way: What does it take for citizens to shape their collective future? “ From this the Kettering Foundation has developed three hypotheses which guide their research:
- Citizens can make sound decisions about public issues.
- Citizens can act together to deal with their problems.
- Citizens can align the work of institutions with the work done through civic initiatives.
Citizens can? Who are they? Does that refer to the ubiquitous they we hear about all the time? They generally get blamed for not doing something, or making things worse but here I believe they are the many groups and individuals who see need in our communities and do something about the situation.
The article which particularly piqued my interest was A Diagnostic Approach to Learning-Based Change by Randall Nielsen. Here’s a passage from the article:
“Kettering Foundation studies the things that people need to do to fulfill their responsibilities in democratic governance. As such, democracy is seen not as a destination—which when reached will deliver particular outcomes—but as the ongoing journey of people struggling with challenges to their collective ability to rule themselves. The research is therefore focused on innovation in the key practices that define the roles of citizens in determining the direction and character of collective acting”.
Within the article is a list of seven Key Insights in Design of Efforts which comes from another Kettering funded project: “Community Question: Engaging Citizens to Address Community Concerns,” by Joe Sumners and Linda Hoke, Kettering Foundation Citizens at Work project.
- Citizens must be engaged if communities are to solve some of their most difficult problems.
- Citizens often think about problems differently than institutions or professionals.
- People become engaged only around issues or problems that are of particular interest or concern to them.
- Citizen engagement—and governance—is a skill learned by practice.
- It’s often most effective to engage citizens within the organizations and networks they are already a part of; we don’t have to start from scratch.
- Networks and connections between organizations can multiply the power of civic initiatives and make them truly community wide, or public.
- When a group of people comes together for a community conversation, there will be tensions between goals, ideas, and values.
Nonprofits can benefit from reading the full 7 insights in the Community Questions report. After all, nonprofits begin with a single citizen with a strong desire to make change and is then inspired to found an organization which will engage more citizens so they will have a significant influence on the community.