December 5, 2008

Harwood's Community Rhythms: Grassroots Grantmaking Through a Different Lens

I follow Rich Harwood's blog, Redeeming Hope and am a fan of the work of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Here's just one reason why I'm a fan: Community Rhythms.

Community Rhythms is a framework for thinking about community context, and aligning change strategies with a community's readiness for change. It's a way for understanding why a change strategy that worked so well in one community has different results in another. Its goal is to help communities do the right thing at the right time - to build from where they are to the change that they desire.

Community Rhythms suggests that that there are five stages to community life, that each stage builds from the one before, and that knowing where you are will help you know what to do that will nurture change. Fascinating. But what is truly fascinating to me is that when I dove in to the information, especially when I looked at the description of the third stage - the Catalytic Stage - and the more detailed information about to do and not to do that in that stage, I saw the work of grassroots grantmaking.

Here's a snapshot of how Harwood describes what is going on in the Catalytic stage:
  • The Catalytic stage starts with small steps that are often imperceptible to the vast majority of people in a community.
  • Small numbers of people and organizations begin to emerge, taking risks and experimenting in ways to challenge existing community norms in how the community works.
  • The size of their actions is not the vital gauge. Their actions produce some semblance of results that give people a sense of hope.
  • As this stage unfolds, the number of organizations and people stepping forward increases, and links and networks are built between them.
And the work that is important to do in this stage? According to Harwood:
  • Try lots of small things, with room for failure. Emphasize learning.
  • Build Centers of Strength that can generate change.
  • Encourage informal conversations, natural networks, and new engagement norms.
  • Develop a new cadre of leaders.
  • Tell authentic stories of progress over time.
The tools of grassroots grantmaking are here. Small grants to emerging groups of people at the community level who are ready to begin moving their ideas into action - delivered in a way that is highly relational and supportive of learning. Convening and connecting the new groups so that they can learn from and inspire each other. Support for emerging leaders. Recognition and celebration as tools that help people claim their victories and feel hopeful about what is possible.

Seeing grassroots grantmaking in this picture is affirming - a positive signal that the road we're on is the right road if we are interested in supporting active citizens work toward community change. But placing the work of grassroots grantmaking in this bigger "community rhythms" picture is powerful. Imagine looking at your community through the lens of community rhythms. Imagine using the community rhythms framework to inform decision making about when to introduce grassroots grantmaking, when a community may have outgrown those beginning grants and are ready for something else , and how to think about progress. Imagine engaging community residents in thinking about stages of community life in their community, and what they can do to accelerate change. Imagine using community rhythms as a common language that makes it okay to acknowledge that we (not just you) do not have the capacity that we need to bring about the change that we desire, but that together we can find the path.

I encourage you to take a look at the Harwood Institute's materials. And to listen to Rich Harwood talk about Community Rhythms.


  1. I like the Five Stages to Community Life concept. Makes sense to think about the larger context for the community that any change-making organization is involved with engaging with.

  2. The Five Stages of Community Life seems like a great tool for communities to discuss 'where and why' their particular community is at a certain place... It would be very interesting for different stakeholders to do the exercise separately and compare the results. That would probably lead to some healthy discussion! Reemberto