Guest Blog – Rich Harwood of The Harwood Institute

The big prize for many companies working in communities is creating real, meaningful social impact. The days of “nice but not necessary” efforts are over. Simply sprinkling company dollars around a community won’t do the trick, either. If you are seeking true social impact in communities–and want to protect your investments–then here are five rules to follow. I discuss many of these in my new book Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives.

  1. Focus on what matters to people.

    Remember, you’re working in a larger context of a community, and if you want to achieve real social impact, then you need to know about people’s lived experiences, their shared aspirations for their lives and communities, and the obstacles in the way. This is different from focusing just on “problems” or “utopian visions”; neither of these approaches help us understand people’s lives and what they are seeking to create in their lives.  Also, be careful: data can’t replace what we need to learn from people directly.

  2. Know the community’s readiness for change.

    Too often we create individual or comprehensive strategies in a vacuum, without a clear-eyed understanding of a community’s readiness for change. Efforts then fail, stall out, or don’t produce the desired results. Disappointment sets in; commitment can wane. To create real social impact, you need a clear assessment of the community’s context: its capacities, norms, leadership and appetite for change, among other factors. There are practical steps you can take to get this done.

  3. Develop strategies that fit the context.

    One size does not fit all, and yet companies, nonprofits, government agencies and other entities keep taking this approach. It fails to meet a community where it is, rather than where we wish it were. Generating social impact takes developing strategies that fit local contexts. Of course, a company can have a single framework that it applies across many communities. But to be effective, that framework must be implemented within the context of each locale.

  4. See people as doers.

    Too often company employees, local residents and various groups are seen as cogs in the wheel of change. Too many organizations just provide feel-good volunteer efforts or ask groups to plug into a pre-set strategy. But so many of the challenges we face today require a collective response; and so many people and groups want a greater sense of control in shaping their own futures and the future of their communities. Companies should seize this moment by designing ways for their employees, local residents, and other groups to do real work together.

  5. Take back our shared story.

    So many communities are caught in ingrained negative narratives that shape, even drive, people’s mindsets, attitudes, behaviors and actions. These narratives are the greatest hidden factor to why some communities do not move forward. The key is to create an alternative narrative of hope and possibility. But beware: this cannot be approached as a public relations challenge. It is about telling authentic stories of progress that emerge from real efforts in the community, including the failures we experience along the way.

Today, we need companies to be more intimately and deeply connected to communities than ever before. Businesses make their homes in communities and it is vitally important for those communities to be healthy and vibrant. Communities provide employees. And there are so many challenges that affect business life, economic life, and civic life, such as the opioid crisis, inadequate public schools and persistent poverty, to mention just a few.

Real, genuine social impact must be rooted in a deep understanding of the communities in which we’re working. Then, we can make the progress we seek.


Richard C. Harwood is the author of the new book, Stepping Forward: A Positive Practical Path to Transform our Communities and Our Lives. He is the president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization located in Bethesda, Md. He can be reached at