7 Keys for Community Anchor Institutions

The need for community anchor institutions keeps coming up in conversations and so I want to lay out 7 keys for moving ahead productively. Let me be clear upfront: Communities cannot create change without these institutions, but not all actions will lead down the right path – and many will be downright harmful. I’ve been focused on this topic for years. At the Harwood Institute, anchor institutions fit into our larger definition of “boundary spanning organizations” – those special groups in communities that help to spark and lead change, convene and connect others, and focus on the community (rather than programs alone). Without such anchor institutions – along with other necessary capacities to create change, such as trusted leaders, effective networks, and productive norms, among others – a community can never change. Below are 7 keys to effective anchor institutions, and the very real traps many groups fall into that actively undermine their efforts.

1. Anchor institutions are focused on community-based strategies – what will move the needle in the community on, say, education or violence or some other critical issue. The trap is that organizations today all too often focus solely on improving, tweaking, or scaling their own programs. The key here is to adopt a community perspective. This frame will automatically get you and others thinking about the various pieces of the puzzle for creating change and how to mobilize resources to throughout the community to generate change. Importantly, you’ll still need to figure out where to start and get traction: across the entire community, in a neighborhood, on a slice of an issue.

2. Anchor institutions bring people together across divides and fault lines – there are far too few organizations and groups that use their position and credibility in communities to bring people together across dividing lines – to help people see and hear one another, work through real differences, figure out the common ground that does exist, and engage the community it creating a new trajectory. The trap here is that we end up bringing together only people we already know, those we feel most comfortable with, and those we mistakenly believe hold credibility in the community.

3. Anchor institutions engage the “public” and “leaders and organizations” – too often just one or the other is done, as if action on one satisfies the needs of the other. It doesn’t. Engaging both is necessary. Then, we must bring together what we learn from both – along with data and other resources for making good decisions – to figure out the best community-based strategies for moving ahead. The trap is to skip these steps, or believe we’ve already done it when we haven’t, and the result is always half-baked strategies and misguided efforts.

4. Anchor institutions spark innovation among others – too often organizations think they themselves need to create and own all programs in a community. But going down that path is a march of folly. No one organization alone can move the needle on education in a community, or violence, or health care, or income security. If that’s the case, where does that leave an anchor institution? My answer: to help create the conditions in the community for organizations, leaders and people to innovate so that new capacity and leadership emerges from within the community. The trap here is that we assume that one group – usually our own – has all the answers and owns the path to change.

5. Anchor institutions aren’t always in the lead – the mere mention of “anchor institutions” can lead some of us to think that our organization must always be in the lead. But, on any given issue, many groups and organizations may already be hard at work in communities, and for an anchor institution the judgment to be made is: how best to support these efforts. This means anchor institutions must be comfortable playing different roles at different times. The trap is that we succumb to typical turf battles, wanting all the credit, and assuming we’re always leading the parade.

6. Anchor institutions focus on issues AND underlying conditions for change – there’s a “sweet spot” that anchor institutions need to focus on: generating community-based change on specific challenges or issues and developing the right community capacity to bring about that change. This means the development of leaders (at all levels); other anchor institutions; networks for learning, innovation and re-calibrating strategies; among others. Without the right capacity, community-based strategies will flail and fail, and over the long-term the community will not have the ability to tackle future concerns. The trap is that we spend all our resources and time on change strategies but never address conditions – an unsustainable approach.

7. Anchor institutions care about a community’s narrative – the great hidden factor in a community’s ability to change is its narrative. Many communities suffer from a negative narrative – “We can’t do it here,” or “We already tried that,” or “We’re waiting for the knight on a white horse.” Effective anchor institutions help to cultivate a new narrative of self-trust and hope in their community by shining a light on pockets of change that demonstrate that things can get done. The trap is we use traditional public relations, four-color brochures, and other techniques to sell a community on a pre-packaged narrative that bears little resemblance or relevance to the community.

There’s much more to say here, but for today I wanted to lay out some keys to help focus the conversation moving ahead. I plan to write more about this topic. Stay tuned. I believe this is one of the most important challenges we must address if communities are to take ownership of their own future.