At Community Wealth Partners, we’ve been about big ideas since the time of our founding. Billy Shore, our founder and the CEO of our parent organization, Share Our Strength, recognized that we would never solve social problems with donations alone. The social sector needed new—and significantly more—resources. Billy envisioned an organization that could help the sector think creatively about how to generate alternative streams of revenue so that one day the sector would have the resources it needs to solve problems. In 1997, Share Our Strength created Community Wealth Partners to do just that. At the time, the notion of a nonprofit establishing its own consulting organization was a big idea. Community Wealth Partners would be a double bottom line business, advancing a social mission while sustaining itself by charging for its services. Over time, we transitioned to an even bigger idea: solving social problems at the magnitude at which they exist. We moved from a focus on one factor in the equation—the dollars needed to make large-scale change—to a more holistic focus on the research and practice of making that large-scale change. Yet, while the belief in big ideas runs through our DNA, we have come to recognize the power of small acts in making change, particularly as we work with organizations to do the hard work of turning strategy into reality. It’s these small acts—and those who take them—that we celebrate as we mark our 20th anniversary.
Within the last decade, behavioral economists, psychologists and business experts have elevated the power of small acts in making large-scale change. In “Nudge,” Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein point to the ways seemingly insignificant changes can influence behavior. For example, a school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward healthy diets by putting the healthiest foods first. Similarly, in his book “Inside the Nudge Unit,” behavioral scientist Dr. David Halpern outlines how seemingly small solutions have led to significant improvements across tax, healthcare, pensions, employment, crime reduction, energy conservation and economic growth from his vantage point heading up the UK government’s “Nudge Unit.” In the business world, Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School has studied how small everyday progress—or small wins—can dramatically affect how workers feel and perform, leading to an outsized increase in creativity and productivity. Finally, consider the words of one of our early board members, George Gendron, the founding editor of Inc. Magazine. He too wrote about the power of small things in the spring 2012 edition of Build magazine. He stated: “Big is fine. Big is what things amount to. But small? The repeatable, testable, alterable, doable steps toward big? Small deserves more respect. Small is the smartest path to different.”
In the foundations, nonprofits and communities in which we work, the people who catalyze these small acts occupy all roles. They are community residents, case managers, coaches, program officers and program managers. While C-Suite leaders tend to be big idea people, they too take small acts that nudge their organizations forward. It is not title or role that distinguishes this group of doers but the degree to which they are boldly persistent. They often act based on observation and intuition and are willing to do what it takes, even when the stakes are high. Their acts are only small in that they don’t require many people or lengthy processes. Rather, they initiate a bigger change to come.
Perhaps the best way to understand the power of small things is to think of a revolution. In one of his books, Kurt Vonnegut writes that revolutions need three types of people: the authentic genius, the respected advocate and the technician. The authentic genius is the one who can envision something that has never existed. The respected advocate validates and promotes the genius’ idea. Finally, the technician has the skills to translate the genius’ idea into action.
As the sun sets on 20 years of working with the many players that bring about revolutionary change, we celebrate not only the visionary leaders who have imagined what no one else could see but also the advocates and technicians in our sector who are bridging the gaps between idea and execution. These individuals nudge the vision forward every day. Take, for example, the four members of the program team at The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Following the 2015 Baltimore uprisings in response to the death of Freddie Gray, these individuals recognized the opportunity and need to directly engage youth of color from the affected communities. They invited them into the foundation’s office, asked them if they’d be willing to partner, and provided them the space to develop solutions and share what they wanted and needed. The youth set the terms of the engagement and leveraged their existing ideas around community empowerment. “We were checking our own authority [at the foundation],” one of the program team members said. These team members took a series of small actions that yielded a new type of engagement with the community. The outcome had a ripple effect throughout the foundation—and the city—as more of the foundation’s teams began engaging youth of color when designing strategies.
Small acts may seem insufficient or inconsequential in the moment but they plant seeds that grow over time. Let’s take the opportunity to dig up these examples—these buried seeds—and celebrate those who planted them. In the next few months, we will embark on a journey to visit with these implementers of change in organizations and communities across the country. We plan to document their small, powerful acts. From these conversations, we’ll create and share practical insights on what it will take from each of us in the next 20 years to advance the causes we care about.
In the meantime, we have one request of you: Think of one small act that advanced change and inspired you. Celebrate the changemaker who took that act by writing a celebratory message. In addition to receiving your kind words, they will also be nominated for public recognition, which will consist of being profiled on our Dream Forward blog. Changemakers who persistently take small acts may not typically be the first to receive recognition for their contributions. Let’s take time to acknowledge them.
Thank you for engaging in these small acts in pursuit of big change. We celebrate you and look forward to hearing your stories. And finally, thank you to our authentic genius, Billy Shore, and the Community Wealth Partners board and staff for “being the change you wish to see” each and every day.