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Small Acts from the Field

As we embark on another school year, I am reminded that my kids will take countless small acts this year that will help shape who they are and who they become. Like the process of learning, our social change work is a lifelong journey made of hundreds of small acts that shape the kind of change we make—incremental or transformational—and ultimately propel us forward to make big progress.

Small acts have power to advance big change, as we wrote about earlier this year. These acts are happening all around us as some changemakers use intuition and observation to test and try new things while others bring bold persistence in carrying acts forward. To better understand what it takes to make change, we must recognize and celebrate these small acts.

Below are three distinct examples of seemingly small acts that offer great learning and inspiration.

Catalyzing Philanthropy

As one of the top 25 community foundations in the country with more than $900 million in assets, the Arizona Community Foundation (ACF) works to mobilize philanthropy to create a better Arizona. The Foundation offers flexible, high-impact giving opportunities for donors to bring about big change. Every day, the relationship managers at ACF work to understand their donors’ interests and engage donors deeply in achieving their overall philanthropic goals. Enter Jean who, after several years of practicing law, was inspired by a mentor to help African American students in a low-income area pay for and graduate from college. Jean originally gave to schools directly, which did not yield the results she anticipated. This experience catalyzed a series of questions and small acts that led her to transform her approach to philanthropy. Jean sought help from ACF, which had taken an interest in her as a person as well as her goals for community impact. The Foundation offered information on the education landscape in Arizona and guidance on ways in which she could advance systemic change. As she gathered this information, Jean shared it with other nonprofits, community leaders and friends, spreading the ideas and potential impact. The information led her to engage differently with the nonprofit community, and she began holding meetings with nonprofit organizations to get to know them.

Jean realized she needed a different strategy for finding and working with these organizations. She ultimately identified nonprofit organizations that could mobilize her donations to enable students to go to college. Jean then championed a giving circle focused on addressing issues impacting African American communities. That giving circle, now called the Black Philanthropy Initiative, is focused on advancing equity, health, education, leadership and social justice for African Americans in Arizona. Jean always viewed herself as community-minded, but working with ACF increased her level of engagement as a philanthropist. She now views herself as a facilitator, helping others engage in philanthropy. Together, Jean and ACF have much greater impact. Inspired by journeys like hers, ACF is embarking on a process to evaluate their impact and determine how to foster a culture of philanthropy for a better Arizona.

Galvanizing a Community

Since its founding in the 1990s, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) has organized community members to foster health, wellness and healing in Chicago’s Lawn neighborhood. The organization worked with the community for more than a decade to build the Martin Luther King (MLK) Living Memorial, the city’s first permanent memorial commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Chicago Freedom Movement. The process that led to building the memorial required countless small acts that were, from the start, driven by local individuals and families: People attended meetings, shared their ideas, realized a local task force was necessary and formed one. Others brainstormed designs for the memorial’s ceramic tiles and created the tiles. Others organized a march for the memorial’s unveiling and recruited more than 1,400 people to join. This effort galvanized people across the city to move beyond the barriers of religion, ethnicity and nationality and work together toward a common goal. The MLK Living Memorial, unveiled on August 6, 2016, stands as a lasting testament to that journey.

“Those small acts and moments remind us of the gaps between the world as it could be and the world as it is,” said Rami Nashashibi, IMAN’s executive director. Efforts like the MLK Living Memorial play a critical role in bringing people together, building momentum, providing space for healing and rooting the work in a common purpose. This collective endeavor helped foster a more tightly knit sense of community in addition to greater pride in and commitment to the neighborhood. By working together to create the memorial, residents of all ages made tangible connections between their community, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the continued struggle for justice. The community members’ journey helped reinvigorate the quest for a truly “beloved community,” to use King’s words. 

Whiteboarding for Change

To equip local governments in addressing community challenges, FUSE Corps embeds entrepreneurial individuals within those governments to serve in executive-level fellowships. One FUSE Corps fellow, Autumn McDonald, worked with the San Francisco and Oakland city governments to design a more inclusive agenda for the Bay Area Women’s Summit. As the teams began planning, Autumn introduced a practice they were unaccustomed to using: whiteboarding, or using whiteboards to brainstorm, iterate on ideas and solve problems. Whiteboarding enabled these government staff members to collaborate in new ways. They could visualize information, stay focused, play out different scenarios in real-time together, more actively participate in meetings and more easily follow up on next steps. This change shifted cultures within the San Francisco and Oakland city government offices from ones in which people tended to individually think through challenges to ones where teams worked creatively together. Soon, staff members across departments began incorporating this practice into their daily work.

The small act of modeling whiteboarding not only led others to adopt it but also led to changes in both governments’ structures: The city governments bought and installed more whiteboards, reorganized spaces to facilitate whiteboarding, and instituted reservations for whiteboarding spaces so team members could more easily access them. Today, the San Francisco and Oakland city governments are better structured to work collaboratively to solve problems and implement solutions—necessary practices to bring about change at the city level.

We celebrate not only these small acts but also the people who take them and the resulting ripple effects. These examples help us see the power of introducing new ways of working, helping others envision a future they want to create and sticking with a strategy in a disciplined and focused manner to make change that counts. We also observed a trend: In each of these examples, small acts brought about behavior change in institutions or community that shifted the way people worked or engaged with each other. These ripple effects deserve our attention. What we learn from them, we can use to fuel impact. While only the future will tell what will result next, there are promising signs that these small acts and the larger accomplishments that have already resulted will snowball into greater change.

What small acts inspire and teach you? Share your stories in the comments below.

Sara Brenner

About Sara Brenner

As President, Sara Brenner leads the firm’s consulting business. Sara helped develop and is implementing the firm’s new strategy to solve social problems at the magnitude they exist, while leading a sales team that grew revenue by more than 45%. Sara oversees the implementation of the new strategy-aligning products, impact measurement, and talent initiatives with a results-based culture to deliver exceptional value to partners. With over 15 years’ experience in consulting for nonprofits, for-profits and the government, Sara worked extensively in the health and human services including at the Advisory Board Company and The Gallup Organization. See Sara's full bio

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