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The Real Reason Communities Struggle to Drive Lasting Change—And 4 Ways They Can Succeed

 

In my business development role at Blue Zones, I field roughly 15 phone calls a week from leaders who all echo the same complaint:

“Nothing is changing.”

It doesn’t matter the size or scale of their community health improvement plans, or the fact that most of them have been in the works since 2012. It doesn’t even matter the needs—usually involving improvements of primary healthcare access, food insecurity, high rates of obesity or diabetes, and mental health services—they are trying to address.

In each case, these leaders have been following the tried-and-true “best practices” of traditional community impact models.

Yet more than a decade later, it’s true: Nothing has changed.

This is a frustrating yet common scenario that plays out in communities across the nation: Mission-driven organizations hustle to apply for grants and set up programs, but then as soon as the funding cycle ends so does the potential for lasting change.

In my own tenure as a tireless community health professional, I can’t point to any more than a handful of examples of meaningful impact.

The status quo is all that endures.

This perpetual cycle—in which stakeholders work in silos and where funding is seen as the ultimate, if not only, resource worth pursuing—leaves groups perennially addressing stopgaps instead of systems change.

This perpetual cycle—in which stakeholders work in silos and where funding is seen as the ultimate, if not only, resource worth pursuing—leaves groups perennially addressing stopgaps instead of systems change. —Margaret Brown, Blue Zones… Click To Tweet

The solution requires a higher-level strategy that moves past one-off sponsorships and flat philanthropy—beyond dollars and cents. It requires thinking beyond the specific problem—whether it be dental health, diabetes prevalence, or childhood obesity—and considering the bigger picture.

It ultimately requires a transformation model like Blue Zones.

It ultimately requires a transformation model like Blue Zones. —Margaret Brown, Blue Zones Vice President of Business Development Click To Tweet

Unlike typical models, this approach is centered on the long-term sustainability of transformational change. Now, whenever I partner with a community, we’re establishing a collective impact framework in which partners, resources, and metrics are aligned toward a common vision.

How Leaders Can Activate the Blue Zones Transformation Model

Successful transformational change is only possible with committed leadership and creative partnerships.

1. Harness sustainable champions

It’s not hard to unearth why change fails in some communities: A once-successful grant doesn’t renew funding, and the program falls to the wayside. A key leader within a partnering organization changes jobs, and no one steps up to resume their role. In both cases, the mission is not part of the institution’s culture.

The key to ongoing support is a shared, broad-based vision that leaders intentionally keep front and center. When this exists, so does underlying commitment. A community grows around a vision, and until that goal is met, organizations are activated to maintain it—whether that means replacing individual players or seeking out new programming opportunities.

Find those champions and activate them.

2. Get everyone—and I mean everyone—in the room

In traditional community health improvement models, partnerships are built on the backs of healthcare, public health organizations, and a select few non-profits. Although other partners may be in the room, health-minded ones take up most of the seats at the table.

However, when launching initiatives like Blue Zones Projects, I’ve seen the power of expanding that table to include space far beyond typical stakeholders. We’d ask: “How do we better involve additional nonprofits? What about schools? Can we get employers to buy in? How do we tap into private industry?”

For instance, in Fort Worth, which is one of the earliest Blue Zones Project communities, Texas Health Resources and the city certainly led the charge, but they worked to ensure that the proverbial table had representation across sectors. Included were municipal players from the City of Fort Worth and the mayor’s office, as well as community organizations like neighborhood HOAs and the Boys & Girls Club. Private industry linked arms with the public school system.

Encouraging this level of collaboration is not easy. I’m currently pushing leaders to consider potential out-of-the-box partners for a community project I’m initiating. Yes, we’ve lined up Parks & Rec council members, but what about private corporations who have global headquarters in the city? Yes, they likely fund large-scale initiatives, but it’s worth convincing them of the value of investing in their local community as well.

3. Expand what you consider “resources”

For sustainable change, you need sufficient funding—but it can’t end there. You need to be able to operationalize every resource, well beyond financial investments. Consider the importance of office space, technology, and equipment. Most of all, consider the power of people. Recruiting and retaining talent who can simultaneously harness collective knowledge and train a community to work together, instead of swimming in their own lanes, is essential.

Consider the “both and” proposition. The next time a stakeholder cuts a check, find out what other ways they may be able to lend their support.

4. Hold one another accountable

Transformational change does not happen overnight. It doesn’t even happen in a year. Sometimes, the positive impact of this work doesn’t reveal itself until a decade later. A challenging side effect to that is a lack of accountability on the part of even the most invested leaders.

To maintain focus on key priorities, understanding how to measure ongoing performance—and setting clear, annual benchmarks in pursuit of specific outcomes—keeps those champions committed to results-oriented work.

Transformational change does not happen overnight. It doesn’t even happen in a year. Sometimes, the positive impact of this work doesn’t reveal itself until a decade later. —Margaret Brown, Blue Zones Vice President of Business… Click To Tweet

When leaders can accomplish these measures, a new realization will set in: Communities can finally achieve systems-level change to even the most arduous challenges they face.

I’ve seen it happen in many communities we’ve served, from Beach Cities, California, to Naples, Florida. In every case, these communities were initiated by determined champions who helped align a diversity of stakeholders toward a shared mission and vision. In every case, these communities were sustained because they came to expect continued support and accountability from them.

And in every case, when Blue Zones scales back, as it is meant to do, those communities continue to apply its model, raise the bar, and ensure lasting change.

 


 

Margaret Brown is a lifelong community well-being advocate with more than 15 years of experience organizing communities to drive health and well-being improvement. For the last five years, Margaret has worked in partnership with more than 70 Blue Zones communities to create cross-sector partnerships that transform environments and empower communities. Margaret holds a Masters of Science degree in healthcare leadership from Dartmouth College and a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Francis Marion University.

 

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