Bringing a Little Heart & Soul to South Carolina

In April 2016, I had the good fortune of being a part of the Aspen Institute's pre-conference for rural philanthropies at the Council of Foundation’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. As someone new to philanthropy, I came looking for place-based organizations who were using community indicators or other population-level data to measure impact. Having recently left the helm of South Carolina's early childhood agency, First Steps, I knew the value of trending data over time to measure the progress of our state against important benchmarks. 

Data brings partners together for action. Data illuminates needs and shapes policy in powerful ways. 

The J. Marion Sims Foundation, a health legacy foundation created by the sale of Lancaster's Elliott White Springs Memorial Hospital in 1995, had begun to think about new ways of measuring results. Just as important, the foundation was also re-doubling its commitment to collaborate with partners in nonprofit, public, and private sectors for greater community impact.

How could we identify areas of focus together with the community? How could we collectively measure impact? We were learning quickly from the community indicators experience of our partners in Spartanburg, South Carolina (recent winners of the coveted Robert Wood Johnson Culture of Health prize), about the value of common data language and shared outcome focus.

I was excited to collect additional successes from across the country. At the Aspen Institute session, I sat for coffee with a delightful colleague from Maine, Pat Hart, who introduced herself as a grantee. That cup of coffee – and the conversation to follow – has changed the trajectory of our work.

There I also met David Leckey, Executive Director of the Orton Family Foundation, who'd brought Pat, also a councilwoman from Gardiner, Maine, to the session. Together to the rural philanthropic assembly, David and Pat told the story of elevating all voices in the historic town of Gardiner (population 5,800) to determine a future plan that involved everyone, focused on what mattered most, and was created with the long game in mind.

David and Pat – and additional Orton family partners we've met since April – have spoken emphatically about how their field-tested Community Heart & Soul model is a catalyst for positive change in small cities and towns. By actively seeking the collective wisdom of all residents, including those whose voices are often missing, Community Heart & Soul brings people together to build stronger, healthier, and more economically vibrant communities. This resident-driven model takes into account both the unique character of a town and the deep emotional connection of the people who live there – a town’s “Heart & Soul.” These collective insights into what truly matters most serve to guide the town in making the best decisions about its future.

And build powerful networks of good.

We designed our 2016 community engagement with our strategy partners at Advocacy & Communication Solutions to focus on assets, asking individuals what we were doing well as a community and where we needed to focus as a community to become even stronger. We heard from 1,400 individuals about what mattered most: family, faith, education, proximity to work and a "small town feel." As a foundation, we used this rich data to craft a new strategic direction to better partner with the communities we serve. Part of that journey includes a new strategic partnership with the Orton Family Foundation. 

Community Heart & Soul – Orton’s model for engaging deeply with residents  in order to strengthen small cities and towns across America – is based on three principles: (1) involve everyone, (2) focus on what matters, and (3) play the long game. Over a decade, towns who have completed Heart & Soul projects have revamped comprehensive municipal plans, identified new leaders, spurred private investment, and increased civic participation. Always through the lens of actively seeking the collective wisdom of all residents, including those whose voices are often missing, Heart & Soul restores hometown pride, creating future plans for development, even traffic patterns and infrastructure, based on what matters most to everyone.

Our own post-textile communities in Lancaster and Chester County are yearning to find their spark again. In our view, Orton is the perfect strategic partner for our deepening commitment to community engagement and philanthropy. 

To quote an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We look forward to working together with the Orton Family Foundation and with residents of our communities to imagine an even greater future for all.

Susan DeVenny is president and CEO of  the J. Marion Sims Foundation.

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