Bill Kitson: Address a public challenge and become deeply rooted in your audience

Stephen R. Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” said, “Most people do not listen with intent to understand; they listen with intent to reply.”

Community conversations are used when an organization decides to turn outward and develop a deep understanding of its audience and later use the findings to change how it approaches its work. It is a tool to listen and learn how your community members describe challenges and opportunities in their personal lives as well as their aspirations for the entire community.

At United Way of Greater Cleveland, we discovered the first step to effectively impact our community was to listen. We gathered people of varying age, gender and ethnicity for more than 50 community conversations in neighborhoods throughout Greater Cleveland. The dialogue was authentic and unveiled the challenges each individual faces throughout the region.


Turning outward

Developed by the Harwood Institute, a nonprofit established to help organizations address community challenges and improve effectiveness, the term “turning outward” means the organization becomes deeply rooted in its audience and commits to addressing a public challenge.

The Harwood Institute suggests, “Too many organizations and leaders are more focused on their own good than the common good.” Nonprofits are civic-minded institutions with goals to improve the quality of life for our neighbors. It’s critical to turn outward and gauge the aspirations for those our organizations were established to serve.

Too often in the nonprofit sector, and perhaps in your industry as well, we focus on getting the job done rather than customizing our service for the context of the community.

Turning outward has motivated United Way to shift our work. We realize fundraising alone will not accomplish our goal to create a healthy community where all kids graduate from high school and families reach financial stability.

By listening to our neighbors’ point of view in community conversations and conducting other research, we see our community in a new way and are implementing new approaches to impact Greater Cleveland.

Here are ways turning outward helped us at United Way and can benefit your business:

  • Listen. Authentic forums, such as community conversations, will give you a fresh perspective on your work. Organizational leaders are then better equipped to implement the appropriate strategy to accomplish goals.
  • Identify. Turning outward is a method of engaging stakeholders in your work and including them in the decision-making process. Your audience is in a great position to identify areas for improvement. A new perspective on your work may lead you to rearrange organizational priorities and become more results-oriented.
  • Activate. As we shifted our focus to create change in our community, we noticed partnerships integral to accomplishing our new set of goals. At United Way, it was important to activate a collective impact approach to engage Greater Cleveland in the work of solving our community problems.

Listening, the simple and often overlooked tactic, has the power to transcend your business. If first we listen to truly understand our community, our response can have the power to create meaningful impact in Greater Cleveland and beyond. ●


Bill Kitson

President and CEO

United Way of Greater Cleveland is committed to advancing education, income and health by engaging community members to give, advocate and volunteer.

(216) 436-2101

[email protected]