Laying the Groundwork for Success

Q&A with Michael McAfee of the Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink

For decades, communities across the nation have struggled with determining how to tackle the complex social issues their citizens face. For nearly 40 years, the high school graduation rate in the United States has remained stagnant and issues like poverty and hunger continue to have a strong hold over some of our most underserved population’s upward mobility and future success. These factors hit minority families and low-income neighborhoods hard when it comes to education and youth development. One prime example is that Hispanic students are three times more likely to drop out compared to white students.1 In response to statistics like this, communities have tried to mobilize resources and provide services to address these issues, but getting to positive outcomes remains at the forefront of the  problem.

What many communities today need is a strong strategy for better determining which problems they want to target and what resources are available to them or are needed to combat the issue. They also need to know which funders might be interested in supporting the initiative and how to put a process in place to make a positive, long-lasting difference in the community. By coming to the table with a strategy in place, communities will prepared to take on some of the most complex social problems facing their citizens – and ultimately, the country.

A New Perspective

I  have previously worked with thought leaders to discuss this process through the lens of leading a collective impact initiative in nFocus’ Collective Ideas to Collective Impact Guide. However, I wanted an additional perspective from someone who is working directly with Promise Neighborhoods:  communities supported by U.S. Department of Education grants with the aim of significantly improving the education and development of underserved youth.

Michael McAfee is a Senior Director at PolicyLink and Director of the Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink (PNI). Inspired by the successful model of the Harlem Children’s Zone, PNI supports Promise Neighborhoods—communities of opportunity centered around strong schools—to wrap children in education, health, and social supports from the cradle to college to career. Previously, McAfee served as the Senior Community Planning & Development Representative for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In Part 1 of this Q&A series, Michael and I discuss tips and lessons we’ve learned in our work with individual communities, including the power of engaging with residents and keeping them involved, how community initiatives can become sustainable and how the ideal framework, supported by powerful community software, can set up an initiative to create positive outcomes.

Be on the lookout for the upcoming Part 2, in which Michael and I further discuss the impact a strong performance and outcome measurement system has on results, how data can help communities overcome barriers to collective impact and the successes we’ve seen in the communities we serve.


  • Many community leaders understand the issues that are affecting their residents and how those issues are creating barriers to positive outcomes: for example, poverty and hunger can impact a child’s ability to perform in school. However, they might not know how to address these large social problems. What steps can a community take to make a difference if they’re facing this challenge?

Michael McAfee: One of the most important steps we can take is to directly ask youth and families about the challenges they are facing, such as poverty or difficulty accessing reliable transportation to school or work. Once we’ve done that, we need to consider a different approach to addressing community problems. What we’ve been doing to help people is not sufficient to serve entire communities, nor has it been the most effective at achieving positive results. Consequently, we have to be willing to rethink our approach. Having the discipline to walk through a structured process that moves us from talk to action is essential. We have to trust and rely on the wisdom and experience of those living in the community to emerge, to capture those lessons and capacities, and then deliberately craft strategies that enable leaders to take action in a results-oriented manner.

Ananda Roberts: I agree; I think for too long, we, as a country, have approached these social problems from the top down and we haven’t truly engaged at the neighborhood level.

I think the work that needs to be happening right now, across the country, should start with engaging with the families in need. We haven’t had the youth and family voice engaged in this type of work in a very long time – or if we have, it’s been at a research level and not in an operational and practical level. There needs to be a core-level understanding of what it is a community should invest in to succeed. For example, whether that direction is improving education or promoting healthy lifestyles. Once that target is understood, then the community can really go after the resources they have, such as nonprofits, social services, and more, and begin to form an effective plan for collective impact.

  • How would you motivate a community to make a difference on the particular issues affecting them when they believe they don’t have the resources available to contribute to a long-lasting impact?

MM:  Leaders in communities are already motivated to make a difference. Those of us not living within their communities must respect their vision for the type of community that they want to create. When those of us on the outside align our efforts with the passions of a community, we become an unstoppable force for change.

We cannot allow communities to believe they don’t have the resources available to tackle the particular issues affecting them. Leaders are capable of identifying solutions that allow everyone to contribute to creating communities of opportunity. Any solution must emphasize that the contributions of the children and families that actually live in the community are valued and needed. When leaders are clear about every persons’ boundary of authority, role, and task, and create a culture of accountability, people in the community remain motivated to create change.

AR: I agree with Michael; I believe communities are motivated to resolve the problems their citizens face, but I think in many cases community leaders are unsure of how to go about it. Oftentimes, resources and services are available in a community, both from the community itself and within its nonprofits and social services, but those who need them the most don’t know how to access them. Communities need to develop better systems and methods to communicate which resources are available to the people who live there.

Providing a successful model for underserved neighborhoods is also crucial. It’s key that people who grew up and moved on from some of the neighborhoods that have extreme poverty, low school performance or other issues are the same people who help motivate and educate those who are still living with those types of circumstances, because, it’s not that people who are still in those situations don’t want to move on – it’s just that in many cases, they don’t know how.

  • What is the very first action a foundation can take when it identifies a community that wants to create change, but isn’t sure how to begin?

AR: To me, providing financial stability for community leaders is absolutely crucial. The process of making a long-lasting collective impact is an ongoing effort. Without having a continuous source of funding, it’s difficult for a community to grow the initiative and succeed. There also needs to be someone who genuinely cares about a neighborhood on the ground to engage with people, so they remain dedicated to being part of the process.

Also, one of the first big steps is instituting common assessment across a community. A community needs a tool, such as comprehensive community software, that tells them what needs are most prevalent so that they are able to wrap services around those needs.

nFocus Solutions is one company, for example, that has community solutions to fulfill that need. nFocus recently partnered with Search Institute, which combines Search Institute’s Developmental Assets Profile with nFocus’ online survey software SurveyTrax. The combined offering provides organizations and communities with the ability to examine the developmental needs of their youth so that services can be better tailored to fit those needs. nFocusCommunity Server® is another, slightly different community solution that aggregates crime, health, student and other data onto a map to show where needs for specific services are.

MM:  That’s right. Harnessing a community’s energy and leveraging it to launch a community change effort often yields better results than trying to overlay an outsider’s vision and then attempting to motivate the community to buy into that vision.

  • How can communities overcome funding challenges, especially as the process of developing programming and creating positive outcomes stretches into multiple years?

MM: Focus on achieving collective impact by aligning individuals and organizations that are currently funded to do results-driven work around a common set of results and indicators. Doing so allows the existing capacities and resources of individuals and organizations to be used in service of achieving a result that transcends what one organization could accomplish operating alone. Additionally, cities, counties and states annually receive federal dollars like Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). If these funds were dispersed to support achieving population-level results, imagine the impact.

AR: Sustainability can be very difficult for communities because some funders will walk away from an initiative if they experience internal leadership changes or if the project goes in a direction that’s different from what they had in mind. A program that’s three or four years old might not have a proven track record at that point, which makes attracting a new funder difficult.

One of the best ways to avoid this problem is to start out with the right framework. If an initiative begins by aligning funders around common goals and direction, in which everyone understands the overarching target and the steps that need to be taken to get there, then there can be long-term collective impact. The process takes time and support, but it’s worth it because of the stability it can bring to an initiative over time.

Collecting and working with the right data is also essential to success. Several of the communities that we’re working with at nFocus are collecting a wide range of information, including out-of-school time, student, and crime and health data, through Community Server, our advanced community software. The communities we partner with are able to better address the needs of their citizens because they have access to a nearly 360-degree view of their citizens, from their health needs to the factors contributing to their development and more. That draws funder support and provides a multi-agency collaboration with the information they need to take action.

MM: I agree. The use of data for learning, continuous improvement and shared accountability, which is something nFocus really drives home, is essential because data helps communities turn their plans into disciplined, deliberate and impactful action.

  • How can communities respond to potential resistance to the initiative among their residents?

MM: I’ve found that in most cases, resistance to an initiative happens because residents haven’t been properly engaged and persuaded that the community change effort will help their community. As I said earlier, leaders must work toward crafting and implementing community change efforts in partnership with the children and families that live in the community. If an initiative is not engaging residents  during the planning, implementation and evaluation processes, it’s going to be difficult to obtain support—no matter how powerful the ideas or theories of action.

AR: I agree completely. I think that all sides, from leadership to people living in the neighborhoods, have to be willing to have a dialogue that can drive change. To me, not having that means the proper work hasn’t been done and the right leadership isn’t in place. It’s common to see initiatives fail over time, and I think that’s because they haven’t done the hard work of making sure every possible stakeholder is actively involved.

MM: Absolutely. To summarize, I believe that communities must first define the results they want to achieve, and then establish clear measures of progress over time. Once this work is done, strategies can be developed, and individual and organizational contributions can be aligned to support achieving the results.

  •  6. You mentioned steps communities should take in order to ensure long-term success. Why do you believe some communities avoid or don’t complete this process before fully launching their initiative and its programs?

MM: Investors are not necessarily paying for leaders to use a disciplined approach or to build the organizational capacity necessary to achieve results. Consequently, it’s easy to move from talk to action in a manner that lacks rigorous strategy based on clear baselines, targets, and high action and high alignment among stakeholders.

AR: That’s what it is. Determining those elements is hard, so in many cases people want to avoid having to take that step.


That concludes the first part of this Q&A with Michael McAfee. I agree that a disciplined approach to determining goals, allocating resources and enforcing accountability is important, but it’s only the beginning of what an initiative needs to do to ensure success. Collecting and correctly applying student, health, crime and other important data through the right community solution is also necessary to ensuring programs are making the strongest impact possible.

Read about communities that are putting these practices into action by checking out the nFocus Solutions website. Keep a lookout for more about the topics discussed above in Part 2 of my exclusive Q&A of Michael McAfee, coming soon. You can also learn more about McAfee and the Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink at promiseneighborhoodsinstitute.org.

  1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). The Condition of Education 2012 (NCES 2012-045), Indicator 33.

One response to “Laying the Groundwork for Success

  1. Pingback: Laying the Groundwork for Success: Part II | Ideas nFocus·

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