Seattle Foundation Blog

Learning Event With Headwaters Economics Lifts up the Importance of Community-led Solutions

Conversation connects dots to best practices in international development and SeaFdn’s approach to change


July 24, 2017

By Stephen Robinson

The solutions that work best almost always come from the communities that are impacted by the interventions meant to benefit them. This tenet, well known in international development circles, is showing up in the domestic development strategies of organizations like Headwaters Economics.

I was introduced to Headwaters by our philanthropic partner Sherry Richardson, who partnered with SeaFdn to host a lunch highlighting their work. Headwaters has a deep commitment to assessing and understanding the local context before recommending any policy to guide positive ecological or economic change in a region. At our event, Ray Rasker and Patty Gude, the non-profit’s executive and associate directors, shared their innovative work empowering communities to make decisions about their future. For example, in Bonner County, Idaho, they worked closely with diverse community members to promote economic opportunity and environmental protection. Projects that came out of their initial exploration include a popular series of economic summits tailored to local interests and the "Prescription Trails" program to improve children’s access to the outdoors.

In addition to their programmatic work, Headwaters provides innovative, nonpartisan research about the West. Their extensive socioeconomic data can be packaged into customizable reports on regions and populations around the country.

Philanthropic Advisor Stephen Robinson is pictured front and center with colleagues from LDA-Struga, a development agency he worked for in Macedonia while in the Peace CorpsHeadwaters’ fidelity to a community-centered approach echoes my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Macedonia (I'm pictured front and center with my Macedonian, Albanian and Roma students from Young Men’s Leadership Camp). As a Peace Corps Masters International student through the Evans School at the University of Washington I worked closely with a local development agency called LDA-Struga to design, implement and evaluate their cultural, inter-ethnic and tourism programs. Underpinning that work and every decision was a popular framework called “Participatory Analysis of Community Action,” or PACA. This process empowers communities to thrive in a sustainable way by putting them at the center of the needs assessment process and designing programming in partnership with them.

Similarly, Seattle Foundation prioritizes listening at the outset of new programs to follow the lead of the community. One strategy the Foundation has used is to issue pilot grants that facilitate this listening process. We used this approach in the design of our Vibrant-Democracy, which strengthens the voice and participation of underrepresented communities as a path to more equitable systems change. SeaFdn gave nonprofit organizations pilot grants to help us shape the program, which is resulting in skilled and informed partners advocating for their communities’ needs and leading the way to positive change.

In philanthropy, just like at Headwaters Economics, we are always looking for ways to ensure our programs have the greatest impact and prioritize authentic input from communities.

Learn more about our approach to creating community impact and increasing equity and opportunity through our Center for Community Partnerships.

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