Community Development

Lessons Learned: What Makes Change Effective? Primarily, Trust

May 26, 2020  • The McNulty Foundation Team

In the wake of COVID-19, the McNulty Foundation, in partnership with the Aspen Global Leadership Network, created the Global Response Fund to address the devastating impacts of the pandemic in the most vulnerable communities around the globe. Since late March, the Global Response Fund has awarded over $550,000 grants to projects in over 20 countries, all led by high-integrity, entrepreneurial leaders of the AGLN. Below the McNulty Foundation team explores some of the lessons learned, both from engaging with these Fellows and communities during this crisis, and from more than 12 years of recognizing and supporting social change and transformative leadership.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused suffering, dislocation and disruption around the world, and although there is no “silver lining,” it is undeniable that it has prompted incredible efforts and sacrifice from individuals and organizations looking to alleviate that pain and build a more resilient future. Through the Global Response Fund, we have been in contact with more nonprofits and social businesses than ever before, prompting us to take stock of what qualities have enabled these organizations to effectively serve their communities. While there is no one answer, a critical element in effectively approaching systemic problems has always been partnership with and ultimately ownership from the community any organization seeks to benefit, and this is no different during times of crisis.

So many of the fires that need putting out today are the result of exploitative systems. Traditional systems of redistribution have eroded in many countries, and philanthropy in its 21st century form is at best a supplement or temporary replacement, struggling to change the fundamental equity of those it benefits. While working with our partners on the ground and listening to the communities they serve, we’ve learned the most fundamental currency of change is trust. For change to be deep, for it to last, and to ensure it actually benefits those who have been left out or displaced by the pre-existing economic systems, ventures must be community and locally led and embraced. Three McNulty Prize Laureates who received support from the Global Response Fund exemplify this.

When communities control capital, they deploy it in the collective interest 

For example, RARE’s Fish Forever program — a project of Catto Fellow and RARE CEO Brett Jenks — helps coastal communities in the developing world take control of local fishing rights and create communal institutions. Starting with fishing villages in Honduras, more than 500 local governments in eight countries on four continents now participate in the program. These institutions not only include best practices for sustainable fishing and regulation, but “Savings Clubs,” where fishermen pool some of their income to save for emergencies or communal infrastructure like refrigeration units to store catches longer. Since COVID-19 has cut off these communities from the markets that once bought their wares, these earlier innovations have become more important than ever and set them up for survival during this time. Not only do they have healthier fisheries to rely on to feed their families, they have freezers to store food for when markets open, and most crucially, those savings clubs have allowed towns to purchase staple foods to supplement their fish diets while cut off from income. To date, clubs in more than 200 communities have saved more than $2,000,000 when the crisis hit, a cushion such communities would ordinarily never have.

In Honduras, members of La Sabana savings club distribute supplies to families in need.

Early investment in families pays off in times of crisis

In the United States, Rocketship Public Schools — founded by Henry Crown Fellow John Danner and now run by Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow Preston Smith — is a network of charter schools that started in San Jose, CA, providing high quality education to low-income communities across the country. With innovations in educational software that matches each student’s pace and provides targeted support, and deeply engaged parental and community involvement, Rocketship reaches families at a direct and personal level. Now, in the pandemic, beyond the digital education software they employ, the relationships and trust built up over time with families have proven to be critical in enabling Rocketship to respond to community needs. The school is uniquely positioned to find out who needs help, whether material or emotional, and to provide it through a relief fund or through staff support. The years of community building have paid off with fewer students falling behind and more families having supportive structures to turn to.

Rocketship employing remote learning tools to keep students engaged.

Communities in the West Bank rely on their youth leaders 

A hemisphere away in Palestine are the Youth Local Councils (YLCs), founded by Middle East Leadership Initiative Fellow Lana Abu-Hijleh and run by Shiam-Youth Make the Future. YLCs are municipal-level groups of teens who run for and hold democratic elections to form councils that lead projects to improve their local communities. Already facing restrictions of movement, and barriers to seek economic opportunities, Palestinians are now dealing with added job losses and insecurity, and disruptions in their already very limited supply chain due to the pandemic. Having built credibility and trust over time within their communities, the YLCs responded immediately by helping communities maintain public health protocols and providing essential supplies to families in need. With their deep local networks, they were able to quickly pivot their activities, identify the greatest needs, and act.


YLC members providing communities in Palestine with essential supplies.

The list goes on: VisionSpring and its vast army of community-based women eyewear entrepreneurs throughout India and other countries, whom it has redeployed to distribute personal protective equipment, food relief and hygiene kits; the Bulungula Incubator, deeply enmeshed in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, or CAPTA, providing cash assistance and support to a network of women who they once trained, now-laid-off in gentrifying Casco Viejo. But the lesson is constant: for change to go deep, it needs to be done with local expertise, embraced by the people intended to benefit, carried out and strengthened directly by and in partnership with communities. 

The McNulty Foundation has long been an active partner with the Aspen Global Leadership Network, awarding the annual John P. McNulty Prize to recognize pioneering leadership and solutions to global challenges. When the pandemic hit, the McNulty Foundation suspended the 2020 Prize and created a rapid response fund to support AGLN Fellows around the world leading critical responses to the crisis. For many of the 68 Fellows leading these projects, their ventures started with their Fellowship journey. The trust and partnership developed within this community, and the networks of trust and partnership that Fellows have created with empowered local leaders and communities, is what drives these stories of impact.