The Stew BLOG

Stewards are Leveraging Relationships to Help Communities Thrive

Iueh Soh, Associate Director, Stewardship Practice and Jane Erickson, Project Director | 08/03/2020

From city council chambers to neighborhood revitalization partnerships around the country, stewards are leveraging relationships to support their communities in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, ongoing protests against racial injustice, and economic recession. This was one of several findings to emerge from our most recent Tracking Poll for Stewards of Well-Being, a bi-monthly survey launched in April to find out how stewards are navigating their system change efforts right now.

We are fielding the poll every other month through the end of this year. In June, we heard from 45 leaders working locally and nationally across many areas of practice (health, education, climate change, economic renewal, and beyond) and types of organizations (government, business, philanthropy, nonprofits, and more) to drive system change for equitable well-being.

Here are highlights from the June poll.

Stewards remain cautiously confident that there will be lasting system change

Similar to April poll respondents, in June, the overwhelming majority (98%) of participating stewards were either somewhat or slightly confident that there will be lasting system change in the wake of the multiple, systemic crises we are currently experiencing. Only 2% were extremely confident, but none indicated they were not at all confident. As Gary Gunderson, of FaithHealthNC, shared: “Systems in fear often revert to protect the old family jewels (and business models). Opportunities are obvious, but still hard to trust in times of crisis.”

To advance their system change efforts since April, we see more stewards focusing on:

  • Developing a shared narrative for change, particularly around race and inequality (24% in June compared to only 3% in April);
  • Pursuing long-term solutions that address multiple problems at once (20% in June compared to 12% in April); and
  • Shifting norms, practices, and incentives of established institutions (20% in June compared to 12% in April).


Many are using their unique assets to help communities recover and thrive

We asked about the assets that stewards are using—right now—to help communities recover from the multiple crises and thrive. Relationships are the most common asset in use (91%), followed by a willingness to work across differences including party, race, place, class, culture (84%). Given that these two assets are the most commonly deployed, stewards may be drawing upon different and unconventional combinations of relationships.

Many respondents (78%) also identified influence through their job as an important asset—particularly to create spaces for reflection about racial injustice and to direct investments toward greater equity. Notably, only 38% of respondents said they are leveraging financial resources. This is likely due to an increase in financial strain across organizations and individuals, but it also speaks to the types of assets that may be most beneficial for advancing system change in this unique moment—those that foster connection, shared understanding, and lessons from prior experiences with adversity.

Many stewards are working to drive change by shifting norms and structures within institutions

Despite an optimistic outlook that they will be able to overcome sticking points to system change (56%), many stewards also noted that certain actions on the part of large, established institutions present a significant barrier to change. These include reducing or reneging on prior community-focused investments due to budgetary constraints and a tendency to demonstrate token gestures of commitment rather than authentic reflection and action. Nonetheless, stewards are using their assets in creative ways to make progress in the midst of this resistance.

For example, some stewards are leveraging relationships with socially anchored resident leaders outside institutions. Kyra Ochoa, working for the City of Santa Fe, has invited groups to share thoughts about community needs, including for police reform. “I’ve pulled together local Black residents to speak to city leadership about their experiences being Black in our City.” City leaders are now exploring how to shift the budget to reflect equitable priorities.

Other stewards have been using their influence in their formal workplaces. Carol Naughton from Purpose Built Communities reflects, “I am not without influence … [I’ve been] helping those with financial assets to consider not just where to invest but in who to invest…[I am also] creating safe spaces for Black and White colleagues to have honest conversations about race.”

For more stories about how stewards are using their assets, along with other findings from the June poll, please visit our tracking poll webpage. There, you can also sign up for our August poll and add your voice to the growing field of stewards taking courageous and strategic action in this moment.