Making an Impact: A Dialogue with Ira Barbell

Over two sessions, Paul Born (Tamarack) spoke with Ira Barbell of the Annie E. Casey Foundation about impact in neighbourhood revitalization work. Ira is a Senior Associate with the Foundation, and is a key player in their Making Connections initiative.

Paul spoke with Ira about the background of the Foundation, and what they’ve learned over the years about working with neighbourhoods. They looked at some of the Foundation’s central ideas, such as leading with data and ideas rather than programs and money. They also explored Making Connections, and some of the learnings and challenges that came out of the initiative.

In their second conversation, Paul and Ira invited participants (including ANC, United Way, and Vibrant Communities members) to engage in dialogue with Ira about impact and strategy in neighbourhood revitalization. Specifically, they talked about what drives the work, and what impact we try to achieve; about how the work fits into United Way agendas across the country; and about how to keep the work relevant and effective as projects grow.

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Ira Barbell

Ira Barbell’s family hails from the Drummondville area of Quebec, but moved to New York State when he was very young. Several of his relatives lived in a one-block area, so he realized early on the importance of family bonds. However, he also began to recognize injustice at a young age, as he and his family were discouraged to speak French outside of the home.

When he was in high school, Ira had an epiphany of sorts: he realized that his own involvement in athletics had opened many doors for him, but that others lacked those opportunities, regardless of their talent. It was this discovery that drove him – after three years in a pre-med program – to study psychology and sociology in an attempt to understand how people lived and interacted. The first person in his entire extended family to attend university, Ira received his PhD in social work.

He began his career investigating child abuse and neglect in New York State and continued to work at the state level in New York and North Carolina until he joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 1992. He is now a Senior Associate with the Foundation and has been a key player in the Making Connections initiative.

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The Annie E. Casey Foundation


The Annie E. Casey Foundation was formed in 1948 by Jim Casey, the founder of the United Parcel Service. Initially, it was a small operating foundation, providing foster care for youth. Casey had observed, as an employer, that the stability of his employees’ family backgrounds was a strong predictor of their performance at work. He felt that investing in foster care for children, providing stable homes for those who needed them, would contribute to both a stronger workforce and a stronger community.

When Casey died in 1985, he left the majority of his estate to the Foundation, whose Board remains closely tied to UPS. The Board made a unique decision: they decided that even the fortune at their disposal wasn’t enough to make a significant improvement to the lives of disadvantaged children, and that they needed to leverage that money to change the way that services were offered.

The Foundation then moved into neighbourhoods to test the knowledge that it had acquired. It practices a unique mixture of grant-making and operations, remaining closely tied to the programs that receive its grants.

The Foundation is driven by data and results, holding itself and its beneficiaries accountable for capturing and utilizing learning.

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Numbers, Numbers, Numbers: Leading with Data

KIDS COUNT, active in all 50 states, monitors the status of children and families. Its goal is to provide hard data to decision-makers. It continues to be a very powerful policy document for politicians and state governments across the United States.

The Foundation makes strategic use of the KIDS COUNT data to bring key players on board in its other initiatives. Hard data, especially data that contradicts cities’ or states’ complacent self-images, is a potent catalyst for change: it shocks people into action, and gives them a place to start. Starting with hard data also provides a means for measuring progress, as results are quantifiable.

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Pennies a Day: Leading with Ideas

The Foundation’s other key leadership strategy is to lead with ideas rather than with money. Although it has a huge amount of money at its disposal, the Foundation offers only small grants when it goes into a neighbourhood.

Ira explains, “When you lead with money, you find that people tell you what they think you want to hear because they’re so anxious for funding. What we needed was an honest appraisal of the path forward: what each neighbourhood was willing to commit to, what they felt prepared to change. This honesty is so key to engagement!”

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Why Neighbourhoods?

From the data gathered through KIDS COUNT, the Foundation began to see that issues such as poverty or success in school tended to cluster in particular neighbourhoods.

According to the Foundation:

  • 15 to 20 percent of American children live with serious risks that threaten their ability to succeed.
  • These children and their families are disproportionately concentrated in some 4,500 neighbourhoods across the country.
  • They are disconnected from the economy, from quality human services, and from social networks.

To benefit the children, the Foundation looks not only at the context of their families, but their entire communities.

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Making Connections

The Foundation looked for cities willing to partner with them. They eventually narrowed the field to 22 cities, and created the Making Connections initiative. In each city, they made only small grants, focusing instead on dialogue with the cities about what they were willing to do and what was important. After the first two years, 12 cities dropped out, leaving ten active sites that had the capacity and the commitment to carry the work forward.

The initiative was built, not around a particular model or program, but around a central set of ideas. Making Connections’ essential premise is that “Children do well when their families do well, and families do better when they live in supportive neighbourhoods.”

To foster this kind of success, the initiative works to connect families to economic opportunity, social networks, and services and support. As Ira notes, “comprehensive community initiatives tended to focus on one or maybe two of these three objectives, but we couldn’t find any that had all three.”

The Foundation provided a team at each site to act as catalysts or conveners to build capacity for consumer/resident leadership, create conditions for change, look for emerging opportunities, and to identify barriers to success. They built partnerships between people and groups who normally would not have worked together, creating a safe space for conversations to begin – though not without encountering resistance!

Slowly, they have been working to change public systems, non-profit and government organizations. The Foundation uses data strategically to encourage these groups to hold themselves accountable for the investments they make and the outcomes that result.

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Communication: Spreading the Word

One of the major challenges facing Making Connections has been the question of how to communicate their ideas and programs to the residents of the participating neighbourhoods and to the public at large. Public Relations firms were not familiar with extended campaigns over long periods of time or with alternatives to the mainstream media. Therefore, they were not useful.

The Foundation had some success partnering with small university FM stations that broadcast locally, and with journalism programs and communications departments at local schools. They also made use of avenues such as church bulletins to get their message into the informal community network.

Overall, though, Ira says, “We know how important communication is because of how confusing it was when we were getting into a change agenda. People create their own stories, and how do you get your own message into that informal network so that it spreads like wildfire in the community?”

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United Ways: Agenda and Impact

Why Do This Work? What Impact Do We Achieve?

Points to consider:

  • The difference between a national funder and a local United Way: A national funder like the Annie E. Casey Foundation has the luxury of a long-term, multi-generational approach and a learning-based focus, whereas a local funder like the United Way experiences more pressure to get direct, immediate results. On the other hand, a local United Way can have great influence with the business community and other local stakeholders – though many have not yet learned to leverage this influence effectively. Communities respect United Ways as resources for knowledge, whereas the fact that the Foundation's ability to provide grants can distract groups from honest self-appraisal.
  • The balance between impact and influence: Any sustainable initiative needs to balance relatively short-term impact on residents and long-term strategic influence on policy-makers and funders. Looking at long-term change is a challenge!

Many participants felt that their organizations did not yet have a really clear articulation of strategy, in terms of why they’re getting involved in neighbourhood revitalization work, but there was a lot of optimism about heading in this direction. Where is your organization or collaboration in this process?

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Positioning the Work in United Ways

Over the past decade, United Ways have been grappling with change. They face the question, “Are we changing results or just funding services?” Alternative campaigns have appeared, especially in inner cities, further challenging the role of the United Way in these communities.

At the beginning of the Making Connections initiative, the Annie E. Casey Foundation began conversations with many United Ways about their ability to alter unhealthy conditions in a systemic way, as well as offering programs to those in need. Ira insists that it can’t be an either/or question – it must be a balance of both.

Now, community impact agendas are becoming a viable alternative means of defining the role of the United Way in communities. United Ways can build on their credibility in leadership in human services and can make use of their leverage in the community to bring stakeholders to the table.

This is not an easy process, though. Some thoughts to ponder:

  • How do you make this shift from an organizational standpoint? What does it mean in terms of your staff, and the culture of your whole organization?
  • Ira talked about the stories that build up organizational culture, and stressed the importance of capturing the stories that give life to the new vision of the United Way’s role. If you can get the stories circulating then people begin to change the way they think of your organization.
  • The participants in the call agreed that this is an exciting but very challenging shift!

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Going to Scale: Keeping the Work Relevant

Ira offered a collection of ideas to consider when scaling up this kind of work:

  • Data collection and analysis are core elements in maintaining credibility with neighbourhood and institutional partners.
  • Lead with ideas, not money.
  • Be persuasive about what has not worked in the past and why you think there’s a better way to get results in the future.
  • Public will is essential, not just in the neighbourhood. It takes political commitment, which must be backed by a larger constituency.
  • Educate government partners and the business community, as well as neighbourhood residents. You cannot assume that big funders are any more knowledgeable about or committed to this work than local residents.
  • Make new mistakes! Make this your mantra: do not repeat the same mistakes that were made in the past. Be innovative and take risks, so at least when you do make mistakes, they are not the same ones that have been made all along.
  • Leadership is important, but it is not enough. You also need skilled people to implement the ideas you are talking about on the ground.
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Resources and Links

The Annie E. Casey Foundation website - The Foundation’s home page has a wealth of links to their many initiatives and resources. To visit the website, click here.

Speech by Foundation President Douglas W. Nelson – This speech gives a good introduction to the Foundation’s philosophy, and the thinking behind their many initiatives. A great place to start to get a feel for the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s work! You can read the speech here.

Annie E. Casey and Making Connections - Ira Barbell kindly provided a set of PowerPoint slides outlining the background information about the Annie E. Casey Foundation. A PDF version is available for download here.

Making Connections: Core Results - The initiative’s six core results, which form the basis of its work and to which it holds itself accountable, are available here.

Making Connections: Reading Room – The Reading Room contains a wealth of information, including case studies of neighbourhood revitalization work done in various Making Connections sites, and a selection of guides from the Technical Assistance/Research Center (TARC) arm of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. You can find the reading room here.

KIDS COUNT Data Book Online - The site offers a wide variety of ways to access and view the data, as well as a Resource Guide for finding more information about programs referenced in the survey. The 2006 report provides detailed information on many indicators on a state-by-state basis. Access the report here.

Using Strategic Communication to Support Families - This guidebook, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, was intended for the Making Connections sites, but it is a wonderful resource for ANC sites and others involved in neighbourhood revitalization. The guide defines the principles and components of effective communication and shows how communicating can be a critical element of success. The guide presents an array of options for communicating and a framework for thinking strategically about choices. Access the guidebook here.

Points of Light - A Matter of Survival: Volunteering– Points of Light, with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, has produced a guide about volunteerism and neighbourhood revitalization, available here.

Points of Light - Neighbouring Action Kit – The Points of Light Foundation has an online Neighbouring Action Kit, with strategies and ideas for everyone from national organizations to local residents, which is available here.

Orienteering Over New Ground: A Neighbourhood Theory of Change - This Caledon Institute/Action for Neighbourhood Change paper discusses the action learning on the interrelationships and role of transformational change among neighbourhoods, bridge builders, and associated systems of support, through the experience of the ANC project. Access the paper here.

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Audio Download

Audio Description:
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Making an Impact: A Dialogue with Ira Barbell Part 1 (runs 01:11:35)
Making an Impact: A Dialogue with Ira Barbell Part 2 (runs 01:15:40)
NOTE: Depending on your internet connection speed, the audio file may take a few minutes to download.

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Action for Neighbourhood Change was in operation from 2005-2007. This site exists to capture and share the learnings that emerged from this initiative, but new material is no longer being added on a regular basis. ANC is not responsible for the content of external links, which may change; however, if you find a broken link, please let us know.