How to Influence People and Make Change Happen

by | Jan 4, 2017

What does it mean to be a thought leader? When have communication and engagement driven real, lasting change? How does one measure influence?

These are a few questions I’m grappling with as we begin 2017, the second year of our Fund’s three-year strategic phase, during which we’ve set out to promote shared understanding and adoption of Growth & Opportunity—our approach to opportunity-rich economic growth. As I reflect on our Fund’s communications activities of 2016 and plan for the year ahead, I’m struck by how elusive and intangible civic influence is, yet how powerful it can be.

Our ultimate goal at the Fund is to advance both economic growth and increased access to opportunity—which we believe to be a surefire combination for sustainable growth—through job creation, job preparation and job access strategies. While we support these strategies with grant dollars, a large part of our work centers on making Growth & Opportunity a major civic theme around which many organizations pursue action through communications, research, engagement, and being a forum for learning.

Our thought is that change will seldom come from a single (or even more than one) initiative—the $190 billion economy is simply too large for this to be the case. Instead, we believe that if a critical mass of institutions and individuals have a shared perspective on the situation and a common sense of where the community is heading, then they will figure out what is their role—and this will lead to change.

If that is so, the goal is to try to help the community come together around some common priorities with a sense of direction. This is done by sharing information, providing examples and demonstrations, and communicating what others are doing. That, to me, is what it means to be a thought leader.

An example of where this has been a successful strategy is in entrepreneurship in Northeast Ohio. Many at the Fund recall how the best advice you could give an entrepreneur 15 years ago was, “Leave town.” Northeast Ohio was ranked at the bottom of many lists. But collectively, there was attention placed on the issue. Research institutions built their commercialization functions; new venture funds formed; the state supported entrepreneurship with operating dollars and capital; JumpStart was formed; incubators around the region upped their game and formed a vibrant network; philanthropists provided support; and most of all, entrepreneurs saw the potential and came forward with business ideas. All of this happened in part due to an increased awareness and understanding of the need and the potential of our region. Our Fund played a role in that, as did many others. We’ve seen that influence result in jobs, payroll and capital.

Now, we believe our Fund—led by nearly 40 philanthropic organizations across Northeast Ohio—has the ability to be a value-added champion for Growth & Opportunity. Why a Growth & Opportunity approach is necessary today has been documented extensively by our Fund, in research, blog posts, presentations, and more. Collectively, our members and staff have been using their know-how to communicate its importance and engage with key civic leaders to drive meaningful change.

But how do we know whether we’re doing a good job? How do we measure and build on our influence to drive both Growth & Opportunity? What more could we be doing? I welcome your thoughts. Email me at