As someone from a small hometown in rural Indiana with a population of about 5,000, I immensely enjoy working in Sarasota, Florida, with The Patterson Foundation. The main reason why is how philanthropy is woven throughout Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties. People know it, they trust it, and engage with it. There is a can-do spirit on the foundation side, and at TPF, we pride ourselves on never arriving with the answer. Rather, we ask questions to listen to the community’s needs and aspirations. With the community informing philanthropy and taking steps to work together, change here is possible and happens in various ways.

In my hometown, this is not the case, and I was left wondering if this level of trust and philanthropy necessary to create meaningful, catalytic change can exist in such a small town. When Rich Harwood, founder and president of The Harwood Institute, arrived in Sarasota for three events with TPF, I got my answer.

While philanthropy and community change are very different here, DeSoto County is quite similar to my hometown. It is almost three times larger but still has the same fundamental problems. DeSoto County is rural, a farming community, much like the one I knew growing up, and will often rank at the bottom of any list. Through The Patterson Foundation’s Aspirations to Actions initiative, I attended various community conversations in DeSoto County. During these community conversations, we dived deep into people’s perspectives on the challenges plaguing DeSoto and the aspirations people have for them. We kept in touch with them and invited them to Rich Harwood’s DeSoto County keynote.

To our delight, 85 people showed up. At first, they were cautious. It made perfect sense why they were skeptical. Others have come into town before saying, “we can help,” and then left without fixing anything and with no one to run the project. But Rich’s message was different. He told this community that they already have the tools they need to effect the change they want to see. They don’t need someone to come in and take charge to solve problems. They can do it themselves. People have more in common than they do differences, and no matter what political party anyone belongs to, they can have shared aspirations such as quality education for every child. If they can recognize those shared aspirations within each other and focus on not solving problems but instead looking for ways to catalyze a chain reaction that grows over time, change can happen.

Through Rich’s examples and the message of working together, starting on small things and going bigger, focusing on the resources you have, and how to optimize efforts from them, the attendees began to soften, and a feeling of hope spread throughout the audience. When Rich was done speaking, almost all the attendees stayed after to get their books signed and speak with him.

After hurricane Ian, kids were out of school for weeks, and with the shape of the political climate today, there was a hunger for connection and hope. This sparked a small fire in DeSoto County.

My hope is that The Patterson Foundation will continue to serve as a connector and help community members convene and build their connective tissue – as DeSotoians drive the changes they wish to see in their community.

So, can this level of trust and philanthropy exist in such a small town? I think the key lies in Rich’s message; a community, big or small, has to believe in itself and build trust over shared aspirations and commonalities to create meaningful actions that ignite change.

DeSoto County has been on a mission to prove you can catalyze a chain reaction that grows over time, and this adds fuel to their fire.

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