Building and Sustaining Momentum: A National Learning Network

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Lilly Weinberg

In 2014, The Chicago Community Trust launched On the Table, a civic engagement initiative designed to bring residents together over small mealtime conversations held throughout a community on a single day, as a means to generate new ideas to strengthen neighborhoods and create positive change.

Knight Foundation funded 10 community foundations to replicate the high-impact initiative in 2017; in 2018 we renewed our support for two additional years. Knight Foundation seeks to promoted more informed communities, which are essential to building strong democracies. We believe that successful communities are equitable, inclusive and participatory. On the Table represents these values by opening avenues for people to connect and shape their the places where they live, work and play.

Our investment in On the Table over the past three years confirmed that when we come together — to listen to and learn from each other — we have the power to create meaningful, sustainable change. More than 30 other communities across the nation have made this unique forum their own, in addition to the community foundations that have implemented On the Table with Knight support in 2017 and 2018.

In total, more than 250,000 residents in small towns and big cities across the country have participated in On the Table conversations, over the past five years, with each community adapting the model based on their local needs. Some have chosen to focus their discussions on a single current issue of interest, while others have used their conversations as a forum for public input to inform the development of strategic plans at the organizational or municipal level. A recent report on the program showed that On the Table has reignited interest in civil dialogue and collaborative problem-solving.

Insights gathered through this initiative have given community foundation and civic leaders a better understanding of residents’ interests and aspirations, informing decisions about future investments, sparking new partnerships and inspiring creative programs.

To build and sustain this momentum and to support the continued expansion of On the Table, Knight Foundation and the Trust recently partnered to create the On the Table National Learning Network – a virtual learning community for foundations, civic institutions and nonprofits who have replicated or have shown interest in replicating the On the Table model. The National Learning Network website, which launched in January, provides a wide range of free resources including a toolkit with six easy steps to implement the civic engagement initiative, as well as a national calendar of On the Table events across the country and a map to see where the initiative has been replicated.

Personally, I love the Network’s Member Forum. It’s a great place for community leaders interested in encouraging dialogue and communication to connect and collaborate. The Forum provides an opportunity to share best practices and learn from the experiences of others. It also expands access to resources including template materials that can be quickly and easily customized to meet the needs of each community. All of the template and inspiration resources are categorized so they’re easy to find – “how to,” “outreach” and ”impact.”

Just as On the Table has connected citizens in communities across the nation, it is our hope that The National Learning Network will allow nonprofit, civic, and foundation leaders throughout the U.S. to connect with one another to share ideas and strengthen everyone’s ability to support meaningful, sustainable change.  

Lilly Weinberg is the program director for community and national initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, managing Knight’s $140 million investment in 18 small-to-midsize communities across the U.S.

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