Giving Compass' Take:

• Stanford Social Innovation Review examines the importance of designing and implementing programs in ways that engage community members directly, rather than adopting a top-down approach.

• The example given here is school reform in Newark and its failure, despite good intentions. But the lessons apply across many different sectors: Funders must be active listeners.

• Here's how the power of feedback shaped one community organization.

In October 2010, three men — Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey; Cory Booker, who was then mayor of Newark, N.J.; and Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook — appeared together on The Oprah Winfrey Show to announce an ambitious reform plan for Newark Public Schools. On the show, Zuckerberg pledged a $100 million matching grant to support the goal of making Newark a model for how to turn around a failing school system. This announcement was the first time that most Newark residents heard about the initiative. And that wasn’t an accident.

Christie and Booker had adopted a top-down approach because they thought that the messy work of forging a consensus among local stakeholders might undermine the reform effort. They created an ambitious timeline, installed a board of philanthropists from outside Newark to oversee the initiative, and hired a leader from outside Newark to serve as the city’s superintendent of schools.

The story of school reform in Newark has become a widely cited object lesson in how not to undertake a social change project. Even in the highly charged realm of education reform, the Newark initiative stands out for the high level of tension that it created.

In rolling out programs that draw on such research, however, leaders must not neglect other vitally important aspects of social change. As the recent efforts in Newark demonstrate, data-driven solutions will be feasible and sustainable only if leaders create and implement those solutions with the active participation of people in the communities that they target.

As policymakers, elected officials, philanthropists, and nonprofit leaders shift resources to data-driven programs, they must ensure that community engagement becomes a critical element in that shift. Without such engagement, even the best programs — even programs backed by the most robust data — will not yield positive results, let alone lasting change.

Read the full article about the importance of community engagement by Melody Barnes and Paul Schmitz at Stanford Social Innovation Review.