Engaging Communities in Developing Strategies

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This blog post is an adapted excerpt from our field guide on stakeholder engagement.

Strategies are stronger when they’re shaped by people who are closest to the issues and who will be most affected when strategies are implemented. Community engagement can range from gathering community members’ input to looking to communities to decide what the strategy should be and how it should be executed. (See more about a spectrum of community engagement to ownership here.)

The way you engage communities has the potential to heal old wounds and build collective power, but it also can deepen mistrust and harm communities. It’s important to approach community engagement with care and consideration.

Here are some considerations to reflect on before engaging communities. This approach draws on insights from the National Gender and Equity Campaign, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, Building Movement Project, King County Washington, Marnita’s Table, and our own experiences. See more resources at the bottom of this post.

  • Clarify purpose, outcomes, and process. What do you want to achieve through engaging this community? Do you want their perspectives to inform your strategy, or do you want community members to set the strategy? As you clarify your process for developing the strategy, think about how to center and shift power to those who are most impacted, and leave space to change course and be responsive to the community as needed. Recognize that many perspectives can exist within one community, and work to surface those perspectives. Dive deeper into this topic: “Four Questions to Sit With as You Learn to Let Communities Lead” (Community Wealth Partners)
  • Understand history with the community. How has your organization interacted with this community in the past? Where have you built strong relationships? Where has trust been broken? Understand what the history of your relationship looks like from the community’s perspective. To avoid duplication, identify information community members previously shared that could serve you now. Dive deeper into this topic: “Community Engagement Guide for Sustainable Communities” (PolicyLink)
  • Take an asset-based approach. Recognize that solutions exist within the community. Seek first to understand the community’s strengths and assets. Work with partners who are trusted in the community and who are knowledgeable about community resources. Dive deeper into this topic: “Build a Playground Toolkit: Community Involvement” (KaBOOM!)
  • Create space for relationship-building. Not every interaction with the community needs to be linked to your formal strategy development process. In fact, it can feel transactional to community members if you only engage with them when you have a specific need. Make space to build and strengthen relationships without an agenda. Dive deeper into this topic: “What Institutions Get Wrong About Community Engagement and How They Can Improve” (Marnita’s Table)
  • Reach those most impacted. Make sure those most impacted by the issues you seek to change can participate through offering an accessible location and time, translation services, childcare, transportation, and food and drink. Respect their participation by offering compensation if possible. Listen empathetically and strive to understand, not to reply or reframe. Dive deeper into this topic: “Why Am I Always Being Researched?” (Chicago Beyond)
  • Set clear expectations and create feedback loops. Share decision-making power with the community where possible, and in all cases, clearly define and transparently communicate community members’ role. (e.g., Are you asking for their input, or will they make the final decision?) Ask the community for feedback regularly throughout the process, be intentional about integrating that feedback, and loop back to tell the community how you used their feedback. Talk with the community about how you plan to stay in relationship with them throughout the strategy process and afterward. Dive deeper into this topic: “The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership” (Facilitating Power)

View the full field guide on stakeholder engagement.


Additional resources: 

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Podcast: Making Change through Coalitions

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Coalitions have to grapple with complex issues. They need strategies bold enough to inspire people to get involved but believable enough that people think it can happen. They need to address mistrust among members and with communities. They need to undo some structures they’ve built and find new ways of working.

In this two-part series, Community Wealth Partners’ president Sara Brenner talks with Vitalyst Health Foundation’s Spark podcast. about findings from research on what contributes to transformational change. In Part One, she shares the four stages of the social transformation lifecycle, as well as a story about a coalition. In Part Two, she walks through ten key elements that can help coalitions drive change that lasts.


“If we take step back and think about how we feel in the work, we realize we’re coming up against resistance all the time. Where are those points where we’re stuck, and why are we stuck? When people talk about being stuck, it’s usually because of the dynamics they have with other partners or people within their own organizations. ‘We’re unable to move on an issue because we haven’t worked through a difference in perspective or some kind of competition or a challenge or distrust or our own ambitions are at the forefront rather than the ambition of the cause.’ What we suggest coalitions or organizations do is spend some time building their culture intentionally.” —Sara Brenner


March Must-Reads

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This month, we came across a report that sparked conversations about funders’ unintended impact on movements. We also were drawn to articles about equitably engaging communities, a practical guide to building strong leadership development programs, and a report drawing a clear correlation between housing costs and health.

What caught your attention this month?

1. How “movement capture” shaped the fight for civil rights

SYSTEMS CHANGE | Vox | 7-minute read

When social movements get investments from foundations, that’s a good thing – right? A new paper by Megan Ming Francis at the University of Washington suggests there might be unintended consequences to funders’ good intentions. Francis uses the NAACP as an example: The organization initially focused on anti-black violence, but when the Garland Fund expressed interest in funding education, the organization shifted its priorities, ultimately leading to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case but delaying anti-lynching laws. To avoid “movement capture,” Francis argues, funders must “consciously prioritize the voices of people on the ground” and “be more willing to make grants that may not immediately produce an obvious, palatable win they can present to their board.” If you’re a more auditory learner, listen to this Tiny Spark podcast interview with Francis about the topic.

2. Empower, Change, Transform: A guide to building a successful leadership development program

LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS | Schusterman Family Foundation and Rockwood Leadership Institute | 33-minute read

There are many leadership development programs out there, but there’s little evaluation data about them. After the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Rockwood Leadership Institute independently worked with the research firm Learning For Action to evaluate their leadership development programs, they realized they could learn from each other’s data and experiences. In this guide, the organizations share stories and five evaluation findings that might help others managing similar programs:

  • Set the stage for vulnerability
  • Focus on emotional intelligence
  • Be intentional about relationship building
  • Design the right coaching experience
  • Encourage sector and cross-sector collaboration

3. Equitable Big Bets for Marginalized Communities

EQUITY | Stanford Social Innovation Review | 8-minute read

The idea of making “big bets,” or large investments, has been around for years, yet that funding tends to go to white-led organizations. To truly change systems, philanthropy must make big bets in organizations led by the communities most affected by injustice, argue the authors, David Bley of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Vu Le of Rainier Valley Corps and NonprofitAF.com. In this article, they share one example of how this can be done: the Gates Foundation’s investment in Rainier Valley Corps. They walk through how they partnered to understand risk, build trust, experiment, and practice transparency with each other. The case study ends with six recommendations to foundations ready to invest in equity:

  • Provide significant multiyear investment
  • Focus on relationships
  • Constantly communicate
  • Be flexible on timelines and milestones
  • Take risks, accept failure
  • Capture lessons learned

4. The healthiest communities in the U.S. are the ones where people can afford homes

HEALTH | Fast Company | 5-minute read

There is a clear correlation between the prevalence of housing cost burdens and negative health outcomes, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2019 County Health Rankings. The counties where the highest percentage of households struggle with housing costs also show higher rates of child poverty, food insecurity, and poor overall health among adults. In addition to emphasizing the importance of good and affordable housing, this article highlights some housing-focused initiatives that have resulted in better health outcomes for communities, including the Missouri-based alliance 24:1 and Kaiser Permanente’s investment in affordable housing.

5. Community Mapping — Building Power and Agency with Data

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT | Urban Institute | 5-minute read

Communities hold tremendous knowledge and expertise. How can you directly involve them in generating and processing data? One model is community mapping, in which community members collect spatial data on their neighborhood or city – data like vacant or blighted housing, sidewalk or roadway conditions, or flood damage. The DC Preservation Network, a project co-sponsored by the Coalition of Non-Profit Housing and Economic Development and the Urban Institute, shares how they pair on-the-ground expertise with other types of data to learn things they wouldn’t otherwise and position communities to tell their own stories.