How to Engage Authentically with Communities

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Advice for Nonprofit Organizations and Foundations Engaging with Communities

Earlier this month we released our field guide Sharing Power with Communities, a tool for nonprofits and foundations experiencing challenges or looking for new ways to authentically engage communities in furthering their mission. The guide includes principles, models, strategies, common pitfalls, and resources.

One of the models featured in the field guide highlights a community led research process with Child Care Aware of America, a national nonprofit focused on quality and affordable child care. The organization partnered with Community Wealth Partners to facilitate a Parent Listening Team of parent leaders representing a diverse spectrum of families across the nation while prioritizing the voices of those that had faced the greatest personal barriers to accessing affordable, quality child care in their communities.

In this interview, Walter Howell, Associate Director at Community Wealth Partners sat down with one of the parent and community leaders, Fay Pierce to discuss what it felt like to participate in the process and her 3 critical steps nonprofits and foundations should consider when working with communities.

Full Interview featuring Fay Pierce, Parent and Community Leader Interviewed by Walter Howell, Associate Director at Community Wealth Partners

Here is the full interview featuring Community Leader, Fay Pierce and Associate Director at Community Wealth Partners, Walter Howell.

Sharing Power with Communities: A Field Guide Conversation

Normalizing Rest on the Road to Recovery in the Social Sector

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The power and impact of workplace sabbaticals have become increasingly relevant following the Great Resignation and burn out of employees across sectors. Reported benefits of sabbaticals include improved wellbeing, increased focus and engagement, and reduced turnover. Despite these reports, sabbaticals remain a privilege offered by some 16% of employers.. A report by Givebutter finds that “1 in every 10 employees working for a nonprofit, a large portion of our nation’s workforce, are feeling overworked, under-resourced, and disengaged. Leaders (60%) report feeling “used up” at the end of the workday.”  

“Grind culture”, or the celebration of working long hours and being constantly connected to work, is a trait of white supremacy culture. Systemic inequities in funding Black, Indigenous, people of color led organizations result in leaders of color having to stretch themselves thin with limited resources to invest in rest and well-being for themselves and their teams. Organizations such as the BIPOC-ED Coalition and advocates like Tricia Hersey, Founder of  The Nap Ministry are lifting up the dangers of glorifying work without rest. These and other leaders are encouraging the social sector to create space for rest and restoration through sabbaticals at all levels. As the sector continues to raise awareness around the need for rest, foundations are funding sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders while centering leaders of color specifically. 

Community Wealth Partners has a sabbatical policy in place for staff who have worked at the firm for 10 years. We took time to reflect on rest through sabbatical at Community Wealth Partners in an intimate conversation with our CEO, Amy Celep, Associate Director, Rachel Hutt, and Senior Director, Amy Farley. The following audio clips were recorded with intention to reflect on their sabbatical experiences, challenge our thinking as a firm, and share what we are wrestling with in an effort to normalize conversations around rest in the sector.  

It is important to note that to date only 4 people have been beneficiaries of sabbaticals at our firm so far, all of which are white women. As we continue the discussion around rest, we are examining our own policies to determine what changes we might need to make to ensure our team members experience time away from work for rest and recovery.  

Below are some questions we are holding as it relates to the future of rest through sabbatical. We encourage you to reflect on these questions and continue the dialogue with your colleagues, friends, and family. 

How would our work be impacted if we normalized rest as fuel on the road to changemaking in the sector? 

What practices could we examine within our organization to normalize rest? 

What do our colleagues of color need to feel supported in taking time to rest? 

Parking Lot Conversations at Community Wealth Partners | Rest Through Sabbaticals

Amy Celep, CEO, Rachel Hutt, Associate Director, and Amy Farley, Senior Director share their reflections on sabbatical and the importance of rest on the road to equity.

What is the history and thought behind the sabbatical program at Community Wealth Partners?

Amy Celep, CEO

What did you do during your sabbatical? 

Amy Farley, Senior Director

What were your big “Ah-ha” moments during sabbatical?

Amy Farley, Senior Director

Rachel Hutt, Associate Director

Looking back, what did sabbatical give you?

Amy Farley, Senior Director

What are your observations of team members when they return from sabbatical?

Amy Celep, CEO

What role did your colleagues play during your sabbatical?

Amy Celep, CEO

Rachel Hutt, Associate Director

What are your observations around sabbaticals in the field?

Rachel Hutt, Associate Director

Amy Celep, CEO

Amy Farley, Senior Director

Historically, white women have been the beneficiaries of sabbaticals at CWP. What are your thoughts around that and what changes might you consider moving forward?

Amy Celep, CEO

Sharing Power With Community Members: Perspectives from Rochester-Area Funders, Nonprofits, and Parents

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Engaging people with lived experiences can strengthen nonprofits’ and foundations’ work and build community power, but it also can cause harm and deepen mistrust if not done well. As foundations and nonprofits strive to center community members and look to them as experts, many struggle to engage with them in meaningful ways.

In Rochester, New York, there is a growing movement to center parents’ knowledge and perspective in programs and services that support the health and well-being of children. For more than two decades, the National Parent Leadership Institute (NPLI) has worked with parents across the country to help them build skills and knowledge to advocate for their children and families and have a voice at decision-making tables.

When the Greater Rochester Health Foundation wanted to engage parents in updating its Healthy Futures grantmaking strategy, the foundation partnered with NPLI to bring parents into the work. At the same time, the foundation worked with NPLI to help a small group of nonprofit grantees learn how they could center parent voice in their organizations. Since those initial steps, the foundation has worked to center community voice in all areas of its work, and supported a growing number of grantees in doing the same.

The following videos share the perspectives of staff members of Greater Rochester Health Foundation, NPLI, and University of Rochester Medical Center (a grantee) as well as Rochester-area parents who have received training from NPLI and work in partnership with the foundation and University of Rochester. In these clips you will hear why sharing power with community matters, the difference it makes to programs and strategies, and advice for funders, nonprofit leaders, and community members.

What Does Parent Leadership Look Like in Action?

Carolyn Lee-Davis of NPLI and parent leader facilitators Toyin Anderson and Maria Dalmau describe NPLI’s approach and how it contributes to stronger organizations, stronger communities, and better solutions.

What is NPLI and a parent leader facilitator?

Why is empowering parents important?

What should organizations who want to engage parents consider?

What steps can parents take to become advocates for their children and communities?

How Can Nonprofits Authentically Partner with Parents? What Difference Does It Make?

Linda Alpert-Gillis, ph.D., of University of Rochester Medical Center and parents Toyin Anderson, Maria Dalmau, and Jason McDonald discuss how they have worked together to help the Pediatric Behavioral Health & Wellness department better meet the needs of patients and their families.

Why is it important for organizations to engage parents?

What qualities are important to be a parent advocate?

What are the barriers to authentic engagement?

How does authentic engagement impact nonprofit leaders and organizations?

How does authentic engagement impact parents and families?

How Can Funders Authentically Partner with Parents? What Difference Does It Make?

Parent leader Toyin Anderson and Greater Rochester Health Foundation staff Danette Campbell-Bell, Anita Black, and Matthew Kuhlenbeck reflect on lessons they’ve learned through partnering together and advice they’d offer funders interested in engaging community in similar ways.

What have you learned through the experience of creating a closer partnership between parents and the foundation?

How did you rethink processes and roles?

What impact have you seen result from authentically engaging parents?

What advice would you offer funders looking to engage community more authentically?

Engaging Stakeholders in Developing Strategies

engaging stakeholders
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To address complex challenges, we need strong strategies, and strategies are stronger when we engage a diverse set of people (or stakeholders) in shaping solutions. When engaging stakeholders is done well, it can lead to new ideas, stronger and more viable strategies, shared ownership of the vision, greater insight into stakeholder needs, and stronger relationships with stakeholders. But when done poorly and viewed as a checkbox exercise, it can damage trust with stakeholders, fail to add value, and harm the communities you seek to help.

We just released our new field guide on engaging stakeholders in developing strategies, where we share thoughts and questions to reflect on at the beginning of a strategy development process. Our goal is to help you start the process with a clear understanding of which stakeholders you want to engage, why their input matters, and how you will engage them. Though we focus on the strategy process, the information in this field guide might also support stakeholder engagement in other contexts, and we encourage stakeholder engagement as a regular practice outside of the strategy process.

We’re also hosting a conversation this Wednesday, June 24th, at 2pm Eastern. Representatives from Miriam’s Kitchen and the Greater Rochester Health Foundation will join us to talk about what it looks like to engage stakeholders in meaningful ways  and ways to engage stakeholders right now when people are facing so many pressures. Register here.

Register for the Virtual Share & Learn

View the Field Guide

Five Steps to Reimagine Your Organization’s Future Through Scenario Planning

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While the COVID-19 crisis has brought tremendous challenges, it is also bringing out the best in many nonprofit leaders as they work to sustain their missions and create more equitable communities. Many leaders are pivoting their organizations’ services; tending to the professional, emotional, and safety needs of staff and volunteers; forging new partnerships; and testing creative ideas to address inequities.

This type of proactivity is no small feat amid significant disruptions to services, operations, and funding that can leave leaders feeling uncertain about what to prioritize and how to adapt. It can be easy to deprioritize planning completely or default to contingency planning and risk management. In times of crisis, many leaders understandably take a singular focus on preserving the organization’s operations and planning for contingencies. Of course financial health is crucial for continuing services, and our research and experience show organizations also need to take a broader view. Before doubling down on financial health and organizational preservation, nonprofits should focus on the impact they want to have and imagine possible new futures. One way leaders can do this is through scenario planning.

Scenario planning can help your organization manage uncertainty, envision new opportunities, and spot unexpected threats. It helps you focus on the things you can control – even amid great change and uncertainty – so that you are better positioned to achieve your desired impact. It improves your organization’s sustainability by helping you financially prepare for the worst and take data-informed actions sooner than you otherwise might have.

Scenario planning can happen in five steps:

Adapted from Diana Scearce, Katherine Fulton, and the Global Business Network community’s “What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits.”

1. Define key questions.

What questions do you hope this plan will answer? Are you looking to determine how best to hold steady during turbulent times, or do you want to reimagine your programs and services for a new future?

What is your time horizon for planning? Organizations facing great upheaval and uncertainty may decide to look out only six to 12 months while other organizations may be able to take a longer view. Either approach is fine.

Even if your primary focus is on stabilizing the organization and looking at the near term, scenario planning presents an opportunity to think about steps you can take now that will position you for long-term impact.

2. Explore drivers.

The trajectory of the virus will have many ripple effects, such as closures of schools and other places due to social distancing and economic impacts that affect state budgets, employment, and donor/funder behavior. In most communities, the COVID-19 crisis is widening the racial inequities many nonprofits are working to address. Focus on the two to three driving forces that most affect your organization’s future and are the most uncertain.

3. Build scenarios.

Once you have prioritized the drivers that matter most to your organization, develop a set of plausible and thought-provoking scenarios that represent a range of future outcomes. Here is an example of what scenarios might look like for a nonprofit that identified school closures and state budgets as key drivers.

4. Develop plans based on assets and opportunities.

Envision what each scenario would mean for your organization and what you would do in response. Play out how each scenario might impact the community you serve, your programs, funding, staff, and operations. Pay attention to how each scenario and your response might widen or decrease inequities. For example, data show that communities of color are disproportionately feeling the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. What is your organization doing to address disparities, and how can you ensure your response does not inadvertently contribute to existing inequities?

As you develop your plans, consider where you might have the greatest opportunity for impact. If you are getting stuck trying to imagine a different way of creating impact, take a step back and consider your organization’s core purpose. What are the three things you must hold on to? Maybe those things are your values, the population you serve, or the way you show up in the community. What three things might you change or let go of to stay focused on what matters most? Maybe you are open to changing your funding model, ending a longstanding program, or having staff build new skills. This helps you identify where the greatest opportunities lie in each scenario, what tradeoffs you may need to consider, and the steps you need to take to prepare for the future.

5. Monitor indicators.

To be able to act on your plans, you will need to have a sense of which scenario is playing out. Identify two or three metrics that indicate the organization is transitioning into each scenario, so you can make timely choices about how to respond. Many organizations set financial indicators, such as progress against fundraising goals, to guide operational decisions. Consider what outcome indicators might guide programmatic decisions as well. For example, if you see a widening of racial disparities in your community as the virus spreads, you may decide to double down on your efforts to address those disparities, and that may require you to let go of other activities that don’t support efforts to decrease disparities.

Imagining a New Future

During disruption and uncertainty, scenario planning helps organizations focus on the things they can control. It can clarify what’s most important to your organization and what to pay attention to. Imagining what you would do in your most severe scenario will push you to think creatively and identify actions you could take to help ensure long-term sustainability and improved community outcomes.

While scenario planning can help stabilize organizations during times of crisis, it can also help you imagine a new future. As you embark on scenario planning with your organization, bring an asset-based mindset to consider not just future risks but also the strengths within your organization and community. Build on these assets to find the new opportunities and possibilities for the future, even in times of uncertainty.

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

Three Things Nonprofits Should Prioritize in the Wake of COVID-19

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Nonprofit sustainability, or the ability to continue delivering relevant social impact over the long term, has always been important to nonprofit leaders. But as the spread of COVID-19 causes upheaval in just about every aspect of society and highlights the deep social inequities many nonprofits are working to address, sustainability is becoming even more of a top priority. Over the past few weeks, we’ve spoken with many nonprofit leaders who are worrying about how they will continue to sustain the important programs and services their organizations deliver. Indeed, a recent survey from LaPiana Consulting found that 93 percent of nonprofit respondents have already had to adapt or curtail services.

Naturally, financial health is crucial to ensuring that organizations can continue their work in the months and years ahead. However, our research looking at more than 50 nonprofits after the 2008 economic downturn and the years that followed (one example here), as well as our direct experience working with hundreds of nonprofits, shows the need to take a broader view. Before doubling down on financial health and organizational preservation, nonprofits should first reflect on their social purpose. …


Click here to read the full post in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.


Stories of Earned Revenue

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Funding is top of mind right now. As nonprofits consider their long-term financial sustainability, some organizations are weighing the pros and cons of pursuing an earned-revenue strategy.

For organizations in need of immediate cash, now might not be the time to explore earned revenue. But organizations that are looking to the long term and have flexibility to do early planning and research now can lay the groundwork for an earned-revenue strategy in the future. In the right circumstances, an earned-revenue strategy can help some organizations advance their mission, resource their efforts, access unrestricted funds, and find greater stability.

We hosted a conversation about earned revenue where the nonprofit Per Scholas talked about their experience and help nonprofits answer the questions: 1) Is an earned-revenue strategy the right approach for my organization right now? And 2) What might the process look like to develop and test an earned-revenue strategy?

Watch that conversation below or at this link

We also published a field guide on this topic with frameworks and guiding questions. Stories can bring ideas and frameworks to life, so we wanted to tell a few organizations’ stories of what developing an earned-revenue strategy looked like in practice. In the field guide, we wrote four case studies about nonprofits’ experiences creating and implementing earned-revenue strategies: Center for Children’s Law and Policy, Communities In Schools, Food & Friends, and Per Scholas.

Read the field guide and case studies

If you have questions about earned revenue or would like some free thought partnership from our team, please reach out to Lori Bartczak at


Finding Greater Financial Stability and Impact Through Earned Revenue

greater financial stability
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Greater financial stability is on a lot of minds right now – even more than usual, as the world shifts in response to COVID-19 and as economists predict a recession as early as this year. Yet many nonprofits may not be ready for a recession. According to a November 2019 Center for Effective Philanthropy survey, nearly two-thirds of nonprofit CEO respondents said a recession would increase need or demand for their programs and services. Yet only one-third of respondents said their organization had a plan for how it would handle a recession.

Earned revenue is one strategy that can give organizations more financial stability and help strengthen an organization’s impact. Of course, it’s not for every organization, and it’s not a quick fix. It can take years to implement. Though nonprofits must focus on immediate needs now, there’s also an opportunity to think differently about how to sustain the work long-term.

We developed a field guide for nonprofits considering earned-revenue opportunities and funders looking to support grantees in doing so. The field guide includes a set of four case studies about how nonprofits have developed and implemented earned-revenue strategies. We hope this field guide will help you:

  • Ask the right questions to understand if an earned-revenue strategy is the right approach for your organization right now,
  • Get a glimpse into the process of developing an earned-revenue strategy that helps your organization achieve greater impact, and
  • Learn from other nonprofits that have gone through this process in different contexts.

Download Earned Revenue Strategies: A Field Guide