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Do No Harm: Three Tips for Engaging Communities in Your Strategies

Those closest to the issues are closest to the solutions. Our CEO Amy Celep shares how the nonprofit NAMI and the foundation Greater Rochester Health Foundation are engaging communities in shaping strategies that impact them. Read snapshots of their stories and Amy's three tips for engaging communities in your strategies.

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From recent examples such as the success of mutual aid societies in communities in response to COVID and local efforts for police reform, we have seen it time and again—those who are closest to the issues are closest to the solutions. Increasingly, nonprofits and foundations are recognizing how critical it is to engage communities in shaping strategies that impact them.

The way you engage communities has the potential to heal old wounds and build collective power, but it can also deepen mistrust and cause harm. It’s important to approach community engagement with care and consideration. If you want to engage your community to help shape your strategy, here are three tips to remember.

1. Center those who are closest to the issues.

The people closest to the issues are often community members or those who have not had power or resources to shape solutions. Centering them means prioritizing their perspective over others, such as donors, staff, or board members.

When the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) created its 2020-2025 Strategic Plan, staff started by engaging thousands of stakeholders—including members of NAMI’s more than 600 state organizations and affiliates as well as individuals and families affected by mental illness. This listening process highlighted key areas that are most challenging for people affected by mental illness and informed the development of goals where NAMI has the potential for greatest impact. These goals are 1) People get help early. 2) People get the best possible care. 3) People get diverted from justice system involvement.

The listening process also affirmed the importance of sharing and leveraging the lived experience of individuals and families affected by mental illness. According to the strategic plan, “Everything we do is ‘peer informed,’ which means that we always engage people with lived experience when we develop content, programs, and campaigns.”

2. Don’t approach stakeholder engagement as a checkbox exercise.

To engage stakeholders in ways that are relational rather than transactional, consider the following:

  • Clarify your purpose, outcome, and process for engaging community. Authentically engaging community in a way that does not cause harm will require willingness to sit with complexity and ambiguity—recognizing that you will likely hear many different perspectives in one community—and flexibility to adapt your plans and approach based on what you learn.
  • Understand the history with the community. Take the time to educate yourself about a community, its history, and injustices it has faced. Understand when and how community members have already been asked for input or feedback and what the outcome of that engagement was. If there have been missteps in the past that have damaged trust—either by your organization or others—acknowledge them and work to build trust.
  • Take an asset-based approach. Seek to first understand the community’s strengths and assets so you can find opportunities to leverage them.
  • Create space for relationship-building and feedback. Be intentional about building relationships and staying in relationship with community after the engagement. Create open channels for communication to share feedback and transparency about how decisions are made.

3. Make stakeholder engagement an ongoing, regular practice.

As you continue to engage community members, consider how you can continually adapt your practices to shift greater power and resources to community members.

In 2019, the Greater Rochester Health Foundation (GRHF) wanted to engage community members in developing a strategy for the foundation’s largest program, Healthy Futures, which works to improve the health and well-being of children ages 0-8 in the region. The foundation sought our assistance in developing a strategy for the program and engaging community members in shaping that strategy. The foundation worked to ensure the people engaged in shaping the strategy represented the racial diversity of the community and worked with partners to connect with local parents, community leaders, and young people. As a result of listening to the community, the foundation developed and is implementing a revised strategy that focuses on three levers of change:

  • Sharing power so that the voices and leadership of families are at the center of strategies and decision making
  • Creating equitable access and expanding the ecosystem of social emotional supports and safe play spaces for Black and Latino children
  • Advancing racial diversity and equity in systems so that leaders, providers, and services are more representative and inclusive of Black and Latino children’s identities, cultures, and communities

The strategy also embodies a new way of considering the foundation’s role as a partner to the community. “We learned it is not enough to have voices at the table, we must also ensure that the table is set in such a manner that encourages, elevates and promotes shared power and influence,” the foundation says on its website. “This can be realized by valuing the lived and learned experience of the providers, partners, community, families and youth by allowing listening to be our position so that lifting, leveraging and linking can be our action.” Today, a parent advisory board is in place to help shape and implement the strategy.

Clarity and transparency on who you want to engage, why their voice is important, and how you will engage them will help you create a process for community engagement that centers respect for and accountability to the community you seek to serve. Think of community engagement as an ongoing relationship—not a one-time touchpoint—and be open to adapting your plans and approaches based on what you learn.


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Cover photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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