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Four Lessons Learned in Building Trusting Relationships with Community

Four Lessons Learned in Building Trusting Relationships with Community  Many nonprofits and foundations are recognizing the importance of centering the voices of those closest to the issues as a key factor in designing programs and strategies that are likely to succeed. Being able to authentically engage these voices requires a level of trust between the …

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Four Lessons Learned in Building Trusting Relationships with Community 

Many nonprofits and foundations are recognizing the importance of centering the voices of those closest to the issues as a key factor in designing programs and strategies that are likely to succeed. Being able to authentically engage these voices requires a level of trust between the organization and the community it serves, and some organizations have found they have work to do to build or regain trust with the community.  

We recently spoke with a group of leaders from nonprofits and foundations who shared their lessons learned in building trusting relationships with community for authentic engagement. Here are four lessons that emerged from the conversation.  

Be honest and reflective about your organization’s past, repair harm where necessary. Community members may be leery about requests for input or co-creation because they’ve seen similar requests in the past that didn’t lead to meaningful change. It is important to understand and acknowledge ways your organization has broken trust in the past and take steps to proactively rebuild trust in ways that center what the community wants. This will take time and will likely require a different way of engaging. 

Some organizations have found the need to start with some internal work to be able to engage with humility and authenticity for community. Deputizing one or a few people from an organization to engage with community is not enough. Authentic engagement will require buy-in from leadership, a culture that values and supports this type of engagement, and structures and processes that allow the organization to respond to what you are hearing from community. 

Be clear and honest about where input is wanted, how it will be used, and what other factors must be considered. A common tension that, if not managed well, can end up damaging trust is the tension between wanting to be open to community input and also having to work within some real parameters about what is possible. Sometimes organizations don’t communicate those parameters upfront, and this can cause community members to feel their input wasn’t valued or heard. Clarify and decisions that have been made and are not up for discussion so community members can offer ideas that can work within those parameters. (For example, the budget you have to work with, the goal the effort must support, the population(s) you are prioritizing, etc.) Be clear and specific about how decisions will be made.   

Lean on partners when you can. You may not yet have relationships with members of the community your organization serves, but you may have grantees or partners that do. Consider ways you can leverage their relationships, knowledge, and skills. These partners may be able to convene community members, help with or lead facilitation, or offer insights they’ve already gathered from the community to inform your work. These partners could also serve as “critical friends”, offering feedback on ways your organization might engage with authenticity and humility to build trusting relationships with community members in the future.  

Be intentional about follow up. We’ve likely all had experiences where we’ve been asked for input and then wondered what ever happened with that input. This is another common practice that can damage trust. Make a plan for how and when you will circle back to the community once you’ve engaged them. Some leaders we spoke with also recognized the need to make a plan for how the organization will maintain relationships after an initiative is over. For example, if you’ve built relationships with a group of individuals through a strategic planning process, what can you do keep those individuals connected and engaged after the process concludes?  

Read more insights and examples about building relationships with community for authentic engagement in our field guide, Sharing Power with Communities 

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