“Engaging the community is so time consuming!”
“We already know what we’re doing. We don’t need any more input. It’s not as if it’s going to change anything.”
“We tried engaging our community. No one showed up.”
“Besides, we’re only doing this because the funder told us to…
When I talk about community engagement, these are often the responses I hear.
My experience, on the other hand, has always been just the opposite of that. Instead of wasting time and resources, I’ve found community engagement to be the antidote to everything that frustrates most of us doing community benefit work!
As I’ve listened to the laments of my colleagues, here’s what I’ve found: The reason community engagement efforts feel like a waste of time all stems from how we’ve been taught to do it.
The Education Partnership
I’ve been working with a group that is the primary funder for a public/private education partnership in a rural school district. This initiative has made positive, life-changing impacts on the lives of many children. However, this has come with a hefty price tag, and the funder reached out to me to help manage and grow their grant program.
“While we’re waiting for the grant,” I suggested, “let’s see what would happen if we reached out and engaged the community. “
The organization told me that they already do that – that these “engagement” activities had raised significant dollars to launch the initiative, but it wasn’t working for providing ongoing support.
Here is what they were doing:
Each month, they hosted an inspirational tour for potential donors and funders. After brief introductions, the tour kicked off, showcasing their programs in action.
This is how many organizations are taught to engage. Host a tour, show off their programs, and then ask for money – holding the purse strings in one hand and the megaphone in the other.
“What might happen,” I asked the organization’s CEO, “if we shifted our efforts away from the megaphone? What if the organization’s role became that of convener and connector – true engagement? What if, instead of focusing on just our program, we begin building on the collective strengths of the whole community?”
This summer, instead of inviting donors and funders to take tours, we are inviting community members to join community conversations. The invitation asks, “Will you join us to share your passion for our community, help us aim for what is possible together, and build on our collective strengths to create a healthy, thriving and resilient community for everyone?”
So far, we’ve held four meetings with leaders from the school district, other organizations, government agencies, the police department, the mayor’s office, and the local library, college and hospital. And our list of participants just keeps growing.
There’s no secret sauce or fairy dust, just questions that help people share their gifts, experience, and passions, helping them find ways to connect with others.
- What excites you the most about the community?
- What would our community look and feel like if we had an abundance of resources?
- What is the one thing you would love to share with our community but no one has asked you yet?
During the conversations, I hear comments like: “I never knew that,” and “Let me connect you with…” As we get to know each other, we are strengthening our connective tissue, trust and willingness to work together. Spending time focused on why we were doing our work serves as a guide to figuring out what we can do together, and how.
While we’ve just started on the education program’s journey, we’ve already identified existing programs, services and resources that will be better coordinated and plugged in to the school district at the start of the school year. As part of our discovery process, our meetings are never held in the same place. This has uncovered convenient spaces for community members to meet and access resources, and it has identified assets that have untapped capacity.
The process has barely begun, and already we are gaining allies and friends, to accomplishing more of our mission and for finding new resources.
I’ve begun using this same approach whether I’m visiting with donors, sharing a community update, or having coffee with a colleague. It’s not a scripted agenda. It is an inspirational launch pad to paint a picture of the world we want together.
A few weeks ago, I reached out to my town’s city manager – someone I had never met – using those same questions. He immediately emailed me back:
“…This is about the coolest e-mail I’ve received in a while. You ask questions, the answers to which are probably behind my interest in this work and my day-to-day efforts, but I’ve never thought specifically about them. I look forward to this type of conversation, especially in how I might learn a bit about myself in the process.”
His reply demonstrates what is possible when we simply change the questions we ask and begin truly engaging.
Will you consider starting a conversation with one of the questions I shared? And will you let us know how your engagement efforts change when you put down the megaphone and start having real conversations?
Rebecca Hurd is a change catalyst working with community benefit organizations, and a fellow at Creating the Future.
Megaphone photo via wikimedia commons: Peter Milne, Motion Picture Directing; The Facts and Theories of the Newest Art, Falk Publishing Co., New York, 1922, on the Internet Archive
Photo of couple in conversation via National Cancer Institute per Wikimedia Commons