Diverse stakeholder involvement is necessary. Traditional community outreach through mailers, meetings and hearings are familiar and relatively easy, but they are passive and often ineffective at engaging a representative range of stakeholders. Despite the extra effort involved, diverse community voices can help any partnership see challenges and opportunities more clearly, reach a broader cross section of the community and engage community interests more effectively. For partnerships led by organizations outside of the community, diverse stakeholder involvement is also a basic practice for establishing credibility. Where healthier behavior and health equity are the focus and human capital is the primary resource, communities benefit by taking full advantage of the diversity in the room.
Diversity is not inclusion. Diversity encompasses the full range of how people differ (e.g., age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class and/or culture), and it is an important component for partnerships aiming to serve the interests of the whole community. Inclusion is the leveraging of that resource to ensure maximum use of what diverse partners can offer to the work. Partnerships that build inclusive structures, processes and relationships cultivate distributed leadership and more equitably distributed decision-making power. They are generally more trusted, resilient to change, deeply embedded in community life and sustainable over time.
Authentic community engagement is an intentional, ongoing process of shifting the balance of initiative, control and power to the community. Residents know the difference between true engagement and something designed for show. They can rise to the occasion when sincere efforts address their most urgent and important needs. Processes that acknowledge and create pathways for community leadership and networks are better able to achieve full participation in decision making and greater ownership of the work.
Community visioning can be an effective engagement process on multiple levels. When a range of stakeholders, including a diversity of residents, are included early in a well-facilitated process for developing a shared vision and understanding of challenges and priorities, many strategic goals can be advanced at once. Benefits of a quality visioning process include shared knowledge and understanding; more and stronger relationships within the partnership; a broadly shared vision; more refined strategies with increased confidence and commitment behind them; more distributed leadership and decision making; more careful attention to equity; and a richer base of information to inform strategic communication.
When an outside agency positions itself to engage a “high-need” community, it is important for all parties to slow down and pay close attention to relationships. In communities long held back by poverty, structural racism and other deep forms of institutionalized inequity, the number, strength and capacity of community organizations may be low. Individual leaders in these communities may have difficulty gaining the attention and confidence of funders who have their own networks, assumptions and patterns of investment. Agencies with greater access to funding due to their relationships, history of work, grantwriting ability or access to information about upcoming opportunities often position themselves to serve as a lead agency for a partnership intending to involve the community. If the agency has not built a network of quality relationships in the community, it is beneficial for all stakeholders to invest the time and effort it takes to establish trusting and reciprocal relationships and to engage residents authentically in the partnership before establishing a specific agenda.
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