Investing in relationships for authentic community engagement.

Go ahead, Google it. “Community engagement” is there, and it’s attached to everything from sports teams to businesses to libraries to universities. With all those associations out there, it can be difficult to identify “authentic community engagement” and to understand its power and potential for meaningful and sustainable change. Through my work with Nexus Community Partners, a community building intermediary in the Twin Cities, we’re trying to change that.

In 2012, we, along with five partners, launched Building the Field of Community Engagement (BTF), a collaborative initiative designed to raise the visibility and demonstrate the value of authentic community engagement. We are often asked:

“What real difference does community engagement make?”

“What are the impacts?”

“How do you know it when you see it?”

BTF is producing knowledge and tools to answer those questions and to help foundations and other stakeholders make better investment decisions and achieve greater neighborhood impact.

“The health of relationships between organizations and individuals in the system is often the missing link in explaining why programs and interventions ultimately succeed or fail.”

Every community is complex, but some communities suffer with greater complexities than others. Racism, historical trauma, generational poverty, chronic disinvestment, are not challenges that can be overcome easily or in a short period of time. What we know, is that you can place a person in good housing, you can help someone get a job or get into school, but if you don’t pay attention to the person, to their relationships in the community and to the complexities of their life, their successes may be short lived. As the authors of Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World noted in the Summer 2014 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The health of relationships between organizations and individuals in the system is often the missing link in explaining why programs and interventions ultimately succeed or fail.”

BTF is made up of a community development organization, an African-American cultural health and wellness organization, a Native American community development organization, a Latina/o domestic violence prevention organization and a multi-cultural neighborhood organization. Despite their differences, each organization understands that their work – be it housing, employment, health, education or community building – is stronger and more sustainable because they value and practice authentic community engagement rooted in relationships.

Impacts of Community Engagement

The “Impact Graphic” below captures the layers of impacts or outcomes from authentic community engagement that we identified through BTF.

The Impacts of Community Engagement Model

The outer circle outcomes are the tangible, visible goals of the work that community members do together.

The inner circle outcomes are achieved in the process of doing the work and are foundational elements of a healthy community. These assets are the building blocks for positive change in all of the areas of the outer circle and need to be attended to or strengthened in a long-term process, during and beyond the process of achieving an outcome in the outer circle. The importance of these elements is often overlooked and communities’ work in these areas is often under-resourced.

The wheel as a whole is fluid and dynamic, demonstrating the perpetual interconnectedness of the elements. The model demonstrates the power of community engagement to impact multiple levels and systems, and to create sustained change that lasts beyond a project or campaign.

Authentic community engagement creates more sustainable, long-term progress for communities because it is rooted in relationships. Many organizations driving a specific issue or agenda build transactional relationships, which are less personal and built specifically to obtain a desired result. Authentic community engagement, on the other hand, depends on developing a relational connection to the community that is focused on achieving long-term results rather than short-term gains. It can’t just be about a project, because projects end. It can become easy for a project-focused organization to be driven by transactional metrics such as turning people out to meetings, rather than relationship-focused strategies that build power over time.

Good community engagement takes time and is a constant learning process. It does not end, it is not linear and it is never perfect. But it keeps communities moving forward. The organizations involved in the Building the Field of Community Engagement initiative know this, live this and are sharing this knowledge with others in the hopes that all our work creates more meaningful and sustainable change.

For more information please contact me at; or visit Building the Field of Community Engagement website at

Image source: Linden Hills by Flickr user, Meet Minneapolis. CC by 2.0.