Like others, Living Cities believes that genuine collective impact requires community members to be “at the table” in some way. But how and in what way community members are involved in collective impact efforts will vary case-by-case. Community member involvement depends on the nature of each initiative, what an initiative seeks to accomplish, and differs across different stages of planning and implementation.
To better partner with communities, collective impact initiatives need to focus both on supporting community members and on changing how the initiative itself works. On one hand, inititaives need to support community members in order for them to meaningfully shape the design and implementation of collective impact initiatives. On the other, collective impact initiatives also need to improve their ability to meaningfully integrate feedback from community members. Both of these dimensions cover a broad range of strategies for community engagement, with many strategies able to fit into both categories. Working with community members through collective impact requires a focus on both of these dimensions to execute on engagement strategies and achieve goals.
To help practitioners think through their strategies for effectively working with the people they aim to serve, we have launched an e-course. This blog provides the framing for this week’s resource module , which focuses on how to support community members to amplify their voice in collective impact.
How to Support Community Members to Amplify their Voice in Collective Impact
For leaders of collective impact initiatives to effectively work with community members, community members need to feel able to authentically contribute and engage in local decision-making.
Unfortunately, local contexts don’t often create this environment for low-income people. In many places, significant work must be done to strengthen relationships between grasstops public, nonprofit and business leaders, and the grassroots low-income residents of the communities in which these organizations operate. For an example of work done to strengthen the connection between grassroots and grasstops community members, Living Cities supported a “Community Engagement Team” (CET) in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region during the development of several transit lines that connected different parts of the city. The CET funded and organized community-based organizations to advocate on behalf of low-income community members affected by transit planning. This work led to several policy changes and more equitable transit oriented development.
A disconnect between low-income residents and traditional community leaders can be a fundamental problem for collective impact initiatives. While the intention of the grasstops collective impact leadership is often well meaning, community members can serve as a valuable “check” for potential solutions. Researchers and other practitioners have begun recognizing that community members directly affected by a collective impact initiative’s goals are residents with important lived experience, or “ context experts .” These community members can provide critical insights about the dynamics actually at play in local communities.
In contrast, grasstops leadership and other professionals involved with collective impact are the “ content experts ” with technical expertise useful for solving specific problems. While these content experts in a collective impact initiative can help identify the structural forces at play and design related solutions, without involving community residents themselves, they won’t know whether or not these solutions are applicable to local context. In the Albuquerque example we highlighted last week, the leadership of their collective impact initiative has deep technical expertise about how to start and sustain small businesses, but looks to local entrepreneurs to identify solutions that will be most useful to them.
The disconnect between grassroots community members and traditional local leaders that exists in many communities today cuts off the ability for “content” experts to learn from “context” experts, and vice versa, creating collective impact initiatives that can be disjointed from local realities. When grassroots community members do not feel empowered or valued by the traditional, formal leadership of collective impact initiatives (or when they do not trust that leadership), they will not authentically contribute their own unique experiences to the effort.
Fortunately, there are many tools and approaches available for collective impact leaders to start repairing the disconnect between context and content experts by supporting and amplifying the community’s voice. Applying these tools can leverage existing community strengths and encourage co-leadership of collective impact initiatives. Like with any sort of community engagement strategies, these must be aligned with the particular goals of the collective impact initiative.
One way for collective impact initiatives to amplify the voice of the community members is to build from their existing strengths. The Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach has some useful tools to determine what assets exist in a community, and how they can be leveraged. In short, the ABCD approach seeks to discover the skills and passion of local community members, ask them to share those gifts, and then connect with others to create meaningful solutions. Dan Duncan, in particular, has written about the potential of the ABCD approach to strengthen collective impact efforts.
Once you assess and identify your community’s existing assets, there are many other tools and approaches to use depending on the goals of your initiative. Initiatives can focus on amplifying the voice of individual community representatives through leadership trainings that build a more direct pipeline to connect grassroots community members to more formal positions of power. You can also increase connections between community members through network building. Or your initiative can focus on the community more broadly by supporting grassroots and community organizing, or creating shared aspirations with community members. (For more background on these approaches, watch our video on the topic.)
Next Tuesday, we will release the third module of this e-course, which will focus on building feedback loops in a collective impact initiative. If you haven’t yet, register now to participate in the e-course.
To further discuss community engagement in collective impact, join our Twitter Chat “Study Hall” on Friday, March 27th at 1pm ET to ask questions and share insights. We will be joined by Theresa Gardella, Director of Strategic Development for Nexus Community Partners, as a special guest to help spark and moderate discussion. Use the hashtag #CEinCI to join in.