No process always has all the right partners at the right time. Regardless of what else is happening with your collaborative process, chances are there are key voices missing, partners at the wrong place in the governance structure, or partners are not being supported in ways that allow them to meaningfully inform the process. As a backbone organization, you have your eye on the full breadth of the initiative’s work, which means you are better placed to consider when and how engagement can be improved than any other organization.
With all the other responsibilities of a backbone, it can be easy to forget to engage the “community,” even though the community is why you are doing this work! Depending on the focus of your work, “community” might refer to people living in a neighborhood, students in schools and their parents, patients in a health system, or other groups who are directly affected by the problem and the solutions.
Whatever the composition of your community, community engagement is how trust and public will are built, both of which are vital to moving the needle on a problem. Moreover, meaningfully engaging the community allows members to bring their lived experience to the process, without which even well-intentioned policies can fail.
It is vital to understand the civic culture of the community; their degree of readiness to create and implement change, how they engage with one another, and the environment in which an initiative operates. It is also important to understand that, ultimately, the process of engagement has to be owned by the community members you engage, not by the backbone, for it to be successful. This means the process should be designed in partnership with community members and adapted to meet their needs along the way.
Engaging community does not mean bringing two or three people to the table who can speak on behalf of everyone in the community. While there are critical voices to have at the decision-making table, community engagement needs to go further to bring the voices of many perspectives into the process of defining the problem and finding, testing, and scaling solutions.
Successful engagement involves building authentic partnerships through mutual respect, active and inclusive participation, power-sharing, equity, and mutual benefit (or, finding the ‘win-win’ possibility). One way to infuse these practices is by creating culturally responsive groups that are: welcoming and foster a variety of diverse perspectives; respectful of people’s time and effort by, whenever possible, providing compensation, reimbursement, child care, food at meetings, etc.; hold clearly-communicated meeting norms; build knowledge and awareness before a meeting and provide materials in advance; and develop leadership capacity, particularly among members who have traditionally been left out of the planning process.
- Putting Community in Collective Impact from the Collective Impact Forum lays out key characteristics of civic culture, why they matter, and how paying attention to them can elevate the work of your collaborative effort.
- Tools for Engaging Nontraditional Voices is designed to help groups involved in policymaking and governance embrace the perspectives of nontraditional voices. The toolkit includes discussion guides and checklists, as well as sample recruitment flyers, reimbursement forms, and other materials.
Strategic engagement doesn’t just mean engaging communities. There comes a time in many initiatives when it is necessary to review or reconsider the partner organizations in your collaborative, as well as who is leading the backbone, and think about whether you have the right people at the table for the kind of dynamic work you’re preparing to do or are doing.
For example, initial members of the leadership body of a systems-building approach are often organizations with deep knowledge of the issues and current dynamics. However, as the work goes from planning to implementing, there may be a need to bring in a different set of partners who are more closely linked to where the changes need to happen in the system. Similarly, there may be shifts in the landscape as a whole, or a new funding partner who brings different resources and can leverage their power in new ways. If the initiative does decide to bring on new organizational partners, it may be necessary to reconsider the governance and processes, keeping in mind that the process of systemic change is often iterative, after all.
To identify the right partners, it can be helpful to think about the work at its core. In other words, think “to accomplish [inset initiative goals and objectives], we need the following perspectives/leadership/relationships/skills/knowledge…” Which partners or types of partners come to mind? Community members can be a great source of ideas regarding the “unusual suspects” who have yet to be involved in the initiative. As you recruit new partners, remember that existing partners can also be leveraged in new ways!
Despite the time and effort you have put into identifying new partners, they may think an invitation is just one more meeting, or may not even be aware/see how your collaborative fits as part of their mission. When recruiting new partners, consider:
- Leveraging your existing network and involving the right people from the core team or steering committee to do the outreach might be all it takes.
- Having some key data and marketing/talking points to the partner to make the case about the importance of your role.
- Picking up the phone and calling them – personal outreach can be an amazingly effective way to recruit people!
- Living Cities has a free e-course with five modules focused on working with communities, including linking engagement strategies with engagement goals, how to support community members, and how to build awareness of racial equity into community engagement work.
Often, workgroups are created during the initial phases of a collaborative in order to get things done and show immediate results as the work is beginning. Particularly when dealing with complex problems, there is a lot of pressure to get started, create a to-do list, and get moving with activities that will address community needs. In this context, it can be challenging and feel counter-intuitive to slow down and spend time thoughtfully considering who to engage and how.
Some collaboratives have open workgroups that participants can join and leave at any time. Others have periodic calls for participation, but ask for a commitment. Some collaboratives have closed workgroups, based on invitations only. Whatever the model of the initiative you’re supporting as a backbone, take the time to assess the risks and benefits. Consider whether the model is the right model given the current stage of the work. Talk to the organizations left out or who have left workgroups to understand why.
Having the right workgroup participation is critically important and is something a backbone organization can help to shape, both through facilitating dialogues about what type of participation is needed and actively recruiting and retaining participants. While leadership groups make decisions at a higher, strategic level, it is the workgroups who come up with specific innovative ideas and experiment with them. Limiting workgroups to the usual suspects is likely going to limit it to the usual solutions. Opening workgroup membership to anyone who wants to participate, however, risks slowing things down. Strong backbone organizations can steadily assess the workgroup process and identify how to strengthen it in order to find the balance between innovative thinking and getting to action.