Community Engagement for Funders

Earlier this year, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article by Melody Barnes and Paul Schmitz entitled “Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever).”  The authors caution public and social sector leaders against acting in a top-down manner when developing initiatives and identifying community priorities.

But often, leaders’ attempts to connect with the grassroots amount only to surveys, one-time focus groups, or outreach campaigns.

“Engaging a community is not an activity that leaders can check off on a list,” write Barnes and Schmitz. “It’s a continuous process that aims to generate the support necessary for long-term change. The goal is to encourage intended beneficiaries not just to participate in a social change initiative but also to champion it.”

Or, as one community builder says, “Doing to us, not with us, is a recipe for failure.”

But Susan Stall, trustee with the F.W. Symmes Foundation and facilitator for the session, wondered how this approach of community engagement applies to a funder – particularly a foundation that already has clear-cut focus areas, a corporate funder whose guidelines are dictated by headquarters, or a family foundation without any staff to conduct said engagement?

The July 2016 meeting of Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy examined community engagement from several angles to expose funders to this current topic in the social sector and to consider how it might apply to their own work.

Foundations themselves can connect with the community in a variety of ways, including holding “Listening Sessions,” which the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina has actively engaged in as a specific strategy outside of traditional site visits.  Dr. Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, Vice President of Initiatives and Public Policy, shared that since 2010 the foundation conducted 20 Listening Sessions around the state where Foundation Board and staff shared a meal and talked with residents experiencing poverty about their journeys, barriers faced and potential real-world solutions. Over time, these Listening Sessions resulted in new action and work for the foundation, including the launch of new Initiatives: one focused on immigrants, the other on kinship families.

Stephanie pointed out that some conversations when listening can be difficult and challenging. But she encouraged us to create “brave spaces” in which we can learn, grow, and transform.  “Listening authentically takes time and flexibility. However, when the community owns the work, we don’t have to lead change on our own.”

The staff and partners in OnTrack Greenville are in the process of transitioning to a model of greater community leadership and engagement. They lead an ambitious multi-year and multi-million dollar effort to address middle school success in four low-achieving schools in Greenville County. The initiative is evidence-based, includes rigorous evaluation, and has the endorsement of leaders in the social, government and business sectors. It is one of just seven sites nationwide funded by the competitive Social Innovation Fund.

However, the one thing OnTrack lacked, reported Tobi Kinsell, Director, was the voice of the community.

“At first, we had a top-down structure. We thought we knew what the answers were. But now we’ve stopped to learn about the systems – from principals, teachers, social workers, and from parents and students – and we’ve learned that families have solutions.”

OnTrack has hired a School and Community Facilitator to focus on community engagement, but their approach isn’t to reinvent the wheel.  “Rather than add additional layers on top of what exists, we are working to leverage the assets in the schools, families, and community. For example, instead of waiting for parents to come to the schools, we brought school to the community.  We have visited apartment complexes with high numbers of students attending the schools and held parent meetings in the apartment complexes.”

Having open and honest conversations with grantees or those served by our funding has the potential of highlighting how different our perspectives are, which can be uncomfortable. But Scott Neely pointed out that our differences can be a source of strength rather than division. Scott works with Speaking Down Barriers, which aims to bring people together across the social differences that so often separate us.

Much of Speaking Down Barriers’ work takes place in community gatherings, in which participants discuss these differences—such as race, gender, class, religion, national identify and sexual orientation—in order to move through tension, misunderstanding, and fear toward building a better life together.  But these gatherings are not about participants making things “OK” for each other.

“Our typical reaction is to try and think of how to help people with their issues,” said Scott.  “But that’s not how this works. We push further and recognize that we are all a part of this. We all need help.” He shared a quote from Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian activitist, who said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This can be a challenge for funders who are accustomed to fixing things with grants. So how can funders – particularly small funders – begin the work of authentic community engagement?

Scott shared the “community agreement,” which Speaking Down Barriers uses to frame the interactions at their community gatherings, which also serve as useful guidelines for funders in their interactions with grantees and community members. Because genuine dialogue often opens up real disagreement and can unveil difficult personal experiences, Speaking Down Barriers counsels working with skilled facilitators when entering into community listening sessions:

Show up and be present. Take off your funder hat and participate in the conversation as a fellow community member. Give the conversation your full attention (with no wandering to your iPhone). We are here to do something different. We are a part of this.

Speak and hear with truth and love. Disagreement and difference are innate to our human being. We are not all the same, we do not all think the same way, and we have a difficult history that creates deep mistrust between us. But if we come to speak our truth and to hear the truth of others, not for the purpose of total consensus but for the purpose of living together in a new way, we can find a path forward together.

Be open and not attached to outcome. If you are coming to learn and listen, it makes it easier to set aside your agenda and let your grantees or community members shape the direction. We must risk our plans and ourselves to change based on what we hear. This is good. We find better answers together when we are all open to change.

Do not seek to be right or perfect. If we believe our differences make us stronger, then others have information and perspectives needed to develop a more complete picture. The pursuit of perfection often paralyzes us with the fear that we may misstep. But given the centuries of violence and mistrust that have too long characterized our society, that we will make mistakes is guaranteed. That should not stop us from engaging with one another. Instead, we can seek excellence, rather than perfection, certain that we will misstep and certain that mistakes are not the end of our story.

Do not be a frequent voice. Funders are accustomed to grantees and community members listening to us. But a community engagement approach means that we need stop and listen. The people we serve have knowledge about their lives and our world that we do not. Listen to what they have to teach us. We will be changed.

It should be mentioned that funding can help with community engagement efforts.  Tobi Kinsell reported that the School and Community Facilitator was not in OnTrack’s original proposal to the Social Innovation Fund, but once they realized its necessity, the Social Innovation Fund allowed them to add this position. Funder flexibility in letting grantees change approaches as they learn from the community creates a more sustainable solution. And investing in nonprofits to do their own community engagement work is important.

In the end, community engagement is not about money. Stephanie closed by sharing a story about a time when Mother Teresa was interviewed on a radio station about her ministry years ago. The reporter asked Mother Teresa, “What can I do to help your cause?” Mother Teresa repeatedly told her there was nothing she needed. Finally, the reporter pressed her and said, “Our listeners can raise money to help your cause! We can get out our checkbooks right now!”  Mother Teresa responded, “If you really want to help, go out into the streets of this city and find someone who believes they are alone in this world, and convince them that they are not.”

Think of how much the communities we love could gain from that kind of investment – the gift of not only our philanthropic dollars, but of connections through building authentic relationships.

Several GPP members have expressed interest in how GPP can facilitate connections with community members on behalf of funders. This is something we can explore in the coming months.

About our presenters:

Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, Ph.D., M.S.W., is Vice President of Initiatives and Public Policy for the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina. She designs and manages the Foundation’s organizational strategy and mission effectiveness, ensuring community engagement and impact. She also leads the Foundation’s diversity, equity and inclusion work statewide and leads two statewide Foundation Initiatives, the Kinship Care Initiative and an Immigrant Families Initiative. She is also responsible for developing and implementing an advocacy agenda while convening key stakeholders to address needed changes in systems that impact families experiencing poverty statewide.

 Tobi Kinsell  As director of United Way’s OnTrack Greenville Middle Grades Success Initiative, Tobi Kinsell leads a community-wide effort funded by the Social Innovation Fund, community partners, and funders to ensure all middle school youth stay on track toward high school graduation. Utilizing collective impact principles, she works collaboratively with community stakeholders and facilitates public/private partnerships to implement initiatives and programs resulting in transformative change and outcomes.

Scott Neely directs the Project for Community Transformation, an initiative to strengthen congregations to transform our communities. Neely serves on the board of Speaking Down Barriers, an organization that uses facilitated dialogue to build our life together across the differences that divide us. He is a graduate of Wofford College and Harvard Divinity School. Neely served at First Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg, SC from 2006-2015, first as Director of Missions and then as Pastoral Executive. In April 2015 he presented a TEDx talk on race and racism entitled “What Will I Teach My Son?



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