I’ve begun a course offered by Tamarack Institute called ‘Foundations of Community Engagement’.
A lot of the work I do, and the work I am passionate about, involves bringing groups of people together, creating a safe space to share ideas and beliefs, and come to collaborative, consensual outcomes. This may result in a functional strategic plan, staff retreat engagements, creation of organizational guiding principles or some form of strategic visioning and stakeholder engagement.
This work creates the energy and ownership needed to build sustainable mission-driven nonprofits that create a better future for communities – however you define community. And to that point, communities might refer to the stakeholders or beneficiaries you serve, a geographical space, or any common grouping of persons.
At Tamarack, they define community engagement as, “citizens engaged in inspired action as they work and learn together on behalf of their communities to create and realize bold visions for the future.”
I’m learning to think about two distinct groups for community engagement work:
Content Experts – are professionals, staff in your organization, service providers, and leaders with formal power who have knowledge, tools, and resources to address the issue.
Context Experts – are people with lived experience of the situation, including children and youth; they are the people who experientially know about the issue. They are ‘experts by experience’.
For true authentic engagement to occur, the context experts must work closely with the content experts and have true ownership of the project, the work that needs to occur, and the outcomes that are hoped for, and this goes beyond simple engagement or buy-in:
Buy-in vs Ownership
  • Buy-In: Someone else has developed the idea, made the decision, designed an action plan and then asks and needs the staff/citizens to approve it and/or implement it.
  • Ownership: Front line staff/citizens develops the idea, makes the decisions, designs the action plan and acts on it.
With true ownership that is created by context experts and supported by content experts the process and outcomes will be created by community – Community Engagement!
There is a great story by Ernesto Sirolli from his book ‘Ripples from the Zambezi’ and it goes something like this:
‘A group of ‘content experts’ is trying to support a small African village to increase their crop yields. These content experts suggest that the villagers plant their tomato plants in an area close to the river that seems to the content experts to be much more fertile than the villagers’ current location. When asked why they don’t plant there, the villagers simply said that they just don’t. The content experts decided to plant in this fertile area and witnessed the fastest growing tomato plants they had ever planted. And, the size of the tomatoes was something to behold. They watched with excitement over the next few weeks as these tomatoes grew to be the largest ever. When the day came for harvesting, they arrived at the ‘fertile’ field to see the hippopotamus of the area happily feasting on the largest tomatoes they had ever seen.’
The villagers were ‘experts by experience’ and this example and way of thinking need not be applied only to international work, but right here in our own organizations, our own backyards, our own communities to help build more sustainable mission-driven nonprofits that create a better future for communities.
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