There has been a recent resurgence in supporting greater community engagement by foundations, government agencies, and nonprofits. Currently, these institutions feel a sense of urgency to eliminate racial inequities. In order to achieve equitable systems, there must be equity in the power that actually influences those systems to provide what these communities want, not just to inform them. Community engagement merely to collect information or sensing priorities will not be remotely sufficient for creating more equitable systems. This article presents some of the lessons we have learned about the best and worst practices by foundations, public agencies, and nonprofit organizations that attempted to implement community engagement strategies in the hope that it would bring about more equitable systems.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated it clearly when he wrote, “Power is the ability to achieve a purpose. Whether or not it is good or bad depends upon the purpose.” Those with more power than others get what they are after. Foundations and government agencies seeking to bring about greater equity must focus on equity in power, which can be uncomfortable for these institutions because they are part of the power structure that needs transformation. There are many grassroots organizations and intermediaries that are already engaging communities to build equity in power who need to be partners with foundations, government agencies, and other nonprofit organizations to be successful in making systems more equitable.

Transformative community engagement is the intentional practice of creating pathways to equitable systems by building greater power among community members over policies and other forces that affect their lives. It involves a set of strategies that can build greater power by, for, and among historically disadvantaged communities. Community members co-create and co-own the strategies and solutions.

There are three primary transformative community engagement strategies:

Increase community control where organizations, actions, and related initiatives are community member-led. Community organizing is a prime example of this type of strategy through the creation and support of organizations that are democratically led by members of their own community and that can manage and control the changes to their community.

Share power where community-led organizations work as equal or primary partners in decision-making with other organizations or larger institutions. In these strategies, community-led organizations have an equal or greater say in decisions in partnerships or coalitions with foundations, government agencies, and other nonprofit organizations. Often, these strategies involve coaching and preparing all parties to learn to work in this power-sharing approach that is frequently affected by past experiences, assumed power differences, and other entrenched factors.

Develop powerful relationships and gain positions with power where successful community-led organizations develop influence and community leaders are placed or elected to powerful decision-making positions in their communities, such as nonprofit boards, commissions, or elected positions. Community-led organizations with power have influential relationships with powerful allies and larger institutions. These relationships and positions of power are built through recognition of their success in achieving their goals as well as active campaigns to elect or appoint authentic community representatives to decision-making bodies.

Here’s what we have learned about supporting transformative community engagement strategies:

  • Be the change you want to see in other organizations and systems. Funders and others seeking to increase community power will first need to prepare for how they will share power in their work with community-led organizations and develop equitable power-sharing practices of their own.
  • Be prepared for conflict and resistance as power begins to shift. Resistance and conflict can come from within or outside an organization or initiative when power is on the table. Be proactive in your preparation for handling these situations because they will happen, so planning cannot happen too soon.
  • Be ready to support power shifting in the long run. Power-building is not something that happens within six months, a year, or even three years. Plan for the long-term support needed to sustain the strategy.
  • Be ready and able to respond quickly to changing conditions and issues.
  • Provide long-term and flexible funding and expand funding eligibility to include additional types of groups (e.g., supporting unincorporated organizations or those without sufficient financial systems). Providing general operating support or flexible funds is another strategy that we and others are finding very helpful in enabling organizations to take on power-building initiatives.
  • Create safe spaces and opportunities for addressing collective trauma and promoting healing together.
    Establish feedback loops and lines of accountability with local community leaders.
  • Invest in local capacity-building intermediaries or infrastructure for community power shifting. Having local intermediary organizations that can provide capacity building and other support services for community power-building efforts is essential for the growth and sustainability of this work. Capacity-building services can include seed grants, recognition programs, workshops or webinars, peer learning networks, technical assistance, and other supports, including those that focus on media and narrative change to create a culture of transformative community engagement; and
  • Related to the above need, ensure that capacity-building support is available and implemented collaboratively with participating community leaders and staff.

We also learned some lessons about what NOT to do if you are going to support community power-building efforts:

  • Confuse your role as a funder with an intermediary or community organizer. Funders that have gone beyond their grantmaking roles have experienced great conflict and distress both internally and externally. Invest in intermediaries and other organizations whose purpose is to build capacity and organize to build community power.
  • Expect a notable impact in a short period of time. Power-building is a movement, not a grant program.
  • Create unnecessary competition for resources by supporting new single-issue groups when there are already multi-issue or other groups working on those issues. Creating a new group(s) could work against your intentions by isolating those already doing the work before you decide to fund transformative community engagement strategies. Choosing to create another group is relaying that you know best by determining who the leaders are instead of asking and respecting those already doing the work.
  • Equate not being prescriptive with sharing power. Being an ally means sharing what you know, being continuously proactive in your support, anticipating needs, and introducing new useful resources. Sharing power means that funders can introduce what they and others have found to work, and community-led organizations have the power to accept or reject that assistance without penalty. Being clear about expectations is respectful. Not being clear and leaving it up to community-led organizations to solely decide what they should do and what outcomes to achieve in the spirit of being non-prescriptive, and then telling them that’s not what was expected of them harms relationships and trust.
  • Underestimate the power of data and evaluation. If you have yet asked yourself how you will know power is building or what power looks like, you will be hard-pressed to communicate what you’ve learned and determine when to pivot. And, if you have not identified the end goal, you will not know or be able to share your progress toward that goal through incremental “wins.”
  • Underestimate the capacity-building needed and leave it as optional.
  • Allow your organization to become a political platform.
  • Try to control the process.
  • Most importantly, leave your top leadership and board behind. Very often, we have found that staff do enough board education and buy-in to get approval and then move ahead without them. Given the political nature and uniqueness of the transformative community engagement focus on power building, board members and executive leaders who often are more risk-averse and conservative start questioning, dismantling, and eventually abandoning these strategies.

The dos and don’ts we shared in this article are not new. Decades of community change work, including comprehensive community initiatives, have repeatedly shared these and other critical insights. We find that there is not a culture or expectation in philanthropy or nonprofits to really invest in learning about transformative community engagement and power sharing from existing research, lessons learned by organizations trying to take this on, and engagement of the power building ecosystem rather than listening solely to one or two of their favorite consultants. Where foundations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations need to be better is to slow down, take the time to learn from their peers, listen—really listen—to community leaders and members, and be intentional about continuously learning, adjusting, and improving.

Transformative community engagement is not another program or even a strategy. At its core, it’s part of a national or even a global movement. It’s a new way of operating for philanthropy, government, and the nonprofit sectors. If the goal is to advance the dismantling of racism and other oppressive systems, it requires these institutions to first be the “change they want to see” in other institutions and systems. Otherwise, their failure to implement will be conveniently considered a failure of the mission or communities and not the failure of these powerful institutions to address their own perpetuation of oppressive practices.

About The Authors

David M. Chavis, Ph.D., Senor Fellow

David is internationally recognized for his work in the implementation, support, and evaluation of community and systems change initiatives. The focus of his work is equitable community development as a central strategy to promote community resilience, economic and educational opportunities, improved health and well-being, and a more powerful citizenry. He also specializes in the design and
implementation of community capacity building systems to bring about sustainable and scaled systems changes.

Jasmine Williams-Washington, Ph.D., Associate

Jasmine specializes in the implementation and evaluation of community organizing and organizational capacity building initiatives. Her organizational capacity building strategy is grounded in community organizing principles, using community and organizational power to make systemic change. She also has experience in quantitative and qualitative data analyses, specifically with thematic and grounded theory analyses. Professionally, she has a variety of experience with evaluations, including developmental, summative, and programmatic evaluations.