Community Mobilization + Engagement
Determine Your Path Forward – Suggested Strategies
Local United Ways have a long history of engaging and mobilizing within the communities they serve. When it comes to equity, United Ways have a unique role in advancing equity through Community Mobilization and Engagement. If your United Way is looking for an opportunity to deepen your practice of equity through this lever, the following strategies are a good place to start:
Honestly assess your United Way’s history of meaningful community engagement. United Ways vary in the level of trust and credibility we have in communities. Your ability to serve as an honest broker in engagement will be in part based on community resident perceptions of how diverse and inclusive your organization is internally (e.g. diversity of staff, leadership and board members), how you have historically invested resources in the community, and to what extent you have already engaged diverse community members in United Way’s impact work.
Map and engage key community-based organizations, institutions, and leaders to enhance your outreach. Faith-based and community-based organizations, higher education institutions, K-12 school systems, government agencies, economic institutions, corporate partners, policy and advocacy organizations, and affinity groups like 100 Black Men and Unidos often have strong ties to the communities they serve. These organizations can help you establish reach and relationships with community residents that are active within these groups. Think outside of the box when it comes to engaging community residents. If some groups haven’t/don’t want to be engaged, find out what’s getting in the way, and focus on building trust.
Focus on building trust. By cultivating authentic, and not transactional, relationships you can more effectively engage and mobilize the community to drive down inequities.
Building trust does not happen overnight - it takes time and resources. Some critical aspects of community trust-building are:
Be intentional about the process by which you are engaging. Think critically about who is there and who is not, who speaks, and whose words gain the greatest traction. Consider how and when you are engaging people. Ensure your methods address complex barriers to engagement for some communities and groups. Different work schedules, childcare, and transportation considerations make it more difficult for some to participate in in-person meetings.
Meet people where they are and create feedback loops to demonstrate that their contributions are being incorporated over time. Honor their contributions in United Way’s work by naming the contributors.
Connect to the community
Use language and stories that are resonant and relevant. Engage community members in the review of United Way documents to check that documents resonate with core audiences.
Engage with humility
Be open to criticism from community members who may doubt your United Way’s commitment to equity and/or willingness to stay the course. Address it by being transparent about what your organization can or cannot commit to and collectively identifying opportunities for improvement.
Create on/off ramps for engagement that reflects changes in an individual’s capacity to be engaged. Other commitments and life changes can impact the duration and level of an individual’s participation. Some leaders may change in the community. Create diverse opportunities for people so that they can participate based on the amount of time and capacity they can offer.
Act as a convener by cultivating crosscultural connections, networks, and partnerships. Acknowledge how power imbalances affect partnerships and relationships between groups and individuals in communities. Be transparent in recognizing the power position of United Way as a funding organization in the community.
- Engage the Community in Solving Relevant Issues
- Develop Compelling Products and Solutions
Model equitable convening practices. Think about how you are meeting people where they are and ways you can add their voice. Consider things like meeting location and timing, the use of visuals, using microphones, translators, accessibility, transportation, childcare, and food.
Partner with trusted community leaders and organizations to engage residents and reach beyond the usual suspects. It is easy to reach out to the same five people who are well-known and trusted but relying only on those five people limits capacity and perspectives that would make the work richer and more robust. Sometimes community leaders don’t have titles but are well known and respected in their community. Ask funded and non- funded partners for advice on how to reach individuals who are considered informal leaders in the community.
Consider the identities and demographics of the people who benefit from United Way’s work and those who support it when you design your community engagement efforts. Understand that many of your donors might also be those who directly benefit from your work and that most residents want to contribute to the success of their community. Honor this by ensuring that your engagement efforts intentionally create opportunities for those who benefit from United Way led efforts to inform and/or co-create solutions. Where significant racial, gender, and economic differences exist between most of your donors and community residents, be sure to create meaningful opportunities for engagement that do not tokenize or patronize individuals.
Focus community engagement efforts on driving meaningful long-term change. Some residents are also more likely to be skeptical that actual change is possible and that they will be heard. Repeated engagement activities that do not fundamentally alter realities in a community can increase frustration over time and quell participation, as residents begin to doubt the commitment or possibility for change. It is critical that your United Way is realistic about how the input will be used, how much of a role residents will have to shape the work, what can be accomplished and by when. Appropriately setting shared goals, expectations, and anticipated timeframes can help keep community residents engaged over the long-term.
Use stories and data to paint a narrative that helps build a shared community understanding about historical and current inequities and compel people to action. In recent years, many United Ways have bolstered their ability to connect people to important issues by sharing personal success stories. Applying an equity lens to this work can help community residents, partners, and funders better understand the underlying conditions, patterns of discrimination, and/or unequal access that gives rise to the personal challenges we highlight in those personal testimonies. United Ways can use data and narrative storytelling to ensure that storytelling centers on root and systemic causes, not on individual or community deficits. Take an asset-based approach when creating and transmitting narratives. Be willing to unpack areas of resistance and to engage in dialogue about the underlying beliefs, assumptions, and implicit biases that residents from different backgrounds may bring to the conversation.