Active Listening,” Paul Downey

If you say you’re focused on “community building,” you may get as many questions as responses. Yet community building remains critical for nonprofits in civil society to be effective partners with the groups that they often seek to partner with and serve. (See “The Problem with Philanthropic ‘Self-Accountability’” as an example of what can happen when we don’t.)

Before putting together plans, deeper research and conversation are needed. A year ago, the UCSF (University of California, San Francisco) Preterm Birth Initiative (PTBi), explored the challenge of community engagement at their December 2019 “collaboratory” gathering. PTBi uses a research justice framework, “where mainstream knowledge is given equal importance as cultural and spiritual and experiential work,” alongside a research prioritization process and community advisory board.

As Daphina Melbourne, PTBi’s community engagement specialist, warns, “Do not go into communities wanting to save them. We do not need to be saved. We can save ourselves. We need your technical support.”

To build community effectively requires a focus on collaboration. An example of this approach is provided by the Kheprw Institute in Indianapolis. Focused on “community empowerment through self-mastery,” the nonprofit offers programs, from democratizing data to community-controlled food, as means to tap into “the collective power that resides in under-resourced communities, especially Black communities, to create the opportunities and environment we want to live in.”

As Imhotep Adisa, the group’s executive director, explained to the Indianapolis Star, “We consider ourselves to be community wealth builders, not just entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs focused on adding value to the community, wealth to the community, not only through a fiscal lens but through intellectual, cultural, and social capital as core tenants of the community wealth building.”

Nonprofits seeking to pursue increased community engagement and institutional efficacy must find a balance of working in brick-and-mortar places and online spaces. Always, the challenge of inclusivity remains. And inclusive communities are often embedded in place. As Bill Traynor, a national expert on community engagement who for years worked in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he developed a network-centered model of community engagement, has written:

Some, including myself, see the formation of strong urban communities as a political act in an economic and political environment that would rather not hear from or respond to poor people, people of color, and their communities. But for those doing the day-to-day work of community building—meeting neighbors, getting involved in schools, or organizing cleanups—it is a simple matter of trying to maximize the value of place for themselves and their families.

Listening and respecting the mores of the community and the neighborhood are key, especially if the organization or its leadership do not share the background and/or experience of the population the nonprofit seeks to serve. Lisa M. Stulberg, an associate professor of sociology of education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, told Global News, “Allies to any movement need to always be paying attention to when it is the right time to speak and when it is the right time to just listen, learn, and follow.”

During this time in which US democracy itself is under threat, in part due to the fraying of community, understanding how to build community has taken on new urgency. Many groups are looking to build linkages and increase awareness of how every person is valuable. The American Federation of Teachers has provided resources on how “collective action strengthens our democracy and ensures a better life for all,” while the Texas nonprofit Tiny Hope Village seeks to end homelessness in the Brazos Valley by building homes and “learning to break down the stereotypes and learning to love one another as brothers and sisters,” as Dan Kiniry, Tiny Hope Village’s executive director, shared with KBTX-TV.

From an institutional perspective, effective community building can be initiated in a variety of ways, including wider-ranging partnerships among nonprofits. Short-term setbacks and challenges may arise, yet long-term gains make investment in the process one of the most worthwhile pursuits. For risk-averse or hesitant nonprofit groups, community building could begin with a phone call or even an invitation to participate in the strategic planning process.

As Tim Schwantes, senior project officer of Healthy Places By Design, observed years ago, “Taking a risk by asking for outside input—where the outcome of a decision cannot be predicted—puts us in a vulnerable position. But this vulnerability is precisely what opens the door to connection, understanding, and empathy—all of which enrich the process of community engagement.”—Nicole Zerillo