January 21, 2013

Building a Strategy for Resident Engagement

I had the opportunity to hang out with some of the best thinkers in the community foundation world last week, and the topic of the day was resident engagement.  How it is thrilling that more place-based funders, with community foundations in the lead, are seeing resident engagement as central to their work!

As our discussion moved from resident engagement in the ideal world to resident engagement in the real world, someone told a story about some bumps in the resident engagement world they encountered when their organization was asked by local government to expand community engagement on a topic that was rapidly becoming divisive - providing the safe space that was needed for people to work together to develop a solution that could work for everyone.  Perfect so far.  They brought a group together, only to discover that they had a room full of leaders who did not have any followers - people who were better at gate-keeping than gate opening.  You can probably fill in the next part of the story.  I bet you have lived through that story in your own community.  I have.  It's so common - even when people are acting with the best of intentions and the belief that the extra time and messiness that inviting more people into a process requires is always worth it.

So for the place-based funders - especially community foundations - who are thinking more about resident engagement, here's one thing I think you can do to avoid going down this very common road:  anticipate the opportunity and get ready.  If you think about resident engagement in the same way that you think about donor engagement, and develop a strategy to build relationships with residents that you take as seriously as you do expanding your donor base, you will be ready when the phone rings or when you want to expand perspectives on your own work.  Just as you think about who knows who and how to get know people you want to know, with the hope that one day they will become donors, think about who you know and how you can get to know more people in more places - especially those who are the strangers in your community.

There are a lot of things you can do to get to know people.  Make a list.  And be sure that you have being a big thinker about small grants on your list.  Small grants programs, at their heart, are about resident engagement - residents actively engaging with each other, and, if staffed appropriately and hosted by organizations that really value resident engagement, funders expanding the real relationships that they have with more people in their community.

It's that second part that is really important here - staffed appropriately and hosted by organizations who really value resident engagement.  By staffed appropriately, I mean enough of the right people - people who can see a way to use the mechanics of the small grants process to build relationships and understands that their work is only beginning when the grant checks go out.  People who really believe in people - and not just the idea of people - and who know in their hearts that everyone is important with something to offer.  People who are as comfortable in a church basement as they are in a foundation board room, and who are natural translators and connectors.

Those special people, however, are just part of the picture.  They need to be planted in resident engagement friendly soil - in an organization whose culture values people over programs, and where timelines, workloads, and internal reward systems are geared to encourage and support listening, learning, relationship building and connecting. When planted in organizational soil that is resident engagement friendly, the best small grants program staffers have the internal cover to be out of the office as much as they are in, and the permission to bring the relationships and perspectives that are gaining into internal conversations, planning and strategy development.  In organizations who see small grants programs as core to their resident engagement strategy, planning tables, committees and yes, even boards, look different - with people beyond the usual suspects there, comfortable in their relationship with the funder and confident that they have something to contribute that is valued.  And when the call comes to bring people together around a tough issue, you are beginning at a very different place - with relationships you already have and with people who, by virtue of their relationships, can help expand the circle.

It's about relationships.  And the good news is that for those community foundations who think they don't have much experience with resident engagement, this is a reminder that you do.  If  you do the same thing on the community side that you are doing on the donor side of your business - build a strategy for continuously expanding and building relationships you have with residents - and embrace a time-tested, affordable tool as part of your resident engagement strategy that is well known to the community foundation field - small grants programs - you will be on your way.

If you need some pointers or a sounding board, get in touch and I'll do 3 things.  I'll listen as carefully as I can and share all that I know, I'll point you to info on Grassroots Grantmakers website (and send you an advance copy of the soon to be released, "Short Course on Grassroots Grantmaking"), and, perhaps most importantly, I'll connect you to someone else who is a little further down the road that you want to travel.   And, make a note to stay in touch so I can share what you are learning and how you are making resident engagement real here on this blog in the future.  


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