Engagement 101: Building Community Ties is Essential to Nonprofit Success

Is your nonprofit well-engaged with the community it serves? If you cannot answer that with a vigorous “yes!” you are missing an opportunity to create a brighter future not only for your community but for your organization as well.

Community engagement is essential for nonprofit organizationsTwo educational initiatives in Newark, New Jersey, illustrate the potential of community engagement. Both efforts had a similar outcome in mind — dramatically improving educational performance in the city’s public schools — but only one successfully engaged the local community.

In the first endeavor, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg committed $100 million to a project backed by the governor and mayor. The ambitious effort soon faltered because its leaders failed to first get the critical buy-in of community leaders, teachers and administrators. Those critical stakeholders rightly saw it as a quick fix imposed by outsiders, and the project failed.

Contrast that effort with a more modest project that the nonprofit Teach for America (TFA) launched in Newark. Writing for the Bridgespan Group, TFA’s Amanda Fernandez notes that TFA leaders worked closely with local organizations from the start of its project.

Education and community organizations, parents, students and other community activists soon joined in the effort, Fernandez says. They kicked things off by stuffing 6,000 student backpacks with school supplies and giving them out to needy students.

To be sure, TFA has encountered resistance from educational groups and teachers’ organizations in other cities it has served, but in Newark it has attracted support from just about everyone involved. While it is still early, the results have been good so far.

Defining ‘engagement’

To assess the value of community engagement, you need to define what it is — and what it is not. For starters, community engagement is not synonymous with marketing, though many nonprofits and for-profits alike blur the distinction between the two. The American Marketing Association defines marketing as everything that goes into creating sales for an organization.

Although selling isn’t a key component of a typical nonprofit’s mission, marketing is integral to most nonprofits’ initiatives. Many nonprofits, for example, author lengthy proposals for government social-services projects. That’s classic marketing — the only difference is the objective: to sell a government agency on the idea of funding the nonprofit’s initiatives.

Some organizations, unfortunately, consider “community engagement” a fancier name for marketing. However, community engagement is much better understood as reaching out to community stakeholders and getting them to help your organization achieve your goals. You want to build an ongoing relationship, not land a government contract or other type of sale.

Community-based governance

Community-based governance builds on successful community engagement. Getting people from the communities you serve involved in running your organization or a particular program should be a given in any nonprofit.

Yet this is not always the case. Often, resistance comes from the top leadership. Indeed, many leaders have had so much success running organizations “their way” that they hesitate to delegate responsibilities to others. And if their managerial style is inwardly focused, they’re apt to distrust people from outside the organizational fold.

This “command-and-control” approach to managing a nonprofit has pitfalls, note Beth Kanter and Allison Fine in their book, “The Networked Nonprofit.” The most problematic result is a pervasive divide between the organization and the community’s people. In contrast, engaging community members from a project’s or an organization’s beginning will help prevent such barriers from ever developing.

Examples abound of organizations that make tremendous strides once they incorporate community members into the decision-making process. After all, they are often the ones who are most intimately familiar with the community and the problems people face. By asking for their views and ideas and staying engaged with them over the long term, you’ll create enthusiastic partners who will help your group accomplish its goals.

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