4 Great Examples of Using Engagement to Improve Local Communities

Community engagement by nonprofits begins with a simple premise: Ask, don’t tell.

By consulting with people in the community while developing and implementing solutions to social issues, the reasoning goes, nonprofits can have a more dramatic impact on specific problems and on society as a whole.

While community engagement can require more time and effort to implement from an organizational standpoint, the method has been shown to produce good results. This is especially true in comparison to past “top-down” initiatives that proved to be dismal failures.

The following are four examples of how to get community engagement right. Ultimately, this approach improves the long-term health of both nonprofit organizations and the communities they serve.

Postponing parenthood

Teen pregnancy has been one of the thorniest problems facing urban America — disproportionately affecting poorer cities and towns. In 2006, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country. That stat inspired the United Way of Greater Milwaukee to launch the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, which worked with community members, schools, churches and other private and public organizations.

At the outset, an independent marketing firm convened focus groups with young people to better understand their views on the topic — and to get clues on the preventive methods that had the best chance of working.

The organization then rolled out a massive public-information campaign in the entire metro Milwaukee area. In schools, the initiative trained 1,000 teachers on age-appropriate curricula on sexuality, while parents received a “Let’s Talk” toolkit to encourage communication with teens.

In the first three years of the initiative, Milwaukee saw a 30 percent drop in teen pregnancy.

Reviving a great city

Detroit has long been a poster child for urban decay in large part because of the decline of the automotive industry and its shrinking population. In recent years, a loosely organized coalition of Detroiters has banded together to reverse this trend. One of the biggest is the Detroit Works Project.

Beside the city administration and the mayor’s office, the effort has received support and funding from the Kresge and Ford foundations. Detroit Works is now managed through the University of Detroit- Mercy’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center. It focuses on entrepreneurship, small business and new technology. It also aims to revitalize the city on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

Despite some fits and starts, the efforts of these organizations have begun to have an impact on the area’s economy. Last month, Google announced plans to build a development center for its self-driving cars in Novi, a Detroit suburb. It has also partnered with Fiat/Chrysler to turn a fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans into self-driving vehicles.

Tackling economic inequality in Silicon Valley

Successful community engagement gives nonprofit leaders an extremely valuable insight: what matters most to the community they serve. Bayshore Ministries, which serves lower-income youth in East Palo Alto, California, provides a good example.

The organization began in 1984 as a faith-based group that sought to diminish the disparity between the “haves and have-nots” in booming Silicon Valley. It has grown over the years to incorporate a variety of youth-oriented programs including Bible clubs, summer camps, tutoring, leadership development, life skills coaching and job training. It also works with 18 other area churches and organizations.

In the past decade its educational and job-training efforts have adopted a decidedly technological bent. This is critical in a region that emphasizes the high-tech industry and helps bring technically oriented volunteers and mentors into the Bayshore fold.

Improving education, reducing crime

Located just west of Orlando’s gleaming downtown, Parramore has long been the city’s poorest neighborhood. The Parramore Kidz Zone (PKZ), housed in a facility of the city’s Families, Parks and Recreation Department, works to improve the lives of the children who live here. This initiative specifically aims to reduce juvenile crime and teen pregnancy and get kids to stay in school.

Before PKZ was launched in 2006, the city held a series of neighborhood meetings to gather input on which services should be priorities. Services now include early childhood education, after-school programs for older kids, teen programs, health care access and financial assistance for families. Though PKZ is managed by the city, it collaborates extensively with other agencies and nonprofit organizations on these initiatives.

The Parramore Kidz Zone has had impressive results, including an especially dramatic drop in juvenile crime. Strong improvement has also been evident in both kindergarten readiness and overall academic performance among children who participate in PKZ.

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