Maybe the Community Doesn’t Want You

Now, more than ever, I am hearing about foundations implementing various community engagement activities. This was also highlighted in GEO’s recent report, “Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter?” Foundations want – and should—involve the community in various aspects of their work. But what if those communities don’t want to engage? Or they want to engage differently than what the foundation had in mind?

When I moved to Colorado almost 6 years ago, everyone warned me about local control. Essentially, local control is exactly what it sounds like: most decisions are made at the local town or city level. There are few decisions that are made at the State level and trickle down to the communities. When I first heard about it, I brushed it aside. How hard can it be? The answer: it is incredibly challenging. Don’t get me wrong: I like and appreciate the philosophy of local control. It forces you to be thoughtful and respectful of the uniqueness of each town and city. But it also makes it hard to roll out consistent policies and thus demonstrate outcomes. It also means that when outsiders want to help a community, they had better tread very carefully.

This was recently learned in another state: Texas. A foundation identified five communities in the State that it wanted to support. And to honor the idea of local control, the foundation asked the communities to lead the efforts to identify the gaps in services and determine how the community could work together to solve social issues. It’s a noble idea, and it sounds like a good one. But the foundation didn’t hire locals from the community to support the work. Rather, the foundation asked the local community members – nonprofits, government representatives, and businesses – to do the work, with the promise that the recommended investments would be made (with some “guardrails,” of course). After two years, one community bailed and decided to stop participating. The locals who were leading the work were already overwhelmed before this project, and now they were trying to do it “in their free time.” They realized that they were all beginning to burn out and weren’t making any headway. The funder couldn’t or wouldn’t give any logistical or operational support. So the community said, “Thanks anyways” and walked away from the relationship with the funder.

Imagine how much different the outcome would have been if the funder had encouraged an open and honest conversation, and asked the communities what they needed. I’m willing to bet that they would still be working together.

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