Scaling Up Community Engagement in Grant-Funded Projects

If your grant proposal touts deep community involvement in decision-making and service implementation, be sure the proposal’s project description, timeline, and budget back up that claim. Did the community contribute to defining the problem and designing the service approach? Will there be a community advisory council? Will community members be employed to staff the work? 

“There’s a wide spectrum of engagement, so consider what will work best in achieving the desired results,” said Barbara Floersch, grants expert and author of the new book You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change. “If your organization doesn’t partner vigorously with the community, it’s time to challenge that status quo.” 

Paul Schmitz, CEO of Leading Inside Out, in 2017 adapted the International Association for Public Participation’s Community Engagement Spectrum for inclusion in the Collective Impact Forum’s Community Engagement Toolkit. The spectrum ranges from strategies that simply inform people, all the way to strategies that empower community members to own the work. When considering where your program approach will fall within the spectrum, Schmitz urges full transparency warning that the greatest tensions and conflicts occur when leaders promise empowering engagement but don’t deliver on that promise. “To use empowering engagement strategies your organization will have to relinquish some degree of power and control,” said Floersch. 

Here’s a quick overview of the Community Engagement Spectrum:

Lowest level strategy: Informing – Providing information about programs, keeping people updated, providing fact sheets, newsletters, websites, and open houses.

Second level strategy: Consulting – Inviting feedback on decisions, keeping people informed, listening to feedback, conducting surveys, focus groups, and community meetings.

Third level strategy: Involving – Ensuring community concerns are considered in all planning and decision-making, using community assets, ensuring that feedback impacts decisions, partnering to implement solutions, doing community organizing and leadership development.

Fourth level: Collaborating – Enabling the community to participate in all planning and decision making, engaging community members in producing outcomes, co-creating solutions with community members, responding to advice and recommendations as much as possible, implementing community advisory boards, providing seats on governing boards, funding community work.

Highest level: Empowering – Professionals serve as consultants and supports and give community members full decision-making authority. The community leads program implementation and governance. 

Strong grant proposals present a realistic, transparent picture of how the community has been involved in program planning and will be involved in implementation. “You may not be prepared to move into the highest-level engagement strategy right away, or you may decide the issue you’re addressing doesn’t lend itself to that approach, but lean as far into empowerment as you can,” said Floersch. “Without deep community engagement it’s difficult to make lasting change.”