Top 5 Lessons I Learned Building a Multi-Sector, Community-Based Partnership
In the current economic climate, community-based organizations seek collaborations and partnerships to stretch their funding dollars, expand their reach and enhance core competencies like grant writing and program evaluation without assuming the burden of additional costs. Academic researchers and PhDs are highly sought after additions to many local community-based initiatives, as they are believed to bring intellectual rigor and social capital to the program design, evaluation and overall initiative. Yet frustration ensues when roles, expectations, and methodologies of academic and nonacademic partners are not clarified and aligned throughout various stages of the collaboration process. During my two years as Partnership Coordinator—yes, that was my title—of a multi-sector community-based health initiative, I developed five core considerations that academic researchers should take into account when developing or entering into community partnerships. Similar checklists tend to focus on the form and function of the collaborative effort but soft attributes like trust, shared values and relationship building are also key to building strong foundations of successful collaborations.
The community-based partnership that I managed was part of a statewide, grant-funded initiative to lower childhood obesity in the state of New Jersey among children and youth ages 3 to 18 by 2015. Our charge was to promote policies and environmental changes that would increase access to healthy foods and beverages and to opportunities for physical activity among low-income communities in five target urban cities—Newark, New Brunswick, Trenton, Camden and Vineland. After a rigorous strategic planning process, the core planning team of one of the target cities hired me in June 2011 to manage the local level partnership over a two-year implementation phase. My primary responsibilities as Partnership Coordinator included strategic partnership development, project management and relationship management. I was not brought on this project to fulfill a role of an academician; instead, I was to convene and foster joint initiatives among partners from health care, government, business, nonprofits, university and civic agencies. This strategic position as a practicing academic gave me access into the perspectives, needs and roles of these diverse sectors in multi-sector collaborations.
The following considerations are appropriate for academic researchers who wish to initiate a community-based research project or who are evaluating a request to join a community-based collaborative initiative.
Consideration #1: Value
How will you know your contribution has added value to the initiative? How will your community partners define the value you bring to the initiative? These questions prompt you to consider your role and the value of your contribution to a collaborative initiative from your perspective and from the perspective of your community partners. Prior to entering collaboration, you want to assess what skills you can bring to the initiative and how your participation can advance the goals of the work and related research on the topic. These questions will help you establish metrics for active participation and the fulfillment of your goals for participation. For maximum effectiveness, you or a facilitator can pose these questions to the collaboration team to jump start planning, identify hidden assumptions and achieve consensus on the inputs required to achieve a strong internal relationships and a successful collaboration.
Consideration #2: Jargon
Check the jargon at the door. Every field and sector has its own jargon or short hand to describe theories, concepts and methodologies. Your community partners may have invited you to their initiative or agreed to participate in your collaborative project because of your academic expertise. Still, frequent use of jargon can confuse group communication, marginalize those who are unfamiliar with the terms and position you as an elitist. At times, however, technical language, when accompanied by a clear, succinct explanation, can help sharpen your collaborative work. Toward the end of my partnership’s two-year grant term our funder requested that we work with a professional evaluator to assess core aspects of our work. Several of our academic partners were helpful in clarifying technical terminology of process evaluation and assisting the partnership in determining feasible evaluation measures. This knowledge of field specific language facilitated the partnership’s engagement with the evaluator.
Consideration #3: Expertise
In the same vein, recognize that community partners have their own knowledges, methodologies and practices. Academic researchers and other expert collaboration members are not the only ones with highly specialized ways of operating and communicating. Community members and leaders have honed their approach to work, problem solving and innovation through hands on experience and training. All approaches should be respected, as the group works together to develop consensus on which features of these diverse approaches will be captured in solutions moving forward.
Consideration #4: Timetable
Your timetable is not the community’s timetable. Collaborative initiatives develop in stages. Academic researchers will want to consider the time investment required by the collaboration, especially during time sensitive stages of career development such as tenure and promotion. Take, for example, the partnership I managed which experienced three phases of development to date: first, a six month data collection and strategic planning phase; second, a two-year implementation phase (2011–13); and third, an unanticipated extension of the implementation phase for an additional two years (2013–15).
Some of our academic partners were heavily involved during the strategic planning phase, lending expertise in research, data collection and grant writing. As the partnership transitioned to implementation phase their expertise was less critical to the success of the initiative, yet our time intensive monthly meetings continued. Savvy academic partners made their contributions via email, document review and periodic meeting attendance, which allowed them to stay connected to the work, demonstrate their commitment to the partnership and protect their time. When the program evaluation phase approached, these researchers recognized that their expertise could be valuable and ramped up their participation as a result. The unanticipated extension of our grant funding from 2013 to 2015 posed a challenge to some of my academic colleagues. They felt they had reached the end of their contribution to the partnership—our work had become routine, they could not contribute much to our monthly meetings, and their research and teaching commitments demanded more time. Getting clear about your role in a multi-sector partnership will help you manage your expectations of your participation and cultivate this understanding among your collaboration team.
Consideration #5: Trust
Trust is king. It’s probably clear by now that collaboration requires a great deal of relationship management. Soft skills like communication, negotiation and relationship building are key to gaining rapport and fostering understanding.
Community collaborators may distrust researchers on account of social, cultural, and linguistic differences. In addition, researchers’ unsatisfactory or unclear responses to communities’ questions such as “how does this research benefit the community” and “why does it take so long to see the results” may heighten communities’ reluctance to collaborate on research projects. Academics tend to feel insecure about the value of their contributions to the communities they work with or, on the contrary, discount the fatigue that communities may feel as the subjects and participants of yet another study.
The researchers in my partnership who were best able to maintain the respect of community members were good at being active participants when they were present, periodically contributing comments on joint work, and checking in with group organizers via email when they could not attend meetings. They also communicated their responsibilities and workloads with community members to demystify the academic workflow and set expectations on their participation. Finally, they shared their study results with partnership members in brief, engaging reports or presentations. In one case, a public health professor led observations of park use by children in our target age group and neighborhood. Her findings were key to her research on healthy environments and park design in low-income communities among Latinos, and were also useful for our partnership’s park advocacy strategy. The public health professor did not wait for the publication of a peer-reviewed publication to share her study findings. Instead, the professor and her graduate student team prepared a visually appealing PowerPoint slide deck with easily digestible charts, site photographs, core findings, preliminary conclusions and recommendations within six months of the park study. Our partnership outlined strategic ways to leverage the data and the slide deck: to advocate for park improvements before municipal government; to build a park advocacy agenda among local parent-teacher groups and neighborhood associations; and to show evidence of the impacts of our park-based intervention in grant reports and in new grant applications.
Collaboration between academic researchers and community-based partners has the potential to advance research and strengthen community capacity. Open and regular communication, especially when guided by a facilitator, can help define roles, determine shared values and establish solid working relationships. The reminders outlined here assist academic researchers to navigate their work, establish genuine relationships and the respect of community partners, and manage their participation alongside other professional demands.
Fatimah Williams Castro is a strategist who specializes in program development, multi-sector partnership building, and organizational development for corporate, philanthropic and nonprofit agencies. She is an independent consultant, and holds a doctorate in Cultural Anthropology from Rutgers University.
This thematic series on Collaboration was guest-edited by AN Contributing Editor Jeffrey Mantz (National Science Foundation). AN thanks him for his hard work on this series.