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Summer Musings: Lessons on Partnering With Communities

We support cohorts of communities working in tandem with our approach and sharing their experiences along the way in peer learning forums. As university partners, we design the process for individual teams to build collective capacity to address their challenge, facilitate the peer-learning forums, identify needs for and secure specific substantive or technical skills for individual teams or the entire cohort, support implementation of evidence-based strategies for addressing the challenge, and institute evaluation processes that each team executes. The lessons described are drawn from three projects: the Opioid Response Project (ORP), myFutureNC Local Educational Attainment Collaboratives, and Our State, Our Work: Connecting Young Adults with Their Future.



Over the past year, ncIMPACT Initiative has found itself immersed in exciting cross-sector, community-level projects. For us, “community” is defined by local people and their perspective on who needs to be at the table to address a particular challenge. Sometimes the community is a single town or county. Other times it is many contiguous counties. Whatever the scale of the community or scope of challenge the team seeks to impact, we are seeing some useful patterns in the cross-sector community work we facilitate that we hope will help guide other university researchers as they partner with communities.

Below is a graphic of our approach to cross-sector community collaborations. We use this approach when it is clear that no one person, organization or even sector will be enough to meaningfully address the community challenge at hand. The approach draws heavily from Collective Impact© and Strategic Doing©.

We support cohorts of communities working in tandem with the approach and sharing their experiences along the way in peer learning forums. As university partners, we design the process for individual teams to build collective capacity to address their challenge, facilitate the peer-learning forums, identify needs for and secure specific substantive or technical skills for individual teams or the entire cohort, support implementation of evidence-based strategies for addressing the challenge, and institute evaluation processes that each team executes.

The lessons below are drawn from three projects: the Opioid Response Project (ORP), myFutureNC Local Educational Attainment Collaboratives, and Our State, Our Work: Connecting Young Adults with Their Future.

1. Go to the community and immerse yourself there as much as you are able

We love being in community with our local partners, but COVID-19 gave us an opportunity to truly test the value of in person activities. Much of our work with communities last year started off on Zoom and other online platforms. It was a privilege to have these platforms. Ten years ago, COVID-19 would have brought our work to a complete standstill beyond some emails and phone conference calls. That said, we found that it was a challenge for us to develop meaningful relationships and get to know the communities and their team members when we were limited to virtual engagement. Perhaps more importantly, it is a challenge for team members who do not have preexisting relationships to build deep bonds with each other. Face-to-face interactions matter for trust building and trust building is important for taking the risks that are called for in collaborative work.

As an example, we launched our 15 myFutureNC Local Educational Attainment Collaboratives (LEAC) last June. We held two peer-learning Forums: one in August and one in November. Each month we facilitated virtual meetings with each collaborative’s local project managers. All of it was useful. However, in March, we hosted our first in person forum in Chapel Hill. The energy in the room was palpable. The teams loved being in the room together. They bonded within and across teams in ways that had not happened in the two virtual forums.

Being together in Chapel Hill mattered. Interestingly, though, local partners have communicated that in person visits from regional impact managers, who oversee the work in the various regions of the state, and the evaluation and implementation coaches for each of the teams have been of highest value to date. Not only do community teams find the most value in those interactions, but our university partners also gain the best insights from them. Those are the moments when we best understand how the local context is shaping the outcomes of our work.

Learn more about the 15 LEAC communities and our cross-sector collaborative efforts here.

 

2. Be intentional about enhancing skills, competencies, and social capital among community residents

We have learned to start each project with sustainability in mind. The question that drives our work is, “What skills, competencies, and relationships need to be in place to build effective systems that continue to work long after our engagement with the cohort has ended?” We understand that our primary points of contact are the individuals who make up the community teams, and that is where we first focus the work. However, if there is anything that has been underscored by the Great Resignation of the past two years, it is that individuals come and go from jobs. For the work in communities to be sustainable we have to build capacity and relationships at the organizational level. This means our intervention evaluations need to capture more than what the team members found valuable. We need organizational-level data to confirm that we are meaningfully developing local capacity to sustain the work.

In the Opioid Response Project (ORP) work, individual team members frequently emphasized building relationships and collaborations within their communities as important personal outcomes. These community team members shared that the ORP encouraged them to have conversations with other stakeholders. The conversations allowed them to break down silos, engage and re-engage stakeholders at all levels (e.g., law enforcement, EMS, and the health department) in their communities, develop new relationships and improve existing ones.

The team members were also asked to rate the relationships between their organization and other organizations represented on their community teams prior to and after engagement with the ORP. Respondents reported significantly higher levels of collaboration between their organizations and others noting that participating organizations were able to formalize their relationships and work towards a common mission with other organizations on the team. “Formalize relationships and work towards a common mission” are words we love to hear.

Learn more about what ORP participants thought about their experience here.

3. Evaluating community work requires understanding what worked for whom

Because we do our work in cohorts of cross-sector teams, we have compared experiences and impacts across teams for some time. Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that we need to do more to compare experiences and impacts within teams. We need to know: Does the sector matter for the quality and impact of the experience? Does the level of involvement by the organization in the collaborative matter (i.e., do you get what you put into it)? Is it better to have an executive leader of an organization or a lower-level administrator with less influence but closer proximity to the work representing the organization? Does heterogeneity help or hinder the work?

We will work harder on these questions as we launch our work with 13 community collaboratives representing 37 counties to improve systems that serve young adults, aged 16-24, who are not engaged in work or enrolled in an educational institution. The 13 teams involved in this work include educational institutions, employers, workforce development agencies, local chambers of commerce, faith-based organizations, and public libraries. Each partner will come with their own set of expectations, level of patience with the process, and tolerance for meeting the interests of other partners. Going beyond to aggregate experiences will help us entice the right partners to stay at the table. That has to be an intentional part of our sustainability strategy.

Learn more about the Our State, Our Work communities here.

One of my colleagues at the ncIMPACT Initiative is fond of the saying, “Always learning, always growing,” which has certainly been true for our entire organization and our partners over the past year. Stay tuned for more learnings, so we can all continue to grow together.

 

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