The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jul 02, 2012

Finding ways to better describe, measure and replicate community engagement

Posted by Knight Foundation

Photo Credit: Flickr user callumscott2

By Paula Ellis, VP/Strategic Initiatives

While engagement is widely seen as a core feature of the best solutions to community challenges, there isn’t yet an agreed upon way to describe it, copy it, measure it - or even know if it’s spreading.  

A yearlong study of collaboratives found that nearly all of them struggled with how to engage residents as co-producers of change. The study, which examined 100 such community-wide efforts and identified 12 as best of class, looked specifically at how institutions engage with each other and how community members themselves engage to produce impact.

Armed with this body of research on what works and with newly announced support from Knight Foundation, the Aspen Institute is launching a Forum for Community Solutions to do two things: share practical tools and skills that can be put to use immediately and build a community of practice that digs deeper.

To accomplish these goals, they’ll host roundtable discussions around the country with mayors, community leaders, philanthropists and businesses to walk through successful “needle-moving strategies.” The institute uses the term needle-moving to help determine impact. It refers to instances when at least a double digit improvement occurs based upon an agreed measure. They’ll launch a media campaign to publicize what works and provide support to communities with promising, impact-driven engagement projects.

Support for this project goes to the heart of Knight Foundation’s belief that community engagement is necessary to produce lasting, visible change. There is a growing recognition that investing in programs alone is not sufficient given the complexity of the social challenges and opportunities.  Large-scale transformation requires the engagement of all sectors in a community, nonprofits, businesses, philanthropies and governments all pulling in the same direction through collaborative efforts.

The Aspen Institute is also placing a particular emphasis on engaging young people. A new Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund launched as part of the forum will support projects to help Americans ages 16-24 who don’t have a job and aren’t currently enrolled in school.

Melody C. Barnes, the former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, will chair the forum at the institute, where it is supported by its president and CEO Water Isaccson.

The goal is ultimately to increase the level of authentic community engagement by developing the tools and knowledge necessary to support it.  It’s also to help institutions more effectively collaborate.

We are excited about taking the best-of-breed ideas identified by the forum, matching them with the communities that can do the most with them and sharing what we learn about community engagement across the country. This partnership gives Knight, The Aspen Institute and community collaboratives the chance to learn together and help share this knowledge with others.

By Paula Ellis, vice president/strategic initiatives at Knight Foundation

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