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The Role of Community Engagement in Fostering Emergence – Webinar Questions Answered

In a recent FSG and Stanford Social Innovation Review webinar discussion on complexity in collective impact, John Kania, coauthor of “Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity,” Blair Taylor, of Memphis Fast Forward and Mark Cabaj of the Tamarack Institute explored how leaders of successful collective impact initiatives have embraced a new way of collectively seeing, learning and doing that marry emergent solutions with intentional outcomes.

This is the third post in a 5-part blog series in which Blair and Mark continue the discussion, answering questions submitted by webinar participants, on emergence in action and Developmental Evaluation in collective impact. In this post Blair answers questions about the role of community engagement in emergence and collective impact.

Q: How much did you encourage participation from the community? What do you view as the pros and cons of community participation?

A: I interpret “community” in the context of your question as a range of different groups and individuals -- from community members often considered disenfranchised to those who are simply unaffiliated with the work. Given that definition, participation and engagement has been an important part of our work and has been solicited in a number of ways. This approach has had both pros and cons: 

The pros include:

  • The building of political will around our strategies and credibility with elected leaders

  • Creating a sense of urgency for the work by engaging with folks who are most immediately and directly affected by the issue

  • Culling diverse ideas and perspectives 

The cons can include 

  • Engagement is time/resource consuming

  • Public convenings can turn into unproductive venting sessions if not managed effectively

  • Expectations that the convener is there to act on participant input, which becomes difficult when ideas or issues come up that we aren’t organized to address

That said, we have generally found the cons to be very manageable, and outweighed by the pros.

Q: How did the community voice influence the emergence of your strategies?

A: A recent example of how community voice has influenced emergence of our strategies during the planning phase can be seen in our Healthy Shelby initiative.  One of Healthy Shelby’s goals is to reduce infant mortality. To further that goal, we conducted focus groups with pregnant, low income women during the planning phase to better understand the reasons why they were not pursuing pre-natal care.  Engaging those women has led Healthy Shelby to begin focusing on a surprisingly simple (knock on wood!) state healthcare policy change that we were not considering before, and that we believe will make a major difference. 

Q: At what stage did you engage the community? What are some tools you are using to do so?

A: Much of our engagement with non-partner community members has been in the planning stages, although on the implementation side we and our partners have also done community mobilization around our priority legislative issues (e.g. writing/visiting state legislators to emphasize the importance of stronger gun crime laws and PreK expansion).  

One of my favorite approaches to organizing community input and brainstorming is a “community cafe” method which always seems to generate lots of quality input on meaty topics in a very efficient way.  Also, while we’re not staffed to manage a traditional blog, to facilitate community participation on a more regular and systematic basis, we've recently implemented an online “suggestion box” to accommodate input from the public and which we are promoting through our e-newsletter.


Blair Taylor leads Memphis Tomorrow, an association of CEOs of Memphis’ largest companies who work collectively, primarily through public/private partnerships, to advance prosperity and quality of life in Greater Memphis.  As President, Blair has guided the engagement of top business leadership in addressing some of the community’s most pressing challenges. As part of her work coordinating the Memphis Fast Forward initiative, Blair serves on the boards of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, the PeopleFirst Partnership, Healthy Shelby, the Growth Alliance and the Greater Memphis Chamber.