Shifting Power Through Authentic Corporate Community Engagement

Recently, our FSG colleagues shared five practices for community engagement that lead to more equitable outcomes. These practices include: (1) clarifying your ‘why,’ i.e., your reason for community engagement; (2) defining your ‘community’; (3) connecting the dots internally between engagement efforts with the same community; (4) understanding and reckoning with history; and (5) being ready to change existing power dynamics. That final practice of proactively engaging with a mindset and approach that shifts and creates poweri.e., the ability to influence beliefs, behavior, and actions of individuals, a process, or an organizationis one of the most authentic ways to engage with communities.

Envision a scale with two sides depicting the power held by communities on one side and the power held by a company on the other. Currently, in most corporate-community relationships, that scale is grossly imbalanced to the side of the company. Balancing the scale and increasing equity (defined as just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential) requires the transferring and building of power by those who currently hold it to those who do not.

Based on our work with companies looking to advance equity through direct community engagement, we are sharing five lessons for how corporations can shift power as they develop and navigate relationships with communities in order to create sustainable social change and to move us to a world where life outcomes are not predicted by an individual’s or group’s identity. 

1. Consistently and frequently engage with communities, moving from transactional to transformational relationships

Despite intent, certain community engagement practicesby the private and other sectorsare exploitative and extractive, such as asking for input without compensation, cultural appropriation (particularly in corporate products, branding, and marketing), and lack of acknowledgment or credit. The major form of exploitation consists of reaching out to communities when it suits the company, but not making the company available when the community has needs. Meaningful community engagement requires sustained partnership rather than simply showing up in times when the company needs the community’s input. A graph of your community engagement should look like a relatively flat and high line rather than one that is mostly near zero punctuated by high spikes in times of corporate need. Some practices that we’ve seen companies employ to begin to demonstrate consistency:

  • opening outreach and meetings with an acknowledgment of inconsistent engagement in the past
  • reflecting back to community members how their participation was helpful and added value, as well as what follow-up and next steps look like
  • establishing regular channels and cadence to offer multiple avenues for two-way discussion, including proactively seeking feedback (see more in lesson 4)
  • publicly acknowledging communities’ contributions to efforts and outcomes

In addition to helping shift away from transactional, sporadic relationships, these practices help nurture trust and set a foundation in the relationship that can help to start shifting power. Most B2B companies have a practice of regularly visiting customers, suppliers, and other partners to check in on needs and develop relationships, irrespective of whether they are marketing a new product or service or responding to a specific request or project. Companies view this practice as an investment and see returns as the increased likelihood that they will be called when a need arises.

A similar mindset can be applied to engaging and developing relationships with communities. Stora Enso, a Finnish pulp and paper manufacturer with operations in Europe, Asia, and South America, has full-time staff in villages dedicated to establishing community relationships and communicating on a regular basis over extended periods. These staff initially engage communities on a gradual basis, building up to more consistent engagement at a high level with punctuated engagement each year as trees are harvested and at additional points as needed. Stora Enso’s approach is rooted in a philosophy that engaging local communities extends beyond issues critical to their core business, that it is part of the company’s legal responsibility and license to operate to understand and adapt engagement based on community needs, and that the structure of interactions is designed differently based on different contexts based on community input. During the COVID-19 pandemic, local staff presence in villages allowed Stora Enso to quickly adapt investments based on community input, dialing up existing investments in some areas (e.g., environment, local resilience) and shifting other investments into new areas (e.g., providing PPE, social welfare) to meet basic community needs.  

2. Give community organizations and stakeholders a seat at the table

As much as possible, companies should partner directly with community stakeholders relevant to the issues on which they are working. These stakeholders can include faith-based organizations, advocacy groups, local nonprofits, and other community-based organizations. The impact of bringing these voices is multifold. First, it allows companies to have a better understanding of the challenges and learn directly from past and existing work in communities, which can help companies get off the ground quicker and advance the work. Second, it enables companies to build a network of stakeholders that may be helpful in co-creating solutions to the current and future issues the company hopes to address. Third, working with partners that are already trusted by community members helps companies foster trust with these communities. Last, but not least, it takes the practice of valuing lived experience as significant ‘data’ or ‘input’ one step further by giving these voices a sayand, therefore, powerin the decision-making process.

As part of this shift, companies will also need to reflect and assess who is already at the decision-making table. Companies can identify strengths and gaps in terms of context and experience, with a particular focus on issue experience, direct engagement, geographical relevance, and demographic relevance. After the initial assessment, the next step is to make room at the table (including giving up some seats, if needed) for those with direct relevance who are not already represented (or represented sufficiently) and to empower those voices to participate effectively and be heard (e.g., with leadership as just having a seat at the table for representation is not sufficient).

Corporate efforts may also need to include capacity-building through dedicated budget and resources in order for community voices and organizations to effectively participate at these tables. Unilever’s Project Shakti has leveraged the untapped potential of community members in rural India to reach previously underserved communities. The program empowers more than 70,000 women from these communities to become micro-entrepreneurs by serving as extended members of Unilever’s sales and distribution network. The program provides these women with the accounting, sales, and IT skills they need to become entrepreneurs and participate in these roles and to provide feedback and input that informs decision-making for these processes. This network of women contributes more than €250 million of Unilever India’s revenue, with consistent annual sales growth of 12-14 percent over the past decade.

3. Value and prioritize communities’ lived experience as part of data-driven decision-making

Companies are increasingly seeking community input, particularly those from historically marginalized groups, in a variety of processes. However, community input is sometimes devalued and not given much or any weight compared in relation to perceived corporate beliefs about community experiences or other forms of data. This devaluation risks making the act of seeking community input seem performative, at best, and risks harming trust in the community-company relationship. It is important to acknowledge, value, and prioritize the lived experience of community members as companies look to authentically engage with communities, especially those that have been historically marginalized. Respecting and valuing lived experience and community expertise in addition to a company’s technical and commercial expertise is crucial for corporate efforts intended to create equitable outcomes, for the community (e.g., how to increase Black, Latinx, and Indigenous representation in the STEM pipeline, directing community investment into areas of greatest need).

Companies often view “data” as primarily quantitative indicators from ‘trusted’ sources. However, there is bias in determining who qualifies as ‘trusted’ and there are historical reasons why some groups have limited access to, and are underrepresented within, those sources (e.g., mental health data used to inform dialogue and efforts on PTSD in Palestine comes from Western sources and experts outside of Palestine that does not reflect and is not appropriate for the relative scale of trauma, depression, and suicide in Palestine). Lived experiences in the community should be a key component of the “data” that drives decision-making.

Authentically collecting that data requires that companies approach communities with a sense of humility rather than hubris. Recognize that, as outsiders, it is impossible to fully understand all the nuances and complexities that may affect communities, and that these intricacies are unlikely to be captured by and show up in commercial or technical data. For example, in late 2020, 3M created the 3M Community Coalition, a group of diverse Twin Cities leaders from local government, nonprofits, and the education sector. The input of these coalition leaders, who represent and elevate the voices and perspectives of communities facing systemic racism, is used to inform, advise, and determine how to direct a $50 million investment by 3M to address racial equity locally.

4. Listen actively and create spaces and mechanisms for feedback, transparency, and accountability

Collecting and valuing community input is a start. Authentic community engagement also includes feedback loopsa willingness to continuously solicit, receive, process, and act on input from community members and partners. Doing so begins with establishing channels for continuous and candid feedback. Companies should commit to doing the prior work of addressing (and redressing) power imbalances so community members feel empowered to give constructive feedback and assured that the process of asking for feedback is more than just a ‘check-the-box’ exercise. It should be an iterative process with feedback mechanisms built-in throughout the process rather than only at the conclusion. Clear, consistent, and coherent communication is key for building trust with community partners.

Feedback channels should be accessible and simple channels of communication, tailored to the community (e.g., feedback channels in Spanish when working with Latinx immigrant communities). The channel should be bidirectional in that companies should acknowledge receipt and understanding of feedback rather than assuming community members are aware of the delivery of their concerns, with the opportunity for follow-up on either side to better understand and/or share updates on the feedback. Mechanisms for feedback, transparency, and accountability should be explained to community members throughout the process. For example, Brown’s Super Stores prioritizes incorporating community feedback from shoppers and neighborhood town halls as part of their efforts to end food deserts and grow economic opportunity in low-income communities in greater Philadelphia. Before opening a store, the company meets with community members to seek input on shoppers’ expectations and how the store might meet their needs. 

5. Co-create solutions with communities rather than for communities

Each of the above practices is an important step for how a company can increase the power a community holds in its processes. Perhaps the most significant way to authentically engage communities and shift powerand, therefore, likely bring about more impactful social changeis through empowering communities to make informed choices rather than determining solutions on their behalf. To foster partnership and a desire to contribute, corporations should engage and value community stakeholders (such as community-based organizations) from the initial ideation stage. Doing so creates a sense of community ownership from the start of an effort and nurtures that ownership for the entirety of the effort.

To increase the breadth and depth of community engagement, companies should consider ease and convenience of location, schedule, and accommodation for interactions with the community. It is important to meet communities where they are both literally, by holding key meetings where the community is located, and figuratively, by making engagement processes accessible and tailored to the community (e.g., providing opportunities to participate in native or preferred languages and scheduling at times when community members are more likely to be available). These actions demonstrate an authentic desire for input and partnership and, by creating a safe and comfortable space for participation, are likely to lead to better input and increased creativity of proposed solutions.

One example of community co-creation is the Boston Ujima Fund. The fund was launched as part of a cross-sector effort bringing together community leaders, companies, investors, and nonprofits and is an independent investment vehicle that empowers local residents, businesses, and other stakeholders to invest in building the wealth of their own communities. The fund itself is democratically managed and includes a standards committee that reviews the social and environmental impacts of its portfolio using 36 metrics chosen by the community. While not a traditional corporate entity, the Boston Ujima Fund provides a valuable example of how alternative structures can shift power, enable co-creation, and expand the impact a company can have through its community engagement efforts.

“In a free enterprise,
the community is not just
another stakeholder
in business
but is, in fact,
the very purpose of its existence.”

– Jamsetji Tata,
Indian entrepreneur and
founder of the Tata Group (1839-1904)

 

Community engagement is essential to deepen the impact and sustainability of corporate solutions and business operations. Authentic community engagement enables communities to possess agency, take action, and increase their capacity and power. It builds trusting relationships with partners and empowers groups that have been historically disenfranchised.

The above considerations are based on practices we see companies employing to rebuild relationships with communities, particularly those that have been overlooked by their processes in the past. Authenticity is crucial for community engagement. It enables the co-creation of innovative problem-solving rooted in the lived experience of the community and helps companies unlock untapped potential in communities while driving more equitable social change.

While there are certainly other practices that can help shift power to communities, we find that these five steps can help companies and communities begin to come together and collaborate to co-create solutions to complex, systemic challenges. We welcome opportunities to hear from you about what you are learning and additional practices to shift power to and authentically engage with communities.

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