Stories of Impact

Authentic Community Engagement

One of Palm Health Foundation’s first Healthier Together communities was Jupiter, Florida. Launched in 2014, it became a case study for authentic community participation and how the foundation built trust through “mini-grants,” a way for all to become local stewards of shared resources. Lynn Hays, long-time Jupiter resident and first steering committee chair of Healthier Jupiter, shares her perspective:

“Palm Health Foundation was taking a chance on a place-based initiative and wanted to learn along with us. They were the neutral third party at the table among a diverse group of residents, dedicated nonprofits and municipalities trying to figure out how we could move our community forward to benefit everyone. 

As one of the first Healthier Together communities, we struggled for clarity at the beginning of the process. None of the foundation’s three issues was at the top of the list of health concerns for Jupiter.  We chose diabetes but felt that the foundation’s initial goal of a 5% reduction in five years among our populations was unachievable. And we weren’t clear on the target population—we are a diverse community of retirees, young families and migrants and an unincorporated area of African American residents.

The team voiced their concerns. We felt that all the aspects of diabetes prevention management—healthy eating, exercise, access to care—were a platform for a healthier community in general. As we worked with the foundation, they became more flexible and open to assessing what the community needed and wanted.  We looked at healthy lifestyles across the lifespan and transformed the initiative over time to one that had universal appeal for all residents to live their healthiest best lives while integrating our own local resources to develop solutions.

We landed on “mini-grants” to support healthy eating, physical activity and access to care.  Small nonprofits and individuals with great passion but limited funds applied for $2,500 grants. We provided mentoring and grantwriting workshops and support and a platform to network and collaborate. By our third year, we had an outpouring of involvement from the community with over 400 people attending our event where we announced the mini-grant recipients.

The measures weren’t so much moving the needle on diabetes, but having the organizations support each other so that all the social determinants of heath were improved for the most vulnerable in our community.

The mini-grants have created an incredible ripple effect for collaboration, high resident engagement and improving the health and grassroots systems within the community.

One example is Palm Beach Harvest, a food rescue organization. Their first mini-grant funded a community garden to help feed children at a pre-school that served a minority population. 

It was a huge success for the school and led to a connection between Palm Beach Harvest and El Sol, an organization serving day laborers and their families. Now El Sol is a drop-off point for their food rescue and adds to the food pantry supplies. The mini-grant for Palm Beach Harvest also served as a trajectory for greater investment.  A community member learned of the organization through the increased exposure the mini-grant created and helped them secure a $11,000 grant to pay off the loan on their truck and purchase a second, doubling their reach.

The grants are funding pilot ideas that will improve our collective community health and paving the way for other funders to contribute.  I understood from the beginning that no individual projects with the funding we had would produce significant results.  But they would be a force to bring together the organizations in the community for greater collaboration to achieve a heathier community. The measures weren’t so much moving the needle on diabetes, but having the organizations support each other so that all the social determinants of health were improved for the most vulnerable by sharing our local resources.”

Tips for Fostering Authentic Community Engagement and Adaptability

  • Enable communities to define health issues and shape solutions on their terms.
  • Shift from a traditional funder/grantee hierarchical perspective to becoming one with the community as local stewards of shared resources.
  • Find new ways to measure success. Traditional, rigid metrics don’t always work in a collective impact model.  Allow community members to make them their own.
  • Provide funding to residents with the best ideas, even if they are not part of a nonprofit.

Sustainable impact:  Large Palm Beach County funders are now looking at investing in Healthier Together mini-grant recipients.  They have recognized community members as an important part of the vetting process and as leaders of funded initiatives.

Our progress

Authentic Community Engagement

A Participatory Approach

Meaningful engagement with individuals most impacted by health disparities is at the very heart of Healthier Together’s work. Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation. We strive to maintain citizen power, where individuals who are most impacted and not often invited to participate are part of our decision-making and supported to grow into leadership roles.

Reference: Arnstein, Sherry R. “A Ladder Of Citizen Participation.” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969.

Engagement looks different based on the community, the context and ecological factors, and the people. Finding the right entry point and role for everyone is important. For some, developing the organizing structure is of interest. For others, implementing plans and activities is their strength. Some may want to be deeply involved in the decision-making process while others want to be informed about progress. The goal is to strike a balance between form and function to cultivate and nurture the shared purpose and share power in dynamic and generative ways.

It’s about validating the residents who are living in the neighborhoods. You are telling them, ‘I trust you to tell me solutions.’ They are not used to it. Many come from countries where their voices don’t matter. It takes a lot of education, building trust, and changing mindsets. And it takes time for them to believe that they can be part of the change.

It’s a Matter of Trust

Creating pathways for authentic community engagement is time intensive and requires relationships built on trust. There are no short-cuts. Burnout, fatigue and frustration is common.  There is pressure to achieve.  It sometimes feels like it would be more expeditious to make a decision if everything did not need to go through the community.  But without spending time on building trust and creating relationships, people’s talents, insights and resources would never have come to light.  We believe authentic community participation holds the key to authentic community change.

It Takes Time

Earning trust in community engagement work takes time, consistency and reassurance. Community agencies may perceive the initiative as an outsider or a threat. They can become gatekeepers, growing protective of residents and fearful promises won’t be kept and the community will be let down. Some may be challenged by eliciting the voices and opinions of people who are viewed by the agencies as “their residents.” 

Another challenge is putting a value on resident contributions. Time as a key commodity can neither be over or underestimated. Early on in Healthier Together’s work, there was an assumption that people would give of their time because of the belief that there could be something better for their communities. It was clear institutional bias. The communities and Palm Health Foundation, recognizing the value of time, began to consider ways to support people for the contributions they were making in this work, including compensating residents through mini-grants. It is an issue we continue to explore to determine how to balance the contributions of paid staff with the often equally valuable and time-consuming work of resident leaders.

It took two years of people saying, ‘you’re still here and still doing the same thing, so it must be real.'

Key Learning

We learned three valuable lessons that over time helped deepen relationships for community change work to take hold.

• Understand where the community is coming from and don’t take initial rejection personally.

• Don’t pretend to know everything, because you don’t.

• Try new things but be careful to recognize the low downsides and high upsides of those actions, and in particular, in relationship to the communities with histories of disenfranchisement and disadvantage.

• Always close the communication loop from resident engagement. Share action steps and opinions and give credit to those who shared ideas.

• Never underestimate the slightest change.

• Acknowledge and celebrate wins. Sometimes communities are hard on themselves and don’t recognize their own successes.

• Provide space for people to engage where they can add the most value, play to their strengths, and based on the time they can give.

• Recognize that goal-oriented people may not be comfortable in early stages.

• Seek contributions to the effort in all forms. Meaningful contributions often are outside the traditional decision-making/meeting spaces.

• Offer opportunities for training and practice for roles outside of comfort zones.

I thought I was going to have to give up a lot of my time to be a part of the organization. I did, but in return, the support I received helped me to grow personally and professionally to reach more people. That was the common goal.

Case Studies

To learn more about authentic community engagement in practice, read our stories of impact:

Authentic Community Engagement

Residents Leading Policy Change