This article is the fifth in a series. Read the first, second, third and fourth articles.

One of the most memorable lessons I learned about engagement was during my time in business school when my professor shared with us the concept of Exchange Theory in marketing. 

The basic idea here is that a consumer will pay a certain price to purchase a product – it could be a good, service, or even an idea – as long as the consumer sees value in the exchange.  My prof then extended the discussion to the idea of building communities (yes, communities!), suggesting that the same concept could be applied to developing and maintaining strong relationships.  In this sense, it’s important to understand your stakeholders’ needs and expectations, treat their concerns with respect and provide solutions that are appropriate and relevant.  The extension to this theory is that when you build a history of meaningful engagement and follow-through, you build trust and deeper connection.

Previous articles in this series cover Steps 1 through 4 of a 5-step approach to jumpstarting your organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).  These steps applied primarily to the inner workings of organizations, from embedding DEI into goals and strategy, through to day-to-day implementation. This final article will discuss how community can help make DEI efforts more effective while sharing tips for engaging equity-seeking communities.

Step 5:  Community is key

Often when we think about the DEI goals for community engagement, the first thing that comes to mind is outreach.  Perhaps we are seeking to expand our services into new communities or ensure that members of underrepresented groups requiring service are able to receive it.  Alternatively, we might be looking to engage diverse voices and perspectives at decision-making tables, and gain insights into how we can better meet our clients’ needs.  Although outreach for these reasons is beneficial to organizational functioning, it may only be scratching the surface.

Let’s illustrate using an example.  Say you’re from a small organization of 10 or 12 staff.  Your organization has a national mandate, impacting stakeholders across the country.  Although you are seeing success, your small but mighty team is feeling the pressure.  Not only are they serving a national audience, but they are mindful that their audience is diverse.  Therefore, they strive to deliver that services are culturally-appropriate and mindful of the barriers faced by different communities, but are concerned about missing the mark. 

In examples like these, the ability to engage and collaborate with diverse communities can make us better able to meet stakeholders’ needs.  Here’s how:

  • Disruptive innovation: Two-way conversations about an organization’s services can lead us to reflect on the assumptions we make about our work.  As a result, we might ask ourselves challenging questions like, “Is this the only way to achieve our mandate”, “Are we inadvertently causing harm in our approach?”, and “Are we overlooking any barriers to access?”.  These dialogues require us to decentre our ways of doing and consider entirely new service models and approaches that better meet stakeholder needs and expectations.
  • Community-based approaches: When organizations are aligned in vision and deliver complementary or overlapping services, disruptive innovation could lead to collaboration.   I’ve seen great examples of settlement agencies that partner with faith organizations.  This is done to foster successful settlement and expand newcomers’ networks, but it also results in community-based approaches to providing educational information and resources.  Mutual and sustained dedication to community-based approaches builds trust and a sense of ownership of the outcomes.
  • Greater effectiveness: Particularly for small organizations, it’s important to think about how efforts can be scaled.  When organizations pool their resources or expertise, they can often grow their impact while finding opportunities to be more effective and efficient. For instance, I recently worked with an agency wishing to offer services to a particular racialised community.  Through partnering with a local cultural organization, not only was the agency able to reach the community in question, but it was able to tap into their volunteer base made up of community members to assist with outreach and service delivery.

While engaging diverse communities can help organizations better meet stakeholder needs, it’s vitally important to be thoughtful of how we build relationships. 

Tips for engaging diverse communities

Recalling our conversation about Exchange Theory at the beginning of this article, it’s important that we provide stakeholder value in order to engage them.  We must take the time to listen, learn about and be accountable to our stakeholders’ needs. This is crucial in building trust and relationships. 

Below, are 8 tips get started:

  1. Take a holistic view of the communities you seek to engage with. Learn about what is important to them, their needs and expectations, and the systemic barriers they face.  Be mindful of intersectionality.
  2. Be ready to communicate to your stakeholders why it’s important to you to engage them, and why now. If you have started with your “why” and connected the dots to mission, vision, and values, opening up this dialogue will be much easier. 
  3. Before reaching out to the community organizations that serve the groups you wish to engage, consider the status of your current relationships, as well as your longer-term hopes for partnership. Use resources such as Tamarack’s Collaboration Spectrum Tool to plot these out and plan strategically.
  4. Remember that relationship-building takes time. It might require having courageous conversations and acknowledging past (and ongoing) hurts.  As a result, meaningful relationships don’t always develop on a schedule.  They require building trust and being consistently accountable, and this happens at the community’s pace.
  5. Think of engagement is a continuous process. Relationships need to be cultivated and managed, and the fulfillment of your end of the exchange theory must be ongoing to make this happen.
  6. Look out for community champions. As you engage with different communities, identify those trusted members.  If they are open to it, reach out to them directly and start a dialogue.  Be interested, be curious and be learning-oriented, and you are likely to see these efforts returned.
  7. Be inclusive. When engaging diverse communities, be ready to ensure that they feel safe and welcome in your space.  In doing so, it is important to be mindful of cultural norms and mores.
  8. Remember that organizations are made up of people. Connect on a human level, and you’ll develop the most successful and long-term relationships across diversity.

Christina Sackeyfio is the Founder and Principal Consultant at Boldly Inclusive. She is a Canadian Certified Inclusion Professional, who worked for over a decade on social impact and innovation projects as a non-profit leader, capacity builder, community engagement specialist. She sees inclusion as a lens for everything from strategy to program design and delivery and believes that if we stretch our thinking about DEI, it can be a way of doing rather than a thing we do.