The Key to Effective Community Building

By: Wendy McCaig
Posted in: Reflections and Ideas
The Key to Effective Community Building
My friend Rudy Green is fond of reminding me, “It ain’t about you.” Every time I start to think that the success of a community building effort is somehow the result of my efforts, skills or dedication, these words echo in my mind as a sobering reminder.
Community building is never about “me”, it is inherently about “we.” If it becomes about one person, one group, one organization, or one congregation, the effort will fail.
How do you build a sense of “we?”  The key to effective community building effort is trust. Trust is a very fragile thing.  It is easily broken and rarely mended.
If you are seeking to be a community builder, by default you have to be a trust builder.
Here are three suggestions to help you in your trust-building efforts:

Be mindful of the barriers to trust

I have been engaged in grassroots level community building for more than a decade.  By far the greatest barrier to trust is the legacy of racism.  No matter who you are, if you are crossing racial boundaries, you are likely to begin in a deficit trust position. Just accept that you will have to work harder and longer if you are crossing this divide and remember, “It ain’t about you!”
Practical Tip: Always build teams with “co-leaders,” with one leader being a long-time resident who has established trust, and one being a newer resident or volunteer from outside the community. Simply modeling this kind of trusting relationship at all levels of leadership helps break down distrust.

Plan to stay a while

My favorite Cormac Russell quote is, “Community building happens at the speed of trust.”  I can tell you from experience, you need to plan on investing a minimum of five years in a community building effort if you want it to be truly transformative.
One of my coaching clients recently sent me the meeting notes from a community gathering where one of the long-time African American residents gave some wise council to a group of white volunteers,

“Remember, they’ve met lots of well-intentioned white people who come and go. And when you gone, you gone. It don’t mean nothing until they see you again, and again. So, don’t expect them to open up just because you came to their party.”

I hear it over and over again in lower income communities.  Comments like, “Yeah, we heard that before. You people come in, make lots of promises, your funding runs out and you are out of here!” This revolving door of well-intentioned outsiders has made communities incredibly distrustful of new ideas, organizations and people.
Practical Tip: Don’t start new projects, instead partner with a long-time resident who is already doing great things and help them expand their impact.

Leave your agenda at home

This is the most difficult part of community building for institutions. We have been conditioned to ask “What’s our mission?” and stay laser focused on it for fear of “mission creep.”  We drill missional alignment into our corporate cultures and reward focus and efficiency.
But think about it.  If someone pretends to be truly interested in you, your community and your dreams for your community, then tries to steer you, manipulate you or persuade you to support their agenda, you would turn and run.  People can smell a con.
If you have any agenda other than building a sense of community, be honest with yourself and don’t use asset-based community development as a means to drive your own agenda.  Not only will it not work, it also destroys trust and will make it harder for those genuinely interested in building community to do so in the future.   So, if your goal is to grow your non-profits program, your church’s attendance, your agency’s clients, and so on, you either need to shift your mission or accept that ABCD is not for you.
Practical Tip:  Take the time on the front end of an ABCD development effort to insure your organization is ready for this type of community building effort. Spend time evaluating your motives for engaging community residents, is it about your organizaitons goals or about the communities dreams.  Remember, “It ain’t about you!”
I developed our ABCD training to help institutions shift their community engagement lens from doing things for the community to doing with the community in a way that builds up the internal capacity of a community. That is the ultimate goal of community building. Learn more about ABCD Training options here. If you are in the Metro Richmond area, here.


John Hamerlinck
09/05/17 02:21:48PM @john-hamerlinck:

Hi, Wendy, I absolutely agree about racism being the greatest barrier to trust. I have also seen so many efforts/projects/programs, whatever we want to call them, that claimed "community capacity building" as a goal. So often when you ask the question, "whose capacity is being built," what becomes apparent is that the real goal is building the capacity of an organization or an agency to deliver a deficit-focused program, and not the capacity for authentic community building. You're right to remind us that "It ain't about you."

Wendy McCaig
09/06/17 06:34:01AM @wendy-mccaig:

John, thank you for your comment. I have also seen "capacity building" to mean the organizaiton and not the citizens.  This is tough work and it is really hard to convince people to invest in people they can't control through employment relationships.  We have to find a way of getting resources into the hands of those who need them without it getting sucked up into the organizational level. 

Wendy McCaig