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Community Development TIG Week: Reframe Reluctance when Partnering with Communities on Research and Evaluation Projects by Sylvia Pu

Hello. I’m Sylvia Pu, a researcher, evaluator, and career coach at Sylvia Pu Consulting. My work focuses on measuring and diversifying school-to-career pathways. For the past few years, I have been working on co-creating solutions with communities using participatory and community-engaged methods. In this post, I want to invite you to reframe community reluctance to participate in research and evaluation projects as a sign of potentially misaligned priorities between us researchers/evaluators/funders and communities. I also provide one possible remedy, which is to engage communities early on when learning questions are being developed.

To provide some context, I want to share two recent community-engaged research projects where I experienced drastically different energy from the communities. In the first case, I proposed an established learning question to a group of community liaisons, received their buy-in, but later was faced with limited enthusiasm when trying to engage the larger community. In that process, I learned about the complex relationships between different groups of the community and about their divided views on community priorities. Needless to say, with the emergent learnings, the project priorities were revised, the community engagement plan was recreated, and the project timeline was adjusted. In short, lessons learned, the hard way.

In the second example, on the other hand, my collaborators and I prioritized co-creating the learning agenda right from the beginning. We identified some general research interests to understand what resulted in the community members being disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system, but we avoided committing to any specific questions or agenda. Instead, we engaged several members of the local community and asked them to share their lived experiences and insights. In that process, a few themes started to emerge, and those themes guided our learning questions. We built on what the community already knew and filled in the knowledge gap.

Lessons Learned

  1. While financial incentives can sometimes increase participant motivation, they don’t always work when addressing reluctance. In those cases, it is important to take a step back, pause, and ask ourselves what needs to happen in the communities we try to partner with.
  2. Reluctance itself is data. In my experience, organizations initiating evaluation or learning projects welcome these insights. Open conversations about lessons learned and how to better move forward are critical to building relationships with stakeholders and communities alike.

Hot Tips

  1. When co-creating solutions with communities, start the effort with a series of listening sessions to answer questions such as:
    • What are the stakeholders within the community?
    • Have different voices and opinions within the community been sufficiently sampled?
    • What is “common sense” to community members that will require documenting instead of uncovering?
    • What questions do community members want to learn?
  2. If you are in the position to propose a project, make sure to have an open conversation with the funder or your supervisor about the uncertainties involved in the process and about final deliverables. Invite them to reflect on their learning interests, and encourage them to stay flexible while balancing different priorities.
  3. If you want to minimize the uncertainties by conducting listening sessions before the project is funded, be sure to still compensate community members for their contribution. You might be able to find some funding for this purpose, but if you can’t, there are creative ways to do so. In my experience, community partners welcome the discussion of alternative ways of compensation with a longer-lasting impact than gift cards.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Community Development TIG Week with our colleagues in the Community DevelopmentTopical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our CD TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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