Giving Compass' Take:

• Aakanksha Sinha highlights two techniques that social service agencies can use to listen to, understand, and create collaborative solutions with communities. 

• How can funders, nonprofits, and other organizations best engage communities to create effective solutions? What role can you play in that process? 

• Read about using co-creation to improve NGOs

Social service agencies have too often excluded the communities they aim to help from informing and strengthening the programs purportedly designed for them. Here are two techniques for using a person-centered model that offers a better way to craft truly collaborative solutions.

The Gifts Explosion tool uses aspects of the Positive Deviance approach and community asset assessment. I was inspired to develop it while working on a project related to financial empowerment in Columbus, Ohio, in 2017. I spoke with a 34-year-old volunteer at a local church regarding her financial challenges, beginning the conversation with a routine introductory question: How do you describe yourself?  She shared that she was a mother of four children, struggled to provide basic necessities such as food and rent, did not know how to support her family, and often felt helpless about changing her situation. It wasn't until later in our 90-minute conversation that I learned about the remarkable effort she was putting into taking care of herself and her family. She ran six businesses, provided counseling at her church to women who were previously trafficked, managed her household on earnings of less than $8,000 per year, and had built a very strong social support system.

Gifts Explosion is a rapid way to surface and apply a communities' talents and resources toward helping itself in tandem with a social agency's aid.

The second tool, See It My Way, is an empathy-building exercise that examines the systemic inequities within a community and how they crop up in an individual's daily activities. It corrects the common mistake of attributing people's behaviors to some innate quality without accounting for the structure of the places, processes, and norms that frame their lives. I developed it while working on a project addressing food security in higher education in 2019.

My clients, who were low-income undergraduate students reporting difficulty with affording meals, noted the good intentions of the food programs at their universities, but found them frustrating to use. For example, the pantry where students picked up the food was not open during holidays and emergency school closures, times when they acutely needed the help. Yet the university wasn't aware of the service gaps and their negative impacts.

To overcome this lack of understanding, I used aspects of person-in-environment perspective (a social work theory), ethnographic research, photovoice (a qualitative research method involving video or photos), and IDEO’s card sort tool to come up with the See It My Way exercise. It uses images of daily activities—such as grocery shopping, family time, attending school, and transportation to work—along with a set of discussion prompts to explore how and why staff, donors, and clients experience the activities differently. The discussion questions include: How do you do this activity? What is your ideal way of doing it? Why can’t you do it in your ideal way? How does your daily life affect your approach? The exercise spotlights the structural inequities—rather than individual factors—that make certain tasks effortless for some and difficult for others.

Read the full article about creating truly collaborative solutions by Aakanksha Sinha at Stanford Social Innovation Review.