Community Engagement 101: Why Most Summits Suck


blenderHi everyone. I just came back from Port Orchard for a friend’s wedding. A day-trip with 3-month-old infant is grueling. It was like writing a grant. A cute, drooly, moody grant who spit up all over my suit. I’m exhausted. That is to say, I don’t know how this post is going to turn out. This may not be my finest post, but I am committed to getting a new post published every Monday. Like I’ve been telling the baby, “Consistent adequacy is always better than inconsistent excellence.” And also: “Please don’t throw up on Daddy.”


A few months ago, I received a request from a staff at the City of Seattle’s Department of Critical Services (DCS)*. “Vu,” said the staff, “can you gather a whole bunch of Vietnamese people so that the Director of the Department of Critical Services can come and listen to their concerns? We’ve already pulled together mini-summits with three other ethnic groups: Spanish, Somalis, and Canadians.” (Kidding about the Canadians).

Sigh. Despite my best efforts, this seems to happen a lot in Seattle: “Let’s get a bunch of ethnic people together and listen to them. I bet they’re just standing around; they’ll love to come to a meeting and be listened to, especially if we have hummus and baby carrots.” It is very well-intentioned, and usually ineffective in the long-run. Sometimes it is just insulting, especially when the hummus is all chunky and grainy and not smooth, like high-quality hummus should be.

Summits, conferences, and other gatherings, when used right, can be powerful tools for community engagement. Kind of like a blender. You get a blender and make some awesome margaritas, and people are like “this is the best party ever.” (This may be the worst analogy ever). These gatherings can connect people around a common cause, equip them with skills and resources, and energize everyone to take action. They also look cool: “Ooh, look, 500 people attended! Snap a picture for our annual report! (Make sure you capture the diversity).”

But lately summits have become the default shortcut for everything:

  • We need to demonstrate to funders that we are doing stuff. Let’s have a summit!
  • We need to kick-off our collective impact initiative. Let’s have a summit!
  • Our strategic plan needs input from communities of color. Let’s have a bunch of mini summits!
  • We need a cool picture for our new brochures. Let’s have a summit!
  • We need to spread awareness of a critical issue. Let’s have a giant summit and get a national speaker to keynote!

I and a bunch of other people in the field are sick of summit-like meetings, especially as tools for engaging communities of color. It’s like taking a blender and trying to make an entire meal with it, blending the salad, blending the entrees, blending the dessert (I’m not giving up on this blender analogy).

Here’s why most summits suck as a tool for engagement:

  1. They give a false sense of stuff actually getting done. Sweet, we placed sticky notes and stickers on easel papers and drew visions of an ideal community. Yay! We did stuff! (Hey, we got people to vote using sticky dots on easel paper and write their ideas on sticky notes! Yay! We did stuff!)
  2. They give a false sense of hope and then usually lead to nothing, especially the community input gathering sessions. Time and time again, we ethnic nonprofit staff rally our communities to various listening sessions. Time and time again, little if any of our community members’ suggestions are ever implemented.
  3. There is usually very little follow-through with relationship building. Summits are enticing because you can kill 50 to 500 or more birds with one stone. After that, though, 90% of the generated energy tapers off because there are usually no funds allocated for staff with the language and cultural skills to continue to develop the relationships.
  4. Funds to organize summits are inequitably distributed: I’ve seen so many summits that pay consultants and event coordinators, and allocate nothing to ethnic organizations to do outreach work. So what happens? The paid consultants and/or event coordinators start calling us up to ask us to do outreach for free. It’s very annoying. We got stuff to do, like, you know, running programs and stuff.
  5. The worst part of many summits, though, is that they supplant actual effective community engagement practices. They make people think “Yay, we engaged the communities of color, since they came to our gathering!” Then they might not bother with the one-on-one meetings. One-on-one relationships are the basic building blocks of community organizing and engagement. Absolutely nothing can replace it, and it is totally time-consuming.

Anyway, I told the staff at the Department of Critical Services bluntly that I didn’t have time to rally a bunch of VFA clients for his boss to listen to, and that I didn’t think these types of meetings would be effective anyway, consider how annoyed our community members are with the lack of follow-through from previous gatherings. What would be effective, he asked. Well:

  • Meet with community leaders one-on-one, on their own turf. Go yourself, don’t send your assistant. It’s a respectful thing to do, and the relationship building will pay dividends. Stop it with this “I’ll come down from the mountain once a while so that the people may rejoice in my presence” business. That’s not what you mean, but that’s what it feels like when the only time the community sees you is when you’re pushing some project.
  • When you meet with people, ask them to refer you to other people, and meet with those people one-on-one. It’s time-consuming, meeting with individuals, getting coffee, listening to them tell their life stories, finding out about their hopes and dreams and their worries about their kids, etc., but you cannot engage anyone until they feel like you know and understand them and vice-versa.
  • Be where people are. There are tons of places people are already gathered: Senior programs, churches, temples, youth groups, etc. Go down there, meet the coordinators, go multiple times, build the relationships. Attend organizations’ events.
  • Budget for outreach staff who can do on-the-ground relationship building year-long, and not just during summit time, along with funding  for translations, interpretations, childcare, food, and transportation for community members when you have events.
  • Budget for funding for ethnic nonprofits to collaborate with you to do your work. If you value the outreach work these CBOs do, build it into the budget.
  • Do your research to ensure you’re not repeating something that another organization has done and published a report on. It’s frustrating to have to answer the same questions over and over again.
  • If you are going to have a summit, do all the above, and also commit your team ahead of time to actually accept and follow-through on whatever action steps are decided at the summit, if that’s the will of the community, even if you may not like them. So often the only things that get implemented are whatever aligns with the summit organizers’ preconceived agenda. Well, that’s just stupid and tokenizing and a waste of people’s time. If you’re going to get community members’ input, trust and act on their recommendations.
  • Funders: Fund on-going, on-the-ground relationship-building work, and fund communities-of-color-led nonprofits to do it.

Gatherings are enticing, since you can reach more people in a shorter amount of time. When it works, it can be awesome, like a Vitamix blender, which can make delicious hummus and can puree a digital camera. Lately, it’s been sucking, a lazy and superficial way of engaging communities of color. So many of the community members I interact with are so skeptical of any more “coffee chat with so-and-so important person” or “summit to discuss our concerns about the education system” that they’d just laugh in my face if I ask them to come to one more thing. I don’t want them to laugh in my face. I get plenty of that from my family for being in this line of work.

(*This is a pseudonym. There is no Department of Critical Services at the City of Seattle)

For more on community engagement, check out “Being a Nonprofit with Balls” parts 1, 2, and 3, which launched this blog and gave it its title.