Understanding the Community
Guiding Principle # 4
Once information is organized in a coherent framework, community stakeholders begin to interpret it.
Actions and Considerations
Prepare your data for interpretation. Organizing data in a logical and uncomplicated way is essential to make sense from them. This need not be a technical task—mostly, it is a matter of summarizing your findings succinctly and presenting them clearly.
You might, for example, organize data about community residents like this:
- Total population: 5,325
- Population 60 years and over: 751
- Average household income (overall): $43,890
- Average household income (60 years and over): $18,200
- Avergae household size (overall): 5
- Average household size (60+): 1.3
Review findings with a limited circle of partners before circulating them more widely. If the data reveal something striking, you may want to highlight the need to act immediately on particular issues. Where the urgency of the issues is less obvious, discussions may focus more on establishing priorities for action.
Invite all stakeholders to examine and comment on your findings. There are many ways to stage the community input process, but there is one fundamental rule: Be as inclusive as possible. It is often useful to organize a series of small-group meetings to make it easier for everyone to share their opinions. At some point, however, a full community meeting should bring everyone together.
Ask these questions to ensure that you do not overlook key stakeholders:
- Who is immediately affected by the issues you are discussing?
- Who can bring additional information or knowledge to your discussion?
- Which community leaders, conveners, and facilitators can help you address the issues?
- Which are the most influential private, public, and non-profit institutions in your community?
- Which are the most influential grassroots organizations?
Remind people why their participation is important. The process of interpreting data is in service to a much larger goal—developing a NORC program that allows older people to age in place successfully. Underscoring that goal as you extend meeting invitations, and at the meeting itself, helps to generate enthusiasm for the process.
Learn the art of running effective community meetings. Here are a few guidelines:
- Make sure people understand the purpose of each meeting. You might say: “By the end of this meeting, we hope to have identified three top issues for the NORC program to work on,” or “The purpose of this meeting is to brainstorm potential solutions to the priority issues that we have identified.”
- Provide adequate background information about the NORC. Anyone who becomes involved in the interpretation process needs some context in which to understand the findings. Bring a map to show the geographic boundaries of the NORC or the environment in which it operates. Don’t assume everyone knows all of this—most likely, many will not.
- Explain how you gathered your information. When you present it to others, be sure to explain when, where, and how you collected it; how many people participated; and how you produced the results. All of this can influence how people interpret the findings.
Create a context in which to make meaning from your data. People tend to assign meaning to data on the basis of their own knowledge, their experiences, and the values of their community.
Suppose, for example, your survey indicates that 23 percent of seniors in the NORC don’t know where to turn for information about accessing health or social services. Is that a lot or a little? Does it suggest a need to take immediate action? Should it take priority over other findings? The answers are often subjective.
Comparative data—from a published national survey, for example—can be helpful. But that kind of information is not always available, and even when it is, it may not tell you what is right for your community. Perhaps 23 percent is lower than the national average, but if the community’s goal is to give everyone in the NORC easy access to information, it may still not be good enough.
To engage in productive dialogue about your findings, ask some of these questions:
- Are you surprised by this finding? Why or why not?
- What are your experiences with or perceptions about this issue?
- How important is this issue in your community? Why?
- Would most people in the community agree or disagree with your assessment?
- Does the issue require further study to understand?
- Is there a quick, technical fix to the issue?
- Is this an issue that someone is already addressing?
- Who is concerned or knowledgeable about this issue?
- Who can do something about it?
Keep in Mind
Collecting and interpreting data sometimes produces surprises and puts into question preconceptions and long-held beliefs. Some people are very open to new findings, even if they run counter to their assumptions. Others feel challenged, even threatened, by the unexpected, particularly if it seems to reflect badly on them.