Understanding the Community

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Guiding Principle # 5

The process of understanding the community enables NORC program planners and community stakeholders to craft an agenda for action.

Actions and Considerations

Decide on your priorities, with input from your partners, especially the seniors, and other community stakeholders. Armed with a list of issues that need to be addressed, you can bring together key players—usually those who have already been involved in the process of understanding the community—to establish priorities.

These questions will help to guide that process:

  • Has this issue reached a crisis level? Will there be dire consequences if you do not act immediately?
  • Is this issue “low-hanging fruit”? Choosing an issue with which you can have success easily can be a way of demonstrating to the community that change is possible.
  • Will the issue generate excitement? The sustained enthusiasm of stakeholders is essential to holding on to their support over the long haul. How invested are they in the outcome? Does the issue have staying power?
  • Is the political climate ripe? If a project runs counter to the political or fiscal climate in your community, you will not have support from people in power. How does the issue fit with trends in the larger community?
  • Do you have the technical capacity to tackle the issue? If you don’t have the necessary skills or resources, you will either need to set it aside for the moment or identify community partners who do have capacity.
  • Are changes related to the issue in question measurable? Your partners and funders will want to know that their investment of time and money has made a difference. Do you have ways to measure that?

Asking each member of the group to rate each issue on a priority scale of one to five is a useful way to measure its importance.

Example: NORC program planners at the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center in Manhattan (New York) conducted a telephone survey of older adults that identified a broad range of needs.

When presented with the findings, the community advisory board immediately seized on the fact that 14 percent of respondents skipped meals or went to bed hungry because they did not have enough money for food. The issue of hunger went to the top of the priority list and was the first problem addressed by the fledgling NORC program. Read more about the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center NORC program.

Brainstorm solutions. Once you have identified and prioritized issues, it is time to start brainstorming solutions. Again, involve a variety of stakeholders who can identify creative, workable strategies for action.

In small groups, ask participants to:

  • Develop several possible approaches to each priority issue.
  • Identify organizations and individuals in the community who might be available to partner with the NORC program on each issue.
  • Identify potential barriers to resolving each issue and possible ways to address them.

Armed with all this information, you are ready to prepare a plan for tackling your priority issues.

Keep in Mind

Set realistic goals, and then build on small successes. Generally, this is more effective than beginning with more ambitious plans that are difficult to execute.

Keep stakeholders informed about your progress at every step to ensure their continued interest and support. Share what you have learned about the community, describe your priorities, and discuss outcomes.

From the earliest planning stages of a project, start thinking about how you will measure its success. Evaluation influences project design, and project design influences evaluation, so they should be considered in tandem. (For more about evaluations, see Evaluating the Projects of a NORC Program.)
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