Facing Challenges and Finding Solutions

As with many things that change the status quo, engaging in upstream mental health and wellbeing work can bring about challenges, including engaging with partners and community members in a transparent and accountable way; dealing with staffing transitions and burnout; staying upstream with a strong focus on community focused strategies; and sustaining and scaling the work amidst the many barriers and competing priorities we face every day. But community organizations have many strengths and assets they can lean on to counter these challenges in innovative ways. Below are some of the solutions Making Connections sites have developed to overcome these challenges. 

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There are many reasons why it is difficult to engage community members in this work. At the most basic level, community members are busy working, taking care of their kids, and meeting their other day-to-day needs, so they may not have time for another commitment. Especially when engaging those who have been impacted by individual, family or community trauma, there may be a natural hesitance to engaging.  Many communities have had negative experiences when a government agency or nonprofit organization asked for their input and participation and then either over promised what community members would receive in return or ignored community members’ perspectives or failed to follow up at all. All these dynamics and more leave people feeling wary about trusting other groups.

The Making Connections sites have overcome these obstacles by addressing these realities head on. They organize meetings at times that are easiest for community members to attend and offer childcare whenever possible. Some of the sites offer financial incentives like stipends to community members who participate and have a role to play on an ongoing basis. The sites take steps to build safety and trust into their interactions with community members such as creating jobs for community members to lead outreach work. Most importantly, they build in time to patiently develop ongoing relationships. They strive to be transparent and have mutual benefit; to share back any data and lessons learned on a consistent basis.

Examples

  • Resilience Grows Here (RGH), the Making Connections site in Canton, Connecticut, overcame the challenge of engaging veterans in underserved rural areas by listening to what veterans say they need. Patience, trust, and humility are key. “There are so many services that work with veterans that ‘tell’ them what they need instead of listening to what they feel they need and how they wish to receive it! … RGH has never lost sight of the need to let the veteran’s voices be heard, and our role is to lift them up and advocate for their stated needs,” said RGH Director Justine Ginsburg.
     
  • In San Diego, where the Making Connections coalition focuses on supporting mental health and wellbeing among young men and boys in the city’s East-African community, the coalition tapped into existing community outreach and hired leaders from within the community. Sahra Abdi of the United Women of East Africa Support Team (UWEAST) said, “Our program managers and peer counselors were all raised in the community, are aware of the challenges the community faces, and have influence among their peers. These factors have helped us become a safe space where people are comfortable to speak their truth and also seek help and resources.”
     
  • Sinai Health System, the lead partner in Making Connections: Chicago, established trust with community residents by listening—and responding to—their feedback about obstacles that prevented young men of color in the area from taking advantage of job opportunities at the Sinai Health System hospital. Making Connections team members advocated to leadership for changes to the hospital’s lengthy paperwork requirements and background checks and made the hospital’s patient vans available for newly employed community members and youth leaders to get back and forth to work and meetings.

Keeping partners engaged: It’s important to help partners see on an ongoing basis what’s in it for them. Share articles, blogs, videos, photos, testimonials, or other materials about the initiative so that partners can see how their participation has contributed to its success. Consider inviting some program participants (youth board members, someone who’s participated in program activities) to a partners’ meeting to share what the program has meant to them.  Find ways to share success stories with those funders and key decisionmakers that are important to collaborative partners.  Celebrate their contributions in ways that motivate them to stay involved.

Managing differences and different work styles: Assess if the root of the challenge is interpersonal or if it’s organizational (meaning that it’s not about people but about the organizations having different priorities or a different work culture). Determine if the difference in style is detrimental to achieving the coalition’s partnership. One-on-one conversations can help surface and address issues that may not be comfortably raised in group settings. If one-on-one conversations aren’t enough, consider whether mediation from a neutral third party could be helpful.  If necessary, find ways to mutually agree that the partnership is not mutually beneficial.

When some partners are doing more work than others: It’s not always practical or possible for  all partners to do the same type of work or put in the same amount of effort. What’s important is to get agreement on this so that all partners know what to expect from each other, and that all parties engaged are valued. An agreement can be a joint work plan that spells out which organizations are going to do which tasks and make which contributions. Or it can be a more formal memorandum of understanding. Use the agreement to check in with partners on a regular frequency about what they’ve committed to and hold them accountable for those commitments.

Examples

  • The Florence Making Connections team makes a proactive effort to bolster partner organizations’ activities and events through volunteer support. They also produce a newsletter that highlights partner activities and opportunities for collaboration to benefit veterans.
     
  • The Male Engagement Network (MEN) partners in Boston use online shared documents and a shared calendar, and they have a shared MEN email address. All partners can post on the MEN Facebook page and have used it to publicize each other’s events. At monthly meetings, each partner presents updates so the other partners are informed and can support each other’s work.
     
  • Several Making Connections sites included statements of values important to their work in formal agreements or MOUs with partner organizations or subcontractors. For example, the Tacoma site included their guiding principles in their subcontractor agreement to ensure that everyone held up the same values. MC:ID in Albuquerque included a statement and requirement in their partner agreements to highlight the importance of positive youth development in their work.

Staff turnover: Staff changes are a regular part of public health, nonprofit, and community organizing work. To acknowledge that there’s a chance it may happen during the duration of the initiative helps proactive vs reactive planning.  Staff transitions can be supported by setting aside time for departing members to document the work they’ve been doing, so that the new person coming into the role can read about the procedures developed, how decisions were made, and observations from the perspective of the departing staff.  If possible, it’s also good to think about what the organization and coalition might be able to do to retain staff and preserve organizational knowledge by distributing the work among more than one staff member and addressing team members’ stress or burnout (see below).

Changes in leadership and leadership priorities: Other staff changes also affect organizational leadership and can sometimes mean new leaders with different priorities. For example, the leadership at a health system or foundation might have previously supported a community-level prevention approach to improving mental health and wellbeing. But new leaders could decide they want to focus more on treatment than on prevention. Or they could change the population of people they want to focus on. This is why it’s important to cultivate more than one champion of the initiative at key partner organizations, so in case one leaves, there will still be someone to support the work, explain the initiative to any new leaders, and help build the support for it. Sometimes, however, a change in leadership means the best possible way forward may be to find new organizational partners who support the work.

Examples
 

  • At KVIBE, the Making Connections site in Honolulu, long-time VISTA volunteers, who are young men from the community, play a key role in helping new staff and partners understand the intent of the program, including its history, partnerships, core values, and protocols.  Often young men move from being participants in the program into VISTA positions.

 

  •  The 253 Making Connections Initiative in Tacoma created an orientation brochure for new coalition members that describes the initiative’s vision, mission, goals, workplan, decision-making process, organizational structure, and more.  This helps maintain consistency and allows new partners to know more about the group’s work.
     
  • In Oklahoma City, the Southern Plains Tribal Health Board (SPTHB), the lead Making Connections organization, faced a challenge when the administration changed at one of the schools where they were implementing the Hope Squad suicide prevention program. The new administration wasn’t interested in continuing with the program. After trying unsuccessfully to change their mind, SPTHB moved on to a different school in the same community, which had a champion to promote the program and an administration that foresaw the potential benefit to the community. The program has been successfully implemented and has been of great benefit to the community, having received recognition through several community awards.

 

Managing decision-making among partners: Once the collaborative has discussed and decided how partners make decisions together (Are decisions made by consensus? Does the lead partner make most of the decisions?), there is still the need to develop trust among the partners. Listen to each other intentionally, ask clarifying questions that help partners deepen their interdependence, hear what they’re saying and what they need, speak well of each other, and be consistent in communicating. The more time partners spend together and the more they communicate with each other and find ways to support each other, the more they’ll develop trust and the better the collaborative work and shared decision-making process—will be.

Deciding what to prioritize. Develop a decision-making process for the coalition based on the partnership’s guiding principles. For example, does it address the community conditions that can help with or detract from mental health and wellbeing? Does it promote health equity and racial justice? Does it build on the strengths and assets of the community? When considering which policies, programs, and activities to take on, ask the questions that assure that decisions are consistent with the coalition’s shared set of values.

Challenge: avoiding burnout

Working on issues like stress, anxiety, violence, poverty, racism, and other systemic harms is intense and can become overwhelming. During the Making Connections initiative, we’ve seen this lead to burnout among site leads, staff members, and volunteers. To prevent and support this inevitable strain, it’s important to create a space for team members to talk about their stress and also for all involved to model what it looks like to support others who are part of the work. This could look like sharing gifts of each other, practicing appreciation for each other's talents and skills, and taking time off to breathe and re-energize. We also recommend that community engagement efforts be shared by several team members. Shouldering it alone is a lot for one person to handle.