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Building Credibility by Listening

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If your United Way is new to the issue of education, hosting community conversations can pave a pathway to credibility. It can even mitigate controversy. That’s what 14 United Ways in North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee found after conducting listening sessions  around the “hot topic” of effective teaching. In fact, they learned that listening turned down the heat. As part of a strategy to build public support for effective teaching, these United Ways organized issue-specific conversations with teachers, students, dropouts, parents, business leaders and others. Although the meetings were topical, there was no attempt to promote a specific agenda. Instead, United Ways listened and learned. The result was growing public understanding, awareness and support of an issue critical to improving educational outcomes. 

Some of these United Ways were new to education work, yet found the conversations created or improved relationships with educators and policymakers. United Ways were able to educate decision makers about the views of their constituents because they held up the mirror to the community. 

They gained heightened credibility with policymakers. In North Carolina, United Way leaders were invited to testify before the state Senate, serve on the state’s Race to the Top committee and work closely with local school leaders to improve education and support teachers.

Think strategically about what organizations you reach out to as part of these listening sessions. The process of hosting community conversations with key segments is part of coalition building. You may want to co-host listening sessions with individuals or groups who may be key to getting the work done down the road - for example, the school superintendent, the early childhood coalition, the PTA, the teacher’s union and/or key companies that can provide funding, leadership, influence, access to other companies and individuals and volunteers. Beyond that, think about the groups that could help recruit people to attend, like community and faith leaders or leaders of funded agencies serving children and families.

The very act of being heard is empowering to people, especially those who have typically not been asked to take part in the education conversation. Too often, parents and youth in disadvantaged neighborhoods and high-poverty schools are not involved in these kinds of conversations, but they should be.


The listening will be powerful for you and for those who are being heard. Participants can later become part of the community-wide coalition you will need to bring your early grade reading strategies to life. (Don’t make any asks at the community meeting, though.)  Often, people come out of community conversations wanting to raise their hand in some way to help. As Judi Anderson, the Education Director of the United Way of Lancaster County put it: 


“People who have been participants have gotten ideas of, ‘Oh, I can do this, there are possibilities for my involvement in the community.’”

Consider the participants in your community conversations to be part of your ever-growing “kitchen cabinet” on early grade reading. Thank them for their input, let them know what’s happening now and ask for their input. Obtain their personal contact information – phone number and email address. As you work to develop and then execute strategies with partners, circle back to these people. “Ask, thank and inform” is not just for donors, it’s the cornerstone of any individual engagement strategy that can fuel every aspect of an early grade reading issue campaign.


One note about process: make sure this is a cross-functional undertaking. Community conversations are not community impact projects. The most successful ones are planned, supported and attended by all functional teams. Resource development, marketing/communications, community impact, policy and volunteer coordinator staffers can all learn from the conversations and come away with new insights that help them shape, package, sell and staff any resulting early grade reading initiative.


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