As the term is used here, “partners” comprises individuals, groups, and organizations formally engaged and invested in your project, with a role in implementation. Community partners may include older adults who step forward. They might be organized but informal groups of residents or community organizers who have come together to participate, or they can be the organizations collaborating with you to engage older adults. In Grand Rapids, partners have included organizations and faith communities working to end homelessness; in Los Angeles, they have been organizations that convene and work within local immigrant communities; and in Minnesota’s grassroots initiative, partners include residents of diverse generations from ten rural communities.
Many groups do not have the time, finances, or human resources to perform the tasks required for building capacity, and those with the most need often have the least capacity to recruit and retain older adults. If not addressed, these limitations will leave significant barriers to engaging older adults. Program success and sustainability depend on the ability of implementing partners to engage older adults in meaningful ways (tapping skills and expertise developed over lifetimes) and that are clearly connected to issues they care about. Partners must be able to effectively recruit, train, place, manage, and retain older adult participants, and need support in order to do so.
Over the long run, the ability to leverage the talents of older adults brings access to new resources that further expand partner capacity. At the outset, however, partners need training, tools, and technical assistance. As importantly, they benefit tremendously from formal and informal opportunities for collaborative learning that enable them to network and grow, share knowledge with colleagues, and try new ways of achieving their goals. Some staff need professional development, leadership training, and team building, as well as assistance to challenge assumptions and create infrastructure that successfully integrates older adults into different roles and programs.
An organization’s culture, capacity, and readiness will strongly impact what happens in this work. A fundamental goal must be to foster a shift from the traditional deficit-based perception of older adults (as a population of need) to an asset-based view (recognizing them as leaders and a critical resource for community improvement and enrichment). Organizations and communities with a willingness to embrace internal cultural change and do things differently will find it easier to make this shift than large, bureaucratic institutions where community-driven initiatives may be harder to launch.
A community change strategy led by older adults takes effort and upfront investment. It requires focus, thoughtful planning, innovation, and readiness. Yet the benefits, in terms of expertise, commitment, and sustainability, are far-reaching and well worth the effort. By building infrastructure to support older adult participants and engaging them in meaningful service, organizations can improve program outcomes, offer services they would otherwise be unable to provide, reduce administrative expenses, gain donors, and heighten community awareness, involvement, and ownership of the focus issue. Success in bringing community together and recruiting even a small number of committed and skilled contributors can have a lasting impact for an organization and offer significant return on investment.
Lay the groundwork.
Help organizations develop an understanding of older adults as resources. Building capacity to engage older adults is a long-term process. It begins with a new awareness about the benefits and challenges of involving older adults, and may include incentives, including financial resources, for organizations that commit to initiatives aimed at engaging older adults.
Assess partner culture and capacity to effectively integrate older adults into their organizations and either assign meaningful roles and tasks, or empower older adults to make their own decisions. Examine assumptions, policies, and practices involving older adults. An audit tool and process can identify strengths and weaknesses. Build on existing assets. Address logistical and cultural issues. The cultures of the organizations driving the project must also be compatible with the ethos of the community and its willingness to participate.
Create individual organizational development plans, including engagement goals and implementation strategies, e.g., identifying high-impact roles throughout the organization; developing a human resources infrastructure appropriate to the project (job descriptions, health insurance options, stipends, transportation reimbursement, learning and advancement opportunities, flexible job design options); addressing staffing and resource needs; and cascading the asset-based message throughout the organization to enhance understanding and enthusiasm.
Secure and sustain support at all levels of the organization. Identify and build buy-in from internal champions. Convey to staff the strategic importance of the work and the organization’s commitment to success. Encourage staff to think creatively about projects and positions that can employ older adults.
Give partners time and space for internal organizational work before “going public.” They must be prepared for the expectations, requirements, and needs of older adult participants, before they begin recruiting them.
Provide technical assistance for partners and community groups on the development of implementation logic models, policies, program plans, evaluation practices for monitoring activities and measuring impact, communication strategies and materials, and the design and management of a local learning community.
Develop ongoing training, peer learning, and professional development opportunities for partners, community leaders, and local nonprofits featuring subject matter experts, educational presentations, project sharing, skill building and cultural awareness workshops; as well as peer consultations, access to resources, and trainings that respond to challenges as they emerge during the process. Regular training opportunities help to sustain interest and commitment over time. Investigate structured trainings and resources that are already available to avoid “reinventing the wheel.”
Develop recruiting strategies, goals, and objectives. Successful strategies vary from one organization to another, depending on the nature of the work and the relationships within the community. Employ a variety of strategies and continually evaluate what is, and is not working.
Free guides and tools you may find useful include sample volunteer management audits, best practices, and lessons learned; communications/outreach materials; Partnering for Sustainable Community Change and other publications that explore techniques for results-focused collaboration; Practical Approaches for Mobilizing Older Adults as Community Changemakers and other publications about recruiting older adult participants; and more.Related Resources