A fundamental purpose of Raising Places is to catalyze demand for child-centered communities. Furthermore, we intend to develop promising projects that can continue well beyond the lab-based process because it would simply wasteful and potentially harmful to start something that could not be completed.

We believe that successful community change work requires not only funding, but a sense of local ownership, otherwise known as “buy-in.” In fact, we would argue that buy-in is perhaps as important than funding. If you’ve ever experienced the struggles of a neighborhood where money has repeatedly “poured in” with little change to social conditions, you are familiar with the phenomenon of projects that don’t have buy-in.

So we all know we need buy-in. But what is this elusive achievement known as “community buy-in," and why is it so hard to build?

Buy-in is a term that broadly means “the community” is “on board” with “proposed changes.” In other words, some critical mass of locally-influential people has expressed non-negative support for a project that would fundamentally alter some critical aspect of their neighborhood. (In top-down community development projects, this is often a project that is going to happen with or without their support).

Anyone who’s attended a community meeting knows that buy-in does not come from beautiful presentations or expensive credentials. Buy-in, ironically, cannot be bought. The process of building it cannot be scaled into ultimate efficiency. This is because buy-in requires a few key ingredients, which we’ve worked to imbue at every step of Raising Places – try a few at home!

1. Trusting relationships.

A typical community change project of any significant scale requires partnerships, most likely between folks within and outside of the community. However, it’s easy to see how hard it is to trust outsiders. “Why our community?” and “What’s in it for them?” are some fair and common questions that often arise. Particularly when a power imbalance is exacerbated by economic or racial differences, trust is often the thing that marginalized communities keep closest to the chest.

As outsiders by definition, our Raising Places team has worked to build trusting relationships with design teams in a number of ways. For one, we started by listening, not talking. The project began with us conducting hour-long video interviews with every single design team member. The purpose was to learn about people’s professional and personal commitments to their community, as well as to learn more about what motivates them as people. These conversations were long and winding, but that was fine, since we really only had one message to communicate: “We will listen to you.”

We worked to build an atmosphere of trust in the lab setting by welcoming everyone individually, setting some important shared expectations, and facilitating storytelling and reflection at each step. More importantly, we continuously made it clear that we were the process people, while they were the experts in their own community - therefore, every important decision about goals or plans would be made by them.

However, to varying degrees, the design team was already bought in; after all, they signed up for this. The real trick was supporting design team members to go out and replicate these methods, building trusting relationships with community members. Through open-ended interviews and participant observation, design team members did more than learn about their community through the eyes of others; they began or deepened relationships with everyone from young mothers to police officers, preschool teachers to elders, high schoolers to business owners. And these relationships were proven valuable when those same community members came to subsequent labs, shared their ideas and told us they felt heard.

Design team member Zebi Williams embraces an attendee at the Raising Places Action Lab in Hudson, NY.

So, trusting relationships are necessary for buy-in. Unfortunately, they aren’t sufficient. You also need...

2. Actual positive benefit.

I know that sounds incredibly obvious, but we’ve been surprised by how many community change projects are not set up to produce real positive benefit for the community. Whether it’s a squash court in an area where no one has heard of that sport, or a housing development that raises property values and hastens displacement. We often see projects that originate outside of the community, and which may make things incrementally better, but are not addressing the most high-priority or systemic needs. At best, these projects receive graffiti; at worst, they contribute to decline.

How does one ensure real positive benefit? We’d recommend starting with a problem in mind, rather than a solution. We know how easy it is to become attached to an idea, but until you truly understand the problem, including its root causes, you should be wary of any proposed solutions. At Raising Places, we asked community teams to apply by identifying three major barriers to children and families thriving in their community. (Think: housing affordability, substance abuse, or pedestrian safety). Starting with the problem and understanding it better is the critical first step to defining the right solution.

Once teams had conducted community-based research, they went through a rigorous synthesis process, but the gist was simple: what community needs speak the loudest? These themes turned into “How Might We” statements, which turned into hundreds of ideas. You’ll find that once the problems are well-articulated, it’s hard to stop the solutions from flowing. These ideas were further prioritized by community members with dot stickers at the Ideas Lab.

This idea for improving housing for residents with low-income in North Wilkesboro got a lot of likes during the Ideas Lab.

But ensuring actual positive benefit doesn’t just mean prioritizing the right problem to solve; it also means solving it in the right way. This is where prototyping comes in. Most social impact leaders feel urgently about moving from idea to implementation, but that skips this critical step. Visual prototypes are tangible, paper-based representations of the concept; for example, if the concept is a party, the visual prototype is its invitation. Raising Places design team members created visual prototypes of their most promising ideas, and shared them with community members for rounds of iteration and feedback. This helped ensure the concepts would solve the right problems, in the right ways.

3. Design participation.

This one’s the hardest to achieve, but the most impactful by far. The real key to community buy-in is enabling individuals to participate in the creation of solutions. Because once somebody feels that an idea is at least partly theirs, they become way more likely to share their support far and wide.

Most of us think of community design as something done by solo professionals; architecture is done by architects, planning by planners. And while there are some jobs where professional expertise is undeniably critical, and collaboration by non-professionals would only slow things down (think flying a plane or performing surgery), design does not have to be one of those jobs. We would argue that the most important thing a designer can do is facilitate design participation by others - even if that means giving up some of your decision-making power. Because once someone has participated, they are often bought in.

What is design participation? It’s simply anytime a community member contributes to the creation of something new. Raising Places has included countless methods for design participation, from residents sketching their concepts at the Ideas Labs, to teens giving candid opinions on visual prototypes, to parents and kids moving Lego pieces around a town map, to attendees answering open questions at the Action Labs. Each of these tools said to its participant, “This idea is not complete until you fill in the missing pieces.”

Design team member Sam Hinnant shares concept images with an attendee at the Raising Places Action Lab in North Wilkesboro, NC.

Now these moments were not just lip service to residents’ opinions - they were genuine learning tools that allowed our design teams to glean important information and ideas about the concepts as they were shaped. I can promise that if you create moments for design participation, you will be surprised by the value of insights and ideas that come from residents with greater lived experiences of the community than you. But it also doesn't hurt that these moments create advocates. Put another way: it’s the difference between “I like your idea” and “You like my idea.”

Buy-in for the long haul

Remember, buy-in isn’t a box that can be checked and set aside. Particularly when working in communities, it’s critical to maintain those trusting relationships, continuously re-prioritize problems as they shift in order to maximize positive benefit, and create two-way channels for new and existing stakeholders to experience design participation. That said, if you incorporate these three principles into your work, your projects should have a much greater chance of implementation, impact and sustainability.