Reflections on Community Engagement from YNPN’s June Discussion

By Aubrey Alvarez, Executive Director of Eat Greater Des Moines


The YNPN Discussion Group with the topic of Community Engagement through Partnerships was my first experience with the YNPN group – and it was great! In my new role with Eat Greater Des Moines, I’m working to build successful connections among individuals, organizations and groups impacting our food system – the intended result of these collaborations being increased access to healthy food for all in Central Iowa with a stronger economy. 

On June 13, Leisha Barcus, VP of Community Engagement with the Science Center of Iowa, shared her experience building successful partnerships. After reflecting (really, procrastinating on writing my first blog), I’ve narrowed down what was shared into three main points:

  1. Be strategic about who you approach for partnerships. Don’t just throw darts at a wall and hope it works. While there is value in spreading the word and getting more people working together to accomplish a goal, before you friend every organization in Central Iowa on Facebook and schedule tons of meetings, think about the potential result of the collaboration. What is the mission of the organization you are looking to collaborate with? If you work together, what benefits will each of you experience? Ultimately, how can you help them accomplish their goals without adding more work?

    On the other side, if you are approached regarding a collaboration, keep in mind that it might not be a fit now but it could be a great match in 3, 6, or 12 months. Just because something doesn’t work now doesn’t mean it couldn’t work in the future. 

  2. Take a second look at those organizations you may have considered competitors. Leisha shared an example of a recent partnership among the Science Center of Iowa, Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden and the World Food Prize. All collaborated to host Earth Day events at their locations while linking and promoting collaboratively. Each organization could have organized a separate event and “competed” for the attention of potential attendees and/or sponsors. Instead, by working together they were able to promote through their channels and increase their reach. As a consumer, isn’t it nice when everyone plays nicely in the sandbox?! 

  3. Bring something to the table. Just like any good potluck, bring something to the table. And think broadly! Things your organization does regularly could be a challenge for another organization. Do you have skills with social marketing? A great base of volunteers? Purchasing relationships?

    An example close to me was Eat Greater Des Moines’ relationship with RecycleMe Iowa and Central Iowa Shelter and Services (CISS). RecycleMe Iowa is a doorstep recycling service that caters to apartments, condos and small businesses. They also coordinate or consult regarding zero waste indoor and outdoor events. CISS’ mission is to provide free shelter and meals to homeless adults regardless of physical or emotional conditions, and to facilitate their move toward self-sufficiency. On the surface, why would our small, new non-profit with a focus on food work with a for-profit recycling business and well-established local non-profit? During discussions, we realized we have a shared goal – rescuing food from landfills.

    If we work together with restaurants, catering companies and other organizations that have events with food (and probably leftovers) we can accomplish all of our goals. RecycleMe Iowa has relationships within the restaurant and catering industry – those with extra food. Eat Greater Des Moines has relationships with local shelters, like CISS. CISS staff and volunteers will pick up and transport any leftover food; all they need is a call!

    Through our collaboration, we are hoping to expand upon the great work already happening by outlining a process for anyone wanting to be involved. Each of us brings something to the table, helping each of us have a bigger impact. 

A unintended benefit of my procrastination, besides the deal I made with myself that I could get a pedicure if I used the time to write, was this article by Beth Kanter that came across my phone. From the short review, “Give and Take” by Adam Grant will be the audio book for my road trip to Nashville.

Ultimately, there are opportunities all around for collaborations but they take work. No matter your field of work, surrounding yourself with others from different organizations or roles allows growth for all.  

Comedian Amy Poehler highlights this when she reminded us of the following: “As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.”

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