We understand that obesity is a systemic societal problem with complex origins. We know that telling people to eat less and exercise more isn't enough; people need physical, social, economic, and policy environments that support behavior change. No one person or agency can make these kinds of significant changes alone. We need to build community collaborations or coalitions to help prevent childhood obesity.
Building a community collaboration means partnering with a group of diverse, autonomous agencies and individuals to address a common concern in your community, working with them toward shared goals.1 Your group jointly develops a vision and a structure, agreeing to work together on common goals while maintaining the unique identity and autonomy of each partner.
To get started, ask yourself these key questions:
- What can we do together that we can't do alone?
- What can we build on that is already happening?
- Who do we already work with who would be interested in helping?2
Why do you need to build community collaborations or coalitions to prevent childhood obesity?
One reason is that obesity has become a systemic societal problem with such complex origins that its solution requires multiple, innovative approaches. No one person or agency can hope to have a significant impact on factors that predispose, enable, and reinforce children's food consumption and activity behaviors. Involving community stakeholders increases the likelihood of success.
We need a wide array of people representing different sectors of society to bring their knowledge and skills together to understand root causes and develop solutions that are not only broadly effective but that will work in local situations. Participation of community members does not guarantee success, but it offers the opportunity for different points of view to emerge and mutual understanding to be fostered.3
Collaborations also prevent different individuals and agencies from working against one another. The conflict caused by differing goals and agendas can sabotage the success of any initiative. With shared goals and collaboratively developed strategies, your intervention is much more likely to have an impact.
For example, if school administrators change the foods available in school vending machines, the impact may be derailed by snack carts and candy fundraisers. Parents, teachers, students, school administrators, school board members, food service staff, and other groups need to come together to establish a shared vision and creative solutions to have an impact on what foods are available at the school.
Core Leadership Group
Collaborations work best when they include members representing all the stakeholder groups affected. Start with a core group of 3-5 community partners to provide leadership.* Begin with a few people who are dedicated to having an impact on childhood obesity and have influence and resources to commit; ideally, they already partner in other ways.
This core group should begin the process by discussing childhood obesity issues and influences in your community. They will then need to identify other community partners who will be able to help with the assessment and shape the ultimate plan.
*To be successful, the leadership needs to facilitate collaboration rather than to direct it. The success of the collaboration must depend on more than one person, so that if any given leader leaves the partnership, the collaboration will remain strong enough to continue.
Additional partners should include representatives from all affected sectors of the community who can help you assess factors contributing to excessive weight gain in children and set and refine your objectives. For example, you might include youth, parents, teachers, caregivers, school administrators, food service staff, and nutrition and health professionals. Also consider people and organizations who can impact the economic environment (e.g., health insurance representatives) and the built environment (e.g., city planners, developers).
Include those with the authority and position to impact the relevant community factors and to commit their agencies' resources. You need diversity in culture, values, experiences, and knowledge. Invite more people than you need because some will decline. An ideal group size is about 12 to 15 members, though this depends on the size of your community and your initial plans.
This group will work together to assess relevant factors and set objectives. Then, when you reach the action planning stage, you may need to expand the collaboration again to include other community members who can help you achieve your objectives.
Critical Collaboration Characteristics
Partnerships can take many forms: from casual networks, to formalized coalitions, to the highest-level comprehensive, multi-sectoral collaborations.4 Changing the complex and pervasive environmental factors behind ballooning childhood obesity rates requires the highest level of collaboration. Key characteristics include:
- Shared purpose with members sharing a vision, a multi-year commitment, and pooling of resources
- Structure with members defining roles, sharing decision making, formalizing links with written agreements, and preparing a joint budget
- Common ownership of both work and outcomes. Rotating assigned positions, making communication a priority, and ongoing evaluations can help. Shared credit is also critical both to buy-in and long-term success.
Frequent and open communication among group members is essential to create an effective collaborative process.
Intermediate Outcomes of the Collaborative Process
To build its capacity to prevent childhood obesity in the community, an effective collaboration should:5
- Empower individuals—Actively involve people in changing conditions related to childhood obesity.
- Create social ties—Build trust and sense of community, thereby enabling people to work together to develop strategies likely to impact trends in the development of childhood obesity.
- Create synergy—Ensure that a combination of diverse cultures, values, experience, knowledge, and ideas exist within the partnership group that contribute to the generation of innovative strategies likely to impact childhood obesity
Ongoing assessment of the collaborative process will be important to identify needed adjustments to assure success.
Assessment of Success of Collaborative Process
As with any program, you need to regularly assess your progress to provide early and continuing indications of success and identify needed adjustments. A self-assessment by the partnership is needed to determine how well the group is functioning. This should include a group discussion based on these questions:
- How well is the partnership working? Is there a sense of community and trust? Are diverse viewpoints moving the group forward?
- How well is each of the intermediate outcomes of the collaboration being met? What are the assets and challenges in the process?
- How should the process be modified?
- How should member roles be shifted to improve effectiveness?
Once interventions are in place and beginning to function, these should be assessed by monitoring of community-level
- Have there been changes in the environment that support healthy eating and activity for kids?
- Which of these are a result of the work of your collaboration?
Report and celebrate your accomplishments! It's important!
This is just the tip of the iceberg of the process for developing truly collaborative partnerships. It is not an easy process. Many community collaborations collapse before accomplishing their goals. But if you educate yourself in this process and call on those who have expertise and a history of success to support your efforts, you can help create a collaboration to support healthy eating and active living in your community.
For more information and resources, go to Tools for You and More Info at the Cornell NutritionWorks website, www.nutritionworks.cornell.edu. You will find tools to assess how well your collaboration is functioning, including guides and checklists for evaluating:
- Leadership style and facilitation skills
- Members' roles and interactions
- Team skills (e.g., problem solving, decision making)
- Effectiveness of meetings.
1 Rosenthal BB. Collaboration for the nutrition field: Synthesis of selected literature. J Nutr Educ. 1998;30(5):246-267.
2 Gillespie AH, Gantner LA, Craig S, Dischner K, Lansing D. Productive partnerships for food: Principles and strategies. Journal of Extension. 2003;41(2).
3 Pelletier DL, Kraak V, Ferris-Morris M. The CBNW Problem-Solving Model: An Approach for Improving Nutrition-Relevant Decision-Making in the Community. Ithaca, NY: Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University; 1994.
4 Chandler Center for Community Leadership. Community Based Collaboration: Community Wellness Multiplied. Oregon State University Extension Service. Available at: http://crs.uvm.edu/nnco/collab/wellness.html. Accessed December 5, 2005.
5 Lasker RD, Weiss ES. Broadening participation in community problem solving: A multidisciplinary model to support collaborative practice and research. J Urban Health. 2003;80(1):14-60.