Paying Community Members for Their Time

Community development organizations are recognizing that community expertise is valuable and that residents should be compensated for it.

Community engagement: Photo shows community advisory panel at Hatfield House.
Members of the community advisory panel at Fairmount Park Conservancy, Philadelphia, August 2020. Photo by Nicole Rodrigues

For effective and inclusive community planning, it’s important that community development groups and local governments work closely with residents who will be affected by the proposals and projects under discussion. Though the extent to which it is realized varies, few question the importance of community input.

However, providing expertise and “community voice” in a meaningful way and on an ongoing basis is a large time commitment for residents. It can look like serving on a committee or task force, showing up to many meetings, and bringing questions and proposals for discussion back to neighbors and networks. This can be a lot to take on as a volunteer, and many say it’s an unfair burden to place on low-income residents, who often have little time to spare outside of home and work responsibilities. For that reason, organizations are increasingly starting to recognize that if resident expertise is so valuable, then they should be compensating people for their time.

Compensating residents comes with several questions that go beyond if and how much to compensate. How should residents be selected? How should they be compensated? What do organizations require of residents in order to compensate them, and how to they communicate expectations?

Compensating residents is not straightforward—it leads to greater questions around the relationship of money, value, and time. Organizations are especially cautious about having compensation change the perception of their relationship with residents to transactional instead of an authentic partnership.

Clear Expectations

Community-based organizations often find it a challenge to reach different people for input beyond the residents who are independently consistently active in public events like town hall meetings. Research has shown that these residents tend to be wealthier, whiter, older, and more likely to be homeowners than the population of a community as a whole.

When the City of Richmond decided that it was time to update its citywide master plan, which was last updated 20 years ago, Maritza Pechin, deputy director for the city of Richmond, says she and her planning director strongly felt that they needed to gather input from people beyond beyond those who typically showed up to planning commission meetings.

The masterplan, called Richmond 300 – A Guide for Growth, was published in December 2020 and lays out the vision for Richmond to become a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable city by 2037. The plan touches on five areas: high-quality places, equitable transportation, a diverse economy, inclusive housing, and a thriving environment.

The planning process for Richmond 300 started in July 2017 with a call for residents to apply to be on an advisory council. However, residents were asked to volunteer for free. Pechin says this approach failed.

“We got interest from the usual people,” she explains, “[but] usually when you ask people to volunteer their time, it’s people who have money or time or both. And those aren’t traditionally underrepresented people, and that’s who we wanted to reach.”

Pechin describes the initial approach as a “silly mistake” because traditionally, underrepresented people who want to volunteer don’t necessarily have the ability to put in substantial time without being compensated for it. She and her team readjusted their approach and decided to organize an engagement team that would work 5–15 hours a week, depending on the point in the process, and whose members would be compensated. 

This time, Pechin says she and her team were specific with their ask, identifying communities in Richmond where lower income Latino and African Americans typically live, and seeking people who could demonstrate some community engagement experience and specific ability to reach one of the targeted communities. A call was issued through social media, a group email list and by word of mouth from City Council members for residents to apply to be an engagement team member. Five specific expectations were outlined:

  • To fully participate in training and check-in meetings;
  • Design the content for survey questions and flyers;
  • Help create and grow a contact list for Richmond 300;
  • Attend community meetings; and
  • Administer surveys.

The Department of Planning and Development Review also included language to demonstrate empathy for the residents they were trying to reach. It acknowledged that underrepresented individuals may not participate in public processes for reasons that include scheduling conflicts, technical jargon that’s difficult to understand, and individuals not trusting local government due to its past actions or inactions.

Members of the engagement team at Richmond 300 discuss the citywide master plan. Photo courtesy of Maritza Pechin

The planning team received 61 applications for six open slots. After conducting interviews, they ended up hiring seven residents. Each member of the engagement team was paid a $5,000 stipend. At the upper end of the expected time commitment, this would work out to approximately $12/hour.

“Honestly, the reason we did $5,000 was because that’s the highest we could give,” Pechin says. 

The planning department and the engagement team worked together to create a set of expectations so the engagement team understood what was required of them to get paid. This included documenting the meetings team members went to and the number of people who attended, gathering email addresses, and collecting survey responses.

photo is view from above of hands pointing to maps as community engagement team discusses Richmond's future
Members of the engagement team at Richmond 300 examine maps of the city as they discuss the master plan. Photo courtesy of Maritza Pechin

The engagement team went to internal meetings to learn more about the master plan, and was instrumental in sharing that information with residents around the city who were unaware of it. The engagement team also invited residents to be a part of the decision-making process about the master plan. The value add for the planning department was that the engagement team used their own social networks, such as emailing friends and colleagues and tapping into community and special interests groups that they were already a part of. Engagement team members worked in two six-week periods over the course of six to eight months. They were paid in phases.

If she were to redo the experience, Pechin says she would issue a request for proposal for a community nonprofit that would then identify and manage the engagement team because it was hard to manage seven different people.

Like Pechin, Adela Park, special projects coordinator at the Fairmount Park Conservancy in Philadelphia, also learned the importance of a clear scope and expectations when paying for residents’ time.

While working with the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood—an area where the population is predominately Black and low-income with a poverty rate that is nearly double that of the city—to co-create arts-based projects to shape park improvements, Park says FPC formed a community advisory committee. She writes that the committee’s formation was essential because FPC recognized that they “should not be the ones making judgments on what holds value” in a marginalized community “whose story is so often told by others.”

However, there were challenges related to the committee’s purpose. Park writes that FPC and the Community Advisory Committee “had hard conversations around the impact that arts and artists have on neighborhoods on the brink of change and potential displacement,” and “faced questions that we did not necessarily have answers for.” One person decided to withdraw from the committee.

Eventually, FPC defined a clear purpose—guiding the use of resources, co-creating arts-based projects, and widening outreach efforts in the neighborhood—and a clear structure—an established meeting schedule, convening the group every six weeks over a 13-month period. The Conservancy also formalized its relationship with committee members by offering an honorarium for their participation and consultation.

Based on that experience, Park says when she and her team formed an advisory group for a recent project around the Hatfield House, an old historic house near Fairmount Park, they were intentional about the scope, expectations, and compensation from the beginning. The committee’s main duties are defined as: deepening community partnerships by sharing relevant resources, connections and recommendations; working collaboratively to develop intergenerational, culturally relevant programming focusing on, but not limited to, the arts, history, health, well-being, and recreation; and expanding the network of local talent, business owners, artists, and laborers who may be hired for work at the Hatfield House. As with the first committee, some members get involved beyond regular meetings, for example if they have specific ideas around programs/events, and generally are expected to help promote the work at the house, including spreading word about opportunities and events, says Park, but there are no specific requirements to engage or meet outside of the group structure.

“The first time around was a little bit more ad hoc,” Park explains. “The scope was very broad. We were trying out new ways of working with people, trying out new partnerships…. It was a really positive experience that led to really wonderful co-created projects, but one of the things we learned was it’s important to know, from the beginning, what you’re asking people to commit to.

“It sounds really basic,” she adds, “but a lot of times when organizations are working with community members, they don’t treat them as consultants. A lot of times, that dynamic is sort of like, ‘Oh, we’ll get some community input.’”

According to Park, everyone who serves on the advisory committee is technically considered a consultant to the Conservancy. Fairmount uses a memorandum of understanding as it would with any other partnership or contractor. The MOU includes expectations and goals of the group, and payment details. Since the new committee operates on a meeting-by-meeting basis, members are paid $150 per meeting, lower than the honorarium for the first committee, which turned out to be unsustainble for the organization.

The Community Is the Expert

Treating residents as consultants, and compensating them for their expertise, is a given for Brandi Mack, director of community engagement for Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, an architecture and real estate development nonprofit in Oakland.

“That’s part of our strategy,” she says.

Unfortunately, that strategy isn’t always adopted.

In June 2020, the City of Atlanta unveiled four concepts for a reimagining of the Atlanta Detention Center. It was a 12-month-long, citywide process during which residents provided input on how the Detention Center, a former jail, could be repurposed to benefit the community. DJ+DS was invited by community advocates to develop the concepts for the project.

DJ+DS collaborated with residents during a series of town halls in 2019 and early 2020, where custom-made board games, building blocks, and other tools developed by DJDS sparked dialogue among community members who had been affected by the jail, while educating them on the basics of design, financing, and real estate development.  

Mack says it was important to her that residents be compensated for contributing their time and expertise, especially when dealing with traumatic topics like racism and incarceration, which disproportionately affect Black and Latino people. Historically, BIPOC people have not been paid for their expertise, or if they are paid, the funds do not reflect their education or experience. Creating a just wage reflecting that expertise is the base layer of rebuilding trust in the community.

In fact, she posed the question of compensation upfront when DJ+DS first joined the task force for the Atlanta Detention Center plans.

“I said, ‘So how much are task force members being paid to sit on this force?’ Everyone looked at me and said, ‘The mayor asked them to join, Brandi.’ I said, ‘And?’” laughs Mack. “I said, ‘They have to pay [members]. They’re getting ready to dedicate a year of their time [to this] …’”

Despite Mack’s advocating for it, neither community members nor task force members were paid during this process. With compensation out, DJ+DS tried to build trust with the community in other ways, including being consistent with words and actions, and showing up and listening without judging.

“I always stress, and go into it with the understanding, that the community, they are the experts,” she says. “We are co-learning together.”

Aviva Kapust, executive director at The Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia, also believes in lifting up community members as experts. At the organization, they have explored bringing residents onboard projects as advisers.

“We invited an elder from the community to come in as an “Elder-In-Residence,” Kapust explains. “This woman, Miss Nandi, is continually advising the Village, without it being a formalized role. We’re always looking to her for advice—she’s an artist, she’s an organizer, she’s just an amazing person. Instead of continuing to tap her wisdom informally, we thought it would be very cool to have her in residence and treat the role the way we would any in-residence person.”

In her role, Nandi joined team meetings, had studio/office hours in the Village’s community storefront, and received Village resources, both financial and human, to help her realize her projects. She also received an artist-in-residence honorarium.

This is not a new approach for the Village, explains Kapust, but is an alternative to hourly compensation—which they’ve done for many years. Community members who are involved in co-designing projects over an extended period—where their contribution is far beyond the formal “meeting” hours—are paid a fee, broken into a few larger payments over time.

A recent project, called the Innovations in Community-Based Crime Reduction project, brings together community members and cross-sector partners to work on building a safety strategy rooted in alternatives to policing. The team members will receive payment as a fee rather than hourly, says Kapust.

“We’re looking at this as somebody that is going to be sort of immersed in that experience,” she says. “They don’t walk away and stop thinking about it the same way we don’t walk away and stop thinking about our work.”

For this project, the community experts are expected to collaboratively develop a three-year strategic plan to deploy approximately $750,000 in funding for alternative public safety strategies that will reduce violent crime in the Fairhill-Hartranft neighborhood in Philadelphia. The community and multidisciplinary experts will design participatory action research; engage with, learn from, and pass on knowledge from other groups doing similar work across the country; design an assembly to exchange ideas and information with people in the neighborhood; present and receive feedback on a draft plan; and revise, finalize, and steward a plan that represents community input and ideas.

The Village is continually working through how to compensate community members, while being mindful of the commitment they are making. Michaela Pommells, director of social justice initiatives and community organizing for The Village, adds they are working to figure out what an equitable amount of money to pay community members should be, considering the ways in which members are providing value. Typically, the Village uses a stipend-based model based on an hourly time commitment. They pay the city’s fair living rate, which is currently $15 per hour.

“It’s more than someone coming into a room and just giving us information,” she says. “We need to consider things like, how do we ensure that we’re valuing what our residents bring in the same way that we value other consultants that we work with, in the same way that we value that more traditional knowledge.”

Transactional Risk

Even when they see the potential benefits of compensating community members, community development groups are also cautious about the effects of adding money into the equation. 

“It can be scary,” says Mack, “because we understand how money has [perpetuated] trauma and how it creates transaction versus relationship.”

Garrett Jacobs, chief of finance and operations for Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, adds, “People value their time differently. People also have different ways in which they calculate their energy for any given effort. Some people don’t want to track hours as they don’t see that as an adequate value of their contribution, while others might want to be very diligent in keeping track of time to ensure they are compensated for it accordingly.”

He adds, “You can’t have one way of approaching this because that assumes everyone’s relationship with money and their own time is the same.”

Jacobs says that through his work, he’s learning that money is just one aspect of a person’s holistic perspective and experience, which they bring with them when contributing to a community project.

“Everyone perceives time, money, and energy in their own unique way based on their experiences in life and whatever they are receiving from their parents and other ancestors,” he explains. “I have even worked in situations where people did not want to exchange money, they did not want their energy in the effort to be perceived as just for a paycheck.

“Capitalism keeps us from connecting and collaborating on the deeper levels as people with spiritual and physical needs,” says Jacobs.   

For Kapust, transparency can be as important as compensation in terms of respecting what community members are bringing to the process. 

“So often, with people becoming more conscious of the need to compensate people monetarily, we also can forget that what people also want and what they deserve is to be fully briefed on what they’re coming into,” she says. Kapust says that transparency also means continuing to follow up with residents to give them opportunities to be involved if they choose to be, and informing them about the kinds of actions the community development organization is taking so that residents can hold them accountable to the objectives of the work.

“We want to make sure we’re not just honoring people’s contribution with money,” she says, “but also, we’re trying to focus on making sure that we honor and acknowledge people by the way we keep them informed and involved.”

 

Brittany Hutson is a freelance writer and editor based in the Detroit metropolitan area.

1 COMMENT

  1. Lawrence CommunityWorks has been implementing this practice for more than 15 years, having recognized early on the deep, critical value of sustained resident participation in and ownership of program and project design processes, and the unequal burden on lower-income families being invited to participate. Glad to see it taking hold in the larger field.

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