New Tool for Strengthening Partnerships Between Health Departments and Communities

Community organizations and leaders, with their insight into their community’s history, lifestyles, challenges and members, play a pivotal role in shaping the health of their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, community organizations do not always have the full power to shape decisions affecting the health of their own communities. By building partnerships with governmental public health, and shifting the focus to community leaders and organizations, public health can better address the unique needs of different communities.

The CDC Foundation, in collaboration with Human Impact Partners (HIP) and with support from Kaiser Permanente, offers a set of transformative and inclusive recommendations to strengthen partnerships between health departments and community-based organizations (CBOs). The recommendations aim to integrate CBOs as essential decision-makers within the public health infrastructure.

Recommendations for Strengthening Partnerships Between Health Departments and Community-Based Organizations pulls from the experiences of more than144 health departments and CBOs to provide practical recommendations for strengthening and sustaining transformative partnerships.

Tailored for governmental public health departments and CBOs in the United States, the recommendations are crafted with the understanding of each of their unique strengths and responsibilities. While both health departments and CBOs shape the health outcomes of communities, the recommendations acknowledge and seek to realign health departments’ historical institutional power, resources and influence.

To set the foundation for enduring, long-term partnerships, participating health department and CBO partners elevated the importance of embodying mutually beneficial core values, assessing preparedness for partnering authentically and aligning on shared language. These foundational elements ensure that issues of power imbalances, trust and accountability are acknowledged and addressed.

While developing common grounds for the partnership sets the foundation, sustaining transformative partnerships happens across the different systems of public health and within the specific contexts of local communities and relationships.

To reflect the unique experiences of each health department and CBO, the recommendations are customized within systems of work and within the type of partnerships health departments and CBOs currently sustain.

Building health opportunities throughout each community requires a focus on the systems we have in place within our communities to ensure we all have opportunities to make choices to protect and promote our health. Examining the systems, such as policies and practices, regulations and how we communicate about public health opportunities, enables communities and health departments to create long-term changes and improve the health of everyone.

The recommendations identify four public health system dimensions across which most health department and CBO partners can operationalize best practices for transforming their partnerships: organizational culture; leadership and governance; data, measurement and evaluation; and funding and investments.

Though work within health departments and CBOs happens across these system dimensions, how the work is completed is affected by the unique experiences of communities and the type of partnerships. To further customize the recommendations, the report outlines different stages of partnerships based on the level and type of communication between health departments and CBOs. Partnerships move from one-way communication from health departments to CBOs to two-way communication in which CBOs are fully embedded in decisions and community.

The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership created by Facilitating Power is the basis for sequencing the recommendations across the four system dimensions.

The recommendations are aligned under each of the five stages of community engagement and outlined within the system dimensions to help health departments and CBOs navigate change within their partnerships. As partners tailor the recommendations to their unique and local contexts, they are encouraged to embrace discomfort and to prioritize progress over perfection, paving the way for stronger, more equitable and enduring partnerships.

Building public health approaches that reach everyone within a community requires authentic partnerships. By embracing the recommendations and navigating the Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership, we hope governmental health departments and CBOs can forge transformative partnerships that empower communities.

We have more impact working together. Health departments and communities of all shapes and sizes working collaboratively to elevate and address community priorities and needs results in improved health outcomes for all.

Picture of CDC Foundation staff Asma Day
Asma Day, MPH, is the Community and Public Health Partnerships Project Manager for the Health Equity and Strategy Office.
Francesca Hill
Francesca Hill is a senior communications officer at the CDC Foundation.