Unit 4 Section 4.4: Making Decisions and
Communicating Effectively

Successful CBPR partnerships are characterized by jointly developed processes and procedures that pay particular attention to issues of equity, shared influence and control over decision making. By choosing appropriate styles for decision-making, the partnership can achieve balance of ownership and productivity.   Each and every partner in a CBPR partnership should have a voice in the process of determining, for example, problems to address, goals, research methods, intervention strategies, what and how to disseminate, hiring and financial decisions.

Give careful consideration to decision-making processes very early on in the development stages of your partnership. While the greatest ownership is achieved when everyone is aware of all the information and participates in all decisions, productivity may be enhanced when the partnership empowers individuals and small groups to act together to make decisions.

Consider such questions as:

  • Does everyone always need to be at the table?

  • Who gets the final say? On which issues? (e.g., budget, staff, dissemination, etc)

  • Are there differing levels of responsibility? (e.g., among funders, institutions, community members)

  • How will we balance process and action?

  • Consensus? Democratic? Autocratic?

  • Will decision-making responsibilities be rotated over time? How?

  • How long should it take to make a decision that affects the whole partnership?

Give consideration to adopting informal democratic processes, shared leadership and consensus decision making. While the adoption of formal by-laws and the use of Roberts Rules of Order can be advantageous in terms of efficiency and structure, they can serve to stifle participation and influence over decision making. Informal processes can emphasize equity and shared power and control. The most common approaches partnerships use to make decisions are either a consensus or democratic process or some combination thereof. Your partnership should discuss, agree on, and then post guidelines for reaching decisions.

Example 4.4.1: Collaborative Approaches to Decision-Making

Consensus: The consensus process allows the entire group to be heard and to participate in decision-making. The goal of consensus decision-making is to find common ground, probing issues until everyone’s opinions are voiced and understood by the group. Discussions leading to consensus aim to bring the group to mutual agreement by addressing all concerns. Consensus does not require unanimity. Rather, everyone must agree they can “live with” the decision. Though it can take longer than other decision-making methods, consensus fosters creativity, cooperation and commitment to final decisions. There are no “winners” and “losers” in this process, as discussion continues until consensus is achieved. Discussion is closed by restating agreements made and “next steps” in implementing decisions made.

Democratic: Options are discussed fully so that members are informed as to the decision’s consequences. The important ground rule here is that the “losing” side agrees to support the decision, even though it was not their choice. Decisions are made by majority vote.

Straw polling: Straw polling entails asking for a show of hands (e.g., thumbs up or down) to see how the group feels about a particular issue. It is a quick check that can save a great deal of time. Silent hand signals can be an invaluable source of feedback for a facilitator working with a large group.

Voting: Voting is a decision-making method that seems best suited to large groups. To avoid alienating large minorities, you might decide a motion will only succeed with a two-thirds (or more) majority. Some partnerships limit voting to people who have come to three or more consecutive meetings to prevent stacked meetings and to encourage familiarity with the issues being decided. Alternatively, voting can be combined with consensus. Some groups institute time limits on discussion and move to voting if consensus cannot be reached.

Delegation: The partnership may agree to delegate certain decisions to small groups, committees, or an individual. A small group may have the specialized knowledge, skills, or resources required to make certain decisions. When delegating decision-making, the group must clarify any constraints on the authority to act, and institute mechanisms for reporting back to the large group.

Source: Center for Collaborative Planning, www.connectccp.org


Example 4.4.2: Approaches to Decision-Making Adopted by CBPR Partnerships

The “70% Rule” for Consensus Decision-Making

Given the challenges associated with reaching absolute consensus, the use of the “70% rule” is recommended.  A community partner in the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center (URC) indicated one of the reasons why the Board was able to engage in meaningful discussions and make decisions was the “70/30 rule -  if I can get behind this 70% then I would do so.”  The application of such consensus decision making requires group facilitation that gives everyone an opportunity to continue to voice their opinions until issues are resolved, including a commitment on the part of all participants to share leadership actions to both accomplish tasks and maintain collaborative relationships.

From Detroit URC Proposal

“Consensus – Plus”

When we think about decision making, the image of the Salad People comes to mind. Unlike a soup where the ingredients are blended, the ingredients of a salad maintain their individual integrity. And yet together the individual parts create a whole new flavor. Our partnership has its tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and even a few nuts thrown in, and we try not to blend or become dominated by one entity. Instead, we add our individual cultures and organizational perspectives to create something that is new and different. We determined early on…that we did not want to do “business as usual.”

So, we make decisions almost exclusively by dialogue and consensus. Although the PRC Community Board has a formal process for voting, where each partner organization gets one vote, all of our discussions and formal votes have ended in consensus. “We call it consensus-plus” says one partner “because we will dialogue about an issue until each person can live with the decision.” Dialogue is when you try to put yourself in the other person’s place earnestly, and consensus-plus goes beyond a majority vote. We don't introduce feelings of animosity by allowing any person to feel outvoted or unheard. If there is disagreement, we will talk until we are all comfortable and committed to working together on the issue. One partner recalls a discussion about money for a village health worker project where one partner who was in disagreement left the room angry. “Instead of letting her go, I followed her outside and asked her to come back in,” recalls the partner, “and we talked and talked until we all agreed.”

We also developed principles that struck a new course away from traditional paternalistic and exploitive practices and continue to use them to guide our decision-making. Our principles require that interventions work to solve problems of local relevance, involve community partners at every stage of the work, build capacity of community members in the process, and disseminate results in ways useful to the community.

Excerpted from Flint PRC proposal


Exercise 4.4.3: Navigating through Difficult Decisions – Transparency and Communication

The situation: The funding for the “Promoting Healthy Living” initiative has been cut by 20% (approximately $100,000) in the second year of the grant.  The partnership needs to make some decisions about what to reduce or eliminate in the budget.  The health department, which serves as the lead organization for the grant, has 50% of the budget (including funds for project staff and other direct costs related to running the project); the university involved has a 25% share of the budget (partial salary support for 3 faculty, 2 graduate student research assistants, supplies and travel); and two community-based organizations each have 12.5% to support 2 full time staff people and for other project-related costs.

The task: Ask participants to role play a meeting of the partnership in which the budget cuts are discussed and decided upon.  Decision-making and group process issues arising from this exercise should then be discussed by the full group. [Note: if there is not time for role playing, participants can discuss in small groups how this scenario could unfold, and identify potential strategies for navigating successfully through this difficult situation.]

Questions for discussion:

  • What agreements or understandings could the partnership adopt which could help to guide the decision making in this situation?

  • Who should have the “final say” on these decisions?

  • What are the potential self-interests of the partners involved and how may these differ from the interests of the partnership?

  • What other resources might the partnership have to support the initiative?

Balancing process and tasks

While it is recognized that a significant amount of time needs to be devoted to the processes involved in establishing a CBPR partnership (e.g., to build relationships and trust), other tasks and project-related activities designed to accomplish the goals and objectives of the partnership also need to be carried out simultaneously.

Striving for such a balance between the need to give attention to group and infrastructure process issues and working on program-related tasks is an ongoing issue, particularly in the beginning of a partnership.  While the more “task oriented” partners may be impatient with all the attention to “process”, it is important for the facilitator(s) or convener(s) of the partnership to remind the board from time to time that these processes will, in the long run, help to establish a solid foundation on which the partnership can grow and accomplish tasks more effectively.

That said, it is also a good idea to be open to responding to opportunities in the early stages of partnership development that will lead to a sense of accomplishment of a task completed and help to build group cohesion.  For example:

  • Holding a “kick-off” event to garner publicity and good will within the community

  • Responding to a short-term funding opportunity (even if all the processes and structures discussed above are not fully in place) that is relatively easy to accomplish and will foster the sense of working together towards a common goal

  • Responding to a specific request from a community-based partner for assistance with a new or ongoing project for which the partnership can then share the credit for helping to accomplish.


Example 4.4.4.: Spreading The “Glue”: Strategies for Effective Communication

Examples from the Harlem Community & Academic Partnership

  • Create listserv

  • Have open microphone during partnership meetings

  • Do not just use e-mail! Use the phone! Do “drive-by” check-ins

  • Establish a project manager position – a glue factor!

  • Create Intervention Work Groups (IWGs) that develop and oversee each intervention. Aim for dual leadership between academic and community partners.  Leadership is clear on expectations regarding the work efforts and is grounded in what is expected around communication

  • Have members participate on each other’s groups and coalitions

  • Conduct an annual review of goals and objectives.  This drives the development of goals and objectives for the upcoming year

  • Keep nothing hidden! Communicate with integrity! Set the tone from the start!