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Reach out to Community Partners


A community partner is a nonprofit or social enterprise whose mission is at the center of a DFA project. They are 'partners' because this isn’t a one-way relationship; working alongside community partners means you understand their goals and strategy and then immerse in their programs. While your learn from their expertise, you also provide your partners with new perspectives, actionable insights, and tested ideas and prototypes that can support their work and solve the partner’s needs in facing their beneficiaries.

Output: Each project has a 1-3 community partner contact and have set up a meeting/call with them.

Effective ways to reach out to community partners:

  1. Review your needs and goals for community partner relationships.
    • A healthy partnership will be beneficial for both your team and the community partner. As you figure out your asks to the community partner, take into account their needs and goals. Think of possible expectations they might have for your team and see if that works for your project goals and timeline.
  2. Identify potential community partners.
    • Ask for recommendations from your faculty advisors and mentors! Work with your mentor to help define the relationship you want to have with partners so they can help you effectively.
    • Create a list of 5-10 potential community partners in the area. Diversify the partners by considering many stakeholders in your problem space.
    • Use your personal network: you can always reach out to people you know to see if they know anyone who might be a potential collaborator.
  3. Refine your studio pitch for new partners.
    • Check out “Paint a picture” and “Partnership interview tips” to craft your studio pitch!
      • Start with a warm, welcoming intro.
      • Describe what Design for America is and what your studio/team is trying to accomplish this term.
      • Share a personal connection to the challenge area.
  4. Schedule calls or in-person meetings with community partners to finalize the partnership.
    • Email your partner with your refined pitch and suggest a few specific dates and times for a follow up call. Or visit to learn more about the partner and discuss a potential partnership details.
    • If the partner doesn’t respond within a week, reach out again. Persistence wins in the end, whether it is with this partner or one of the others you reached out to.
    • Refer to this checklist to make sure you’re not forgetting all the important details while reaching out to community members for the first time.
  5. Finalize your project scope with a partner.
    • Come prepared to the meeting with a few things:
      • Basic knowledge of the problem space and some specific stories and facts. Basically, do your homework and have some understanding to ask informed questions.  
      • A hand-out or a one-pager of the DFA process phases that teams will be going through and the key deliverables along the way.
      • A communication plan on how you’d like to engage with the community partner throughout the term to set expectations on time commitment.  
      • Good partnerships have teams meet with their partner 2-3 times a term to get expert input and help keep the team accountable.
      • What deliverables the community partner can expect from teams.
    • Check out “Engage the community in daring projects” for to scope a DFA project - a Daring, Feasible, and Applicable project.
    • If you have started your project already and have some scope in mind, feel free to share your research and possible ideas to start a conversation with your partner!  

Network Best Practices

Involve the community partner in your design process like DFA Barnard|Columbia

In 2015-2016, DFA Barnard|Columbia’s Juvenile Justice team were looking for an organization with a good idea of the problem and possible connections with users. After 2 months of emailing and persistent follow up, the team partnered with the Next Generation Center in Bronx. The team assigned 1-2 people to keep close contact with the partner while the partner met with the team regularly to create their final product, a video that documented the conversation of the youth group’s perspective. The team invited the youth from the Next Generation Center to their final expo! Check out their video here.

Reach out to mentors and community partners like DFA MSU

DFA community partners are crucial to connecting DFA teams to the expertise and users that make meaningful design possible. After MSU made initial contact with community partners, they wanted a visual way to highlight how the studio can assist and support their work. They created the visual map below to demonstrate their studio's value.