Aligning Community Priorities and Data: Creating Strong Community-Academic Partnerships

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Each Neighborhood Health Partnerships Program report provides a helpful snapshot of community health data. This information can be used to guide the development of projects to improve communities’ health. It can also be used to support partnerships between community groups and researchers.

However, the reports are just one of the many building blocks that come together in a true and mutually beneficial community-academic partnership. Another crucial piece is ensuring that the strengths and knowledge from both sides of the partnership are equally recognized and both groups work together to find substantive ways to use these reports to serve existing community priorities. In this action tool, we provide a guide to considerations and resources for building strong partnerships.

Community-academic partnerships and the reports

Many of the most effective projects that have improved community health were built on strong partnerships. Community-academic partnerships, in particular, can be an asset to both neighborhood organizations as well as researchers.

All parties can benefit from community-academic partnerships:

  • The community benefits because a strong partnership is more likely to meet community needs.
  • Community partners can also gain access to academic tools that can help them do their work more efficiently. Good evaluation data can help community partners make their work more sustainable.
  • Researchers benefit by tapping in to community partners’ existing networks. Additionally, as covered in Community Tool Box’s section on Community-based Participatory Research, researchers benefit by receiving more complete and accurate information from the community.

The local health data contained in the reports can be a useful tool for community-academic partnerships. The ZIP code level health data contained in the reports allows community practitioners and academic researchers to more precisely pinpoint neighborhoods experiencing health disparities and inequities. A health disparity is a population-based difference in health outcomes (e.g. women have higher breast cancer rates than men). A health inequity, on the other hand, is “a difference in a health outcome between more and less socially and economically advantaged groups that is caused by systemic differences in the social conditions and processes that determine health.” An example of a health inequity is that American Indians have higher rates of diabetes than Whites due to the disruption of their traditional ways of life.

Backed up by local health data, community-academic partnerships can make it possible to try fresh, innovative interventions built with community wisdom and scientifically supported methods. Community-academic partnerships can help people understand why a particular intervention was successful in a community and whether that success can be repeated in other communities.

Valuing everyone at the table

Strong community-academic partnerships usually aren’t built quickly or without tension. Researchers and community partners often have different priorities. To avoid unnecessary friction, partners must understand and value the perspectives of all parties at the table.

Building partnerships

Strong, impactful community-academic partnerships can look and operate in many different ways but there are some core practices that can support ethical and responsible local data use:

  • Focus on shared priorities (what are researchers and community partners commonly interested in working on)
  • Meet partners’ primary interests
  • Enhance organizational capacities (all parties should be able to do more because of this partnership)
  • Develop/build on long-term partnerships (these partnerships are often built over years, not months)
  • Take time to build trust
  • Facilitate reciprocal learning (everyone grows in their knowledge)
  • Adapt interventions/strategies to cultural and local contexts
  • Elevate local cultural and contextual knowledge
  • Engage or train investigators from communities impacted by research
  • Resource communities experiencing inequities as partners
  • Facilitate action on research in service of the communities impacted

In some instances, community-academic partnerships can be rather shallow. For example, the academic partner focuses primarily on outreach, where information flows from the researcher to the community. Or community members give consulting feedback on plans already created by the academic partner. While these partnerships can help establish connections, these sorts of partnerships may not achieve broader improvement in health outcomes.

To build the strongest possible community-academic partnerships, communities and researchers should aim to build to a place of shared leadership. In a shared leadership model, strong bidirectional trust is built between researchers and communities and final decision making is at the community level. The National Institutes of Health has a detailed report covering the Principles of Community Engagement (pdf) which can help partnerships move towards shared leadership.

Connecting reports to community priorities

As partnerships grow and strengthen, partners should look for opportunities to utilize the local health data included in the Neighborhood Health Partnerships Program reports. The reports can be used for purposes that include identifying community needs, informing planning processes, identifying disparities, engaging community stakeholders, supporting targeted strategic planning, measuring progress toward desired goals, promoting health in all policies, targeting services to populations, planning new services, and surveillance of community health.

To see ways different communities have used local health data, The State of Minnesota Department of Health’s Connecting Communities with Data: A practical guide for using electronic health record data to support community health (pdf) offers examples of data use from a variety of communities.

Often, communities and community-serving groups will have an existing and detailed list of priorities including an action plan. Community efforts may be tied to a county-wide Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA/CHA) and Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP). These CHIPs are created by local public health departments and can generally be found on their websites. The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute has compiled CHNA/CHAs and CHIPs from hospitals and health departments across the state for easy access.

For situations where communities are building their capacity to identify their priorities, County Health Rankings and Roadmaps has a detailed series of activities that can be used to Assess Needs and Resources. These activities can be used to understand current community strengths, resources, needs, and gaps to help community members decide where and how to focus their efforts. The Neighborhood Health Reports can be used in several of these activities.

Additionally, Community Tool Box has an Assessing Community Needs and Resources toolkit that highlights several strategies that can be used to collect qualitative data from community members.

Once community priorities have been selected, The Neighborhood Health Partnership Program has created a curated list of Ideas for Taking Action which align with the different measures available in the reports.

Community priorities may be stated in language that is focused on community conditions and concerns, and not specific health outcome areas (e.g. diabetes or smoking rates). These community conditions often align with the social determinants of health (often referred to as the SDoH). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the social determinants of health are the “conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.” These circumstances, which are shaped by the distribution of money, power, and resources, are mostly responsible for health inequities.

A framework that incorporates the social determinants of health can help us understand how to draw connections between the NHP measures and community priorities. In the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative (BARHII) framework below, the social determinants of health can be shown as upstream causes (social inequities, institutional power, living conditions) that ultimately impact downstream outcomes (risk behaviors, disease and injury, mortality).


The reports primarily show downstream outcomes. However, the priorities of community groups are often centered around upstream causes. Members of the community often prioritize employment, housing, education, food security, and parks/green spaces. Connecting the reports to upstream causes will help make them applicable and actionable. For example, a community group may want additional parks and sidewalks for their neighborhood. A lack of exercise is a well-researched risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. Thus, a report highlighting a high rate of diabetes within a ZIP code may help residents show why additional parks and sidewalks are needed to improve access for community members to exercise safely outside.

In considering different community conditions and drivers of health, local health data included in the reports can complement existing data gathered by public agencies and community organizations. It is important to take time to locate and access existing local data.

For more on the social determinants of health and local data resources, please check out our Resources page.