This blog post is an adapted excerpt from our field guide on stakeholder engagement.
Strategies are stronger when they’re shaped by people who are closest to the issues and who will be most affected when strategies are implemented. Community engagement can range from gathering community members’ input to looking to communities to decide what the strategy should be and how it should be executed. (See more about a spectrum of community engagement to ownership here.)
The way you engage communities has the potential to heal old wounds and build collective power, but it also can deepen mistrust and harm communities. It’s important to approach community engagement with care and consideration.
Here are some considerations to reflect on before engaging communities. This approach draws on insights from the National Gender and Equity Campaign, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, Building Movement Project, King County Washington, Marnita’s Table, and our own experiences. See more resources at the bottom of this post.
- Clarify purpose, outcomes, and process. What do you want to achieve through engaging this community? Do you want their perspectives to inform your strategy, or do you want community members to set the strategy? As you clarify your process for developing the strategy, think about how to center and shift power to those who are most impacted, and leave space to change course and be responsive to the community as needed. Recognize that many perspectives can exist within one community, and work to surface those perspectives. Dive deeper into this topic: “Four Questions to Sit With as You Learn to Let Communities Lead” (Community Wealth Partners)
- Understand history with the community. How has your organization interacted with this community in the past? Where have you built strong relationships? Where has trust been broken? Understand what the history of your relationship looks like from the community’s perspective. To avoid duplication, identify information community members previously shared that could serve you now. Dive deeper into this topic: “Community Engagement Guide for Sustainable Communities” (PolicyLink)
- Take an asset-based approach. Recognize that solutions exist within the community. Seek first to understand the community’s strengths and assets. Work with partners who are trusted in the community and who are knowledgeable about community resources. Dive deeper into this topic: “Build a Playground Toolkit: Community Involvement” (KaBOOM!)
- Create space for relationship-building. Not every interaction with the community needs to be linked to your formal strategy development process. In fact, it can feel transactional to community members if you only engage with them when you have a specific need. Make space to build and strengthen relationships without an agenda. Dive deeper into this topic: “What Institutions Get Wrong About Community Engagement and How They Can Improve” (Marnita’s Table)
- Reach those most impacted. Make sure those most impacted by the issues you seek to change can participate through offering an accessible location and time, translation services, childcare, transportation, and food and drink. Respect their participation by offering compensation if possible. Listen empathetically and strive to understand, not to reply or reframe. Dive deeper into this topic: “Why Am I Always Being Researched?” (Chicago Beyond)
- Set clear expectations and create feedback loops. Share decision-making power with the community where possible, and in all cases, clearly define and transparently communicate community members’ role. (e.g., Are you asking for their input, or will they make the final decision?) Ask the community for feedback regularly throughout the process, be intentional about integrating that feedback, and loop back to tell the community how you used their feedback. Talk with the community about how you plan to stay in relationship with them throughout the strategy process and afterward. Dive deeper into this topic: “The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership” (Facilitating Power)
- National Gender and Equity Campaign/Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy’s Guide on Community Engagement and Facilitation Guide for Community Engagement
- Building Movement Project’s Tools to Engage, including Nonprofits Integrating Community Engagement Guide
- National Community Development Institute’s Sources of Power
- King County Washington’s Community Engagement Guide
Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action