What is community engagement and why should you care?

December 14th, 2020

So, what is community engagement? First of all, a quick catch-all definition:

Community engagement takes a strategic approach to the relationships, communication and interactions between community members and an organization to try to influence outcomes for both.

The United Nations Brisbane Declaration on Community Engagement (International Conference on Engaging Communities, 2005) describes community engagement as a two-way process by which:

  • the aspirations, concerns, needs and values of citizens and communities are incorporated at all levels and in all sectors in policy development, planning, decision-making, service delivery and assessment; and
  • governments and other business and civil society organizations involve citizens, clients, communities and other stakeholders in these processes.

The term “community” is used to broadly define groups of people based on interest or geography, including stakeholders, citizens, businesses, and more. And the term “engagement” encompasses both inclusion and agency – feeling that one is included in important civic and social activities and able to contribute meaningfully. 

Depending on your industry and your angle, you might also know community engagement as another term, like:

But why is community engagement so important for organizations? And what does it look like when you put it into practice?

 Why you can’t just ignore community engagement

Community engagement leads to so many positive outcomes and benefits for organizations and the wider community. 

As an organization, when you engage with communities, you’ll make better, more informed decisions, because you see the big picture and the full impact of your projects and initiatives. When community engagement is done right, it can help you develop a more socially responsible organization. 

As a result, you can build trust with community members. This means they can increase their level of satisfaction with your brand, your initiatives and your projects. What it all comes down to is getting a ‘social license to operate’. In other words, you increase the chances of being accepted and reduce the chances of being rejected or blocked.

For example…

When there’s a lot of dissent between different parties, community engagement is critical. You need to be able to identify areas of common ground, in amongst all the ‘noise’ and lobbying. And then use this common ground to connect different parties and find a way forward.

Or perhaps you have a situation with low trust. For example, in a community that doesn’t trust the government (and most don’t), community engagement that demonstrates transparency will go a long way towards boosting trust.

In both of these examples, community engagement becomes a complex process of sorting through data, contacts and communication – a process that’s made easier when you’re backed by powerful stakeholder engagement software. But before we get into that, let’s cover the basics.

It’s crucial that organizations understand “what is community engagement” if they want to successfully move forward, especially with projects that are likely to face community opposition. So then, let’s break down the definition a little further. 

What is community engagement? 

Community engagement could be defined by four main characteristics:

  • Communication
  • Connection
  • Involvement
  • Strategy

But let’s dive deeper into what that looks like on a practical level.

Community engagement is communication

A huge part of community engagement involves talking to people. But it’s not a one-way thing – it means having a conversation, so that you’re both talking to your community and listening to what they’re saying.

Communication is often harder to facilitate than you’d first think. Don’t just assume people know who to talk to and how they can contact you. You might need to break down some communication barriers and look for ways to make yourself more reachable and accessible, offering a range of communication platforms and formats.

But communicating with your stakeholders is always worth it. It means you’ll get more diverse perspectives and you’ll gather more information to better inform your decisions. Plus, you’ll share information that will better inform your community, so there’s better understanding on both sides. 

So, how do you encourage more communication? The first step (which I’ve already hinted at) is to hang out in the places where your community is active. This will depend on who your community members are, the demographics you’re targeting and what their habits are, but some examples might include:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Local shopping villages
  • Major events and festivals
  • Community centers
  • Schools

The important thing, no matter where you communicate, is that you both listen and share.

 Community engagement is involvement

If you can get the communication piece right, you’ll likely find that community involvement naturally flows on from there. Once people know what’s going on and feel heard, many of them will start to actively participate in policies, projects and decision-making processes. 

Involvement is a powerful part of community engagement. It empowers your community and helps them feel like partners, not bystanders. As a result, they’ll be more engaged, more understanding and much more likely to be onboard with your vision. 

So, how do you encourage community involvement? Show that you genuinely want their input. Create opportunities for the community to actively participate in what you’re doing, whether it’s an event, workshop, forum or something else. Demonstrate the benefits to everyone when you all work together.

Community engagement is connection

Engaged people feel heard, understood and connected with your organization and brand. So connection is a natural side effect of successful community engagement.

There are lots of reasons why connection matters. Connection and trust help communities become more open and receptive to discussing and understanding issues that initially, they might feel opposed to. For example, your community might generally be against a development that’s needed for long-term sustainability, like a wider road or zoning changes to allow for more residential buildings. But if your community feels connected to your organization, they’ll listen to your reasons behind the development and maybe even change their position.

Plus, if you can create opportunities for people to connect with you and with each other, you’ll deepen their experience and build even more trust and engagement. More connected and engaged communities are more resilient – and this is especially important during times of change. So connection isn’t just better for your organization’s outcomes, it creates better outcomes for the community, too. 

How do you foster connection? Show, don’t tell. Understand the community’s social networks, culture, constraints, power structures, values, history and perceptions. Establish trust and relationships by strategically engaging with key groups, people in leadership positions and influencers. Which brings us to the final pillar of community engagement, strategy…

Community engagement is strategic

We’ve covered a lot of theory and definitions around “what is community engagement?” but the final piece of the puzzle is translating that into strategies and practices for your organization. There are hundreds of different community engagement activities you can do (we’ve only covered a few here), and you’ll need to pick just a handful to focus on with the time and budget you’ve got available. Strategy helps you get clear on the outcomes you want so you can plan the most effective way to get there.

The best place to start with your community engagement strategy is to think long-term. What community engagement projects are you likely to undertake in the coming months and years? 

Consider your social license to operate – developing trust, understanding, engagement and connection so that your efforts are more likely to be accepted in the community. It means you need to think ahead and invest in the long-term. 

You’ll need to build trust, not just for right now, but also for years into the future when you might unexpectedly need it. It’s easier to recover from a disaster or problem if you’ve already built up credibility and trust within the community. Which means that community engagement should be considered as part of your risk management and mitigation strategy. Look at any risks you’ve identified and consider how community engagement might minimize the impact if something went wrong.

So, where do you start with strategy? It all begins with a community engagement plan that helps you hone in on the stakeholders you need to communicate with, connect with and get involved. Plus the outcomes you want and the strategies and practices that will help you achieve them. 

Build your community engagement plan 

Ready to get started? Build your stakeholder engagement plan today. 

And reach out if you want help with community engagement software or a stakeholder management system to help you smoothly implement your plan, track all your communication in one place, and much more.