It was one of the community engagement strategies that failed – and not because it lacked resources.

In 2010 an ambitious project led by Mark Zuckerberg and Cory Booker (among others) aimed to reform Newark Public Schools. Despite the $100 million matching grant that Zuckerberg pledged for turning around the failing school system, the project was an utter failure for multiple reasons.

The 2 reasons community engagement strategies fail:

  • A top-down approach, with local stakeholders having little to no say in the initiative.
  • Being blind to the local problems the communities face. 

The Newark public school reform initiative had both the problems in spades. The board consisted of philanthropists, advisors, and leaders outside of Newark. As a result, they had markedly lesser ideas of ground realities.

The local community also had a lesser voice in the initiatives, making it challenging to implement change.

Both these mistakes are relatively easy to make in any social reform effort – and have expensive consequences. It makes all the difference between success and failure of community engagement strategies. 

This article will help you avoid such pitfalls and build community engagement strategies that can truly benefit your program.

What is a community engagement strategy?

A community engagement strategy is a step by step plan that details how to involve a community in bringing about social change. It is designed based on:

  1. The initiative/reform that is required – e.g. Tribal integrated waste management programs will require different engagement strategies as opposed to initiatives that bring about change in policies to enable city growth.
  2. The people involved (and which channels of communication they are comfortable with). Drawing from the above example, marginalized communities will need different kinds of engagement than others.
  3. The engagement level of the community as a whole – To be more specific, how open the community is to bring about change.

Depending on the above factors, your community engagement strategy will outline what kind of engagement occurs with the community, when it should happen, and also the channel via which communication occurs.

Difference between community engagement (strategy) and community outreach

Community outreach is a subset of community engagement. That is, you reach out to the community in question (outreach), to engage them better in the community initiative and thus bring about social change. 

To put it simpler, community outreach strategies are short term. It could involve a series of communications to invite community members to an event. 

Community engagement on the other hand is long term – spanning many such events and meetings so that the ultimate goal of social reform is reached. 

A quick overview – Community engagement vs. Community outreach

Community OutreachCommunity Engagement
Short-TermLong-Term
MarketingRelationship building
What can the organization do for the community? (or vice-versa)What can the organization and community accomplish together?
One group benefits the mostThe whole community benefits
TransactionalConnecting
DirectionalCyclical

Understanding this difference ensures that your community engagement strategy is better planned, with the right community organizing initiatives. 

 5 community engagement strategies to connect with the community

No community or social reform initiative can succeed without the local community sharing the same vision. 

People need to care about their community if they’re going to act for the benefit of their community. Most often it comes down to them caring about somebody in their community.”  – Paul Born, Co-founder & President of Tamarack Institute.

That means the community engagement strategy should be centered around:

  • Encouraging the community to believe in the vision.
  • Building trust with the community by showing how your organization can help.
  • Improving closer participation from the community towards each effort.

The community engagement strategies listed here align with the above objectives and are built keeping the community in the center.

1. Show the community what the issues facing them are

The easiest way to get buy-in from the community stakeholders is to give the research-backed data on the top issues plaguing their community. 

Use the data at all key community touchpoints (e.g. school notice boards, community meetings, press releases), to drive home why this issue needs to be addressed immediately. 

How can you do this?

  • Conduct surveys within the community members to identify what they think is the biggest problem.
  • Invite community stakeholders for meetings (within smaller groups, if necessary) and listen to whether they agree with your assessment.
  • Send emails, bulk texts, or hold peer to peer text conversations with your findings to ensure that the community is aware of the problem.

What will the outcome be?

The community as a whole will agree that the issue is an urgent problem to be tackled and will be more receptive to help.

When to use this strategy?

Each community will be in a different stage of engagement. This strategy typically works for those communities in the initial stages (Inception).

How to assess the stage of your community?

A community is classified in different stages based on the amount of activity generated by the members themselves. According to Feverbee, here are the 4 stages a community can go through:
Inception
Establishment
Maturity
Mitosis

community-stages-engagement-strategies

Knowing which stage your community falls under (as per the above classification), can help you determine the fundraising strategy you can use. (WOM = Word of Mouth). 

2. Explain/Demonstrate how your nonprofit can work with the community

In this strategy, your nonprofit or advocacy group can clearly communicate how your organization can effectively handle (or is already handling) the issues identified. 

The vital goal behind this strategy is to encourage the community to believe in your organization. That is, it is more a trust and relationship building approach. Even if they recognize the threat (or problem), the community should believe that you have their best interests and heart and can effectively execute it.

How can you do this?

  • During speeches and events talk about your organization’s past track record.
  • Invite members from communities you have helped previously (if possible) to talk to the current community members (during open house events).
  • Enable community members who have benefited from your efforts thus far, to share their stories.
  • Encourage board members and people from your organization to share how the issues impact them and what they are doing about it.

What will the outcome be?

The community as a whole will trust your organization better to bring about reform. They would also be more willing to work hand in hand with you to see the changes implemented.

When to use this strategy?

This strategy can work for those communities that are in the Inception stage but are moving towards Establishment

 3. Demonstrate how greater community involvement by your audience can help

Sometimes the community as a whole would be bogged down by inertia. That is they know the issue, may even agree that it needs to be addressed but would find it exceedingly hard to get actively involved. 

One way to jolt them out of their reluctance would be to show how much more impact you can have if you have the community members actively involved in the goal. 

How can you do this?

  • Outline the challenges you face when it comes to execution.
  • In meetings and speeches, show the gaps and detail how much faster the impact can be with local help.
  • Actively reach out for feedback using text surveys to find out what more you can do (and how the community can contribute).
  • Recruit interested volunteers to get the community at large involved.

What will the outcome be?

The community will start being more involved in the project. You will have more members, more volunteers, and more voices guiding and helping your work.

When to use this strategy?

This strategy can be the ultimate push needed by communities to go from Inception to Establishment. 

 4. Encouraging the community to participate through gradual steps

Another way to encourage the community to take a closer interest in your work is by enabling them to contribute in multiple ways.

That is, they can choose the level of involvement, and how they want to help your efforts. You can also augment it by moving the community stakeholders across a ladder of engagement

The idea is to make small requests that are difficult to say no to – and eventually get them interested enough to make more immense contributions. E.g. It can be as simple as signing up for a newsletter (initially), or making a $2 donation. Gradually, it can be amped up to attending events, helping out as a volunteer.

How can you do this?

  • Offer multiple channels of engagement (online and offline).
  • Record and track member engagement so that you make the asks relevant.
  • Start hyper-local (e.g. invite members for box-meetings) and then increase engagement.
  • Use conversations via calls and peer to peer texts to make the requests personal.

What will the outcome be?

The community as a whole will be more invested in collaborating with your organization to bring about change. It means that you can finally shift more of your focus on executing reform than spending primary energy on the community members.

When to use this strategy?

This strategy is the perfect fit for those communities that are already well Established, and are heading towards Maturity.

5. Providing impact numbers consistently, listening to feedback, and tweaking efforts

A crucial component for all community engagement strategies is to keep up the momentum. It can take a long time for social reform to be implemented. That means the community should maintain the same velocity and passion (or have more), towards accomplishing the goal than when they initially started. 

The engagement strategies for this would be to actively listen to the community on the problems they face – as volunteers, as members, and as beneficiaries. It is also essential to consistently encourage them with how far they have come. 

How can you do this?

  • Emails and newsletters.
  • Volunteer appreciation events.
  • Feedback surveys (after event / after completion of one stage of project).
  • Frequent volunteer management /stakeholder meetings.
  • Peer to peer texts and conversations on how stakeholders perceive the changes.

What will the outcome be?

Members will look further into themselves and get more involved in the activities. You will also have more members (new joinees), and higher ownership among the community in seeing this project through.

When to use this strategy?

This engagement strategy is for highly evolved communities that already have experience collaborating with nonprofits. 

Notice that most of the ways to communicate or engage with the community are similar. You will use channels like texting, calling, emails, meetings, and events to get your point across. The key is to find the channel that resonates with your audience the most.

MN350 is the perfect example. They used text messages to rally for climate change because their target audience (youth and GenZers) were most receptive to that medium. 

What matters is what you say during these touchpoints when you say it, and to whom you tell it to. Hopefully, the above strategies gave you an insight into that. 

But hey, hold up. We are still not done.

Best practices for community engagement strategies that win

Before you use the above strategies to build a plan for your community engagement initiative, there are some best practices to consider. These will ensure that you get the most out of the strategies you have planned. 

  • Set a goal

Clearly define what your objectives are. Here are a few common goals/scope of community engagement strategies:

  • Identify or prioritize what the needs and priorities for Community Planning should be.
  • Develop a consensus on a proposal or plan.
  • Inform the decision-making or service delivery of a community, council, or department.
  • Develop new or collaborative ways of implementing elements of the Community Plan.
  • Review progress on the Community Plan.

Knowing the purpose of the engagement process will help you keep the engagement strategy relevant.

  • Define success metrics

What is the level of engagement or participation you are trying to achieve? Is the purpose of the initiative restricted to participation or does it depend on social change?

Knowing where you are going (with defined numbers) will help you refocus your strategies repeatedly and stay on track.

  • Identify stakeholders

Stakeholders are anybody in the community or organization who are either impacted by the project or have a vested interest in it. E.g., stakeholders include:

  • Local residents or area-based groups
  • Communities of interest
  • Faith-based groups
  • Racial, ethnic, and cultural groups
  • Local community and voluntary groups
  • Web-based or virtual groups

Notice that each of these stakeholders are also capable of influencing the community. So your community engagement strategy should plan on the best way to involve them in your efforts.

  • Narrow down on tools to help you with communication

This is perhaps the most critical aspect of your engagement strategy. When it comes down to execution, communication is essential. Here are some tools that can help you send relevant messages via the right channels

Ensure that this digital stack aligns with your database of members and volunteers to streamline communication further.

  • Anticipate challenges and tweak your strategy

No community engagement strategy is without challenges. A few of the common barriers are:

  • Capacity and ability of different stakeholders to participate
  • Engaging ‘Hard to reach’ groups like young people and old
  • Rural isolation
  • Lack of community infrastructure
  • Gaps in your information
  • Cultural differences (e.g. dominance of oral tradition in marginalized communities)

The key to success here would be to factor in the challenges and build an engagement strategy around it. For instance, your engagement strategy can be social-media heavy to reach the youth (if you think that is a challenge you will encounter).

On the other hand, the strategy will involve offline and more in-person meetings and training if it involves working with marginalized groups.

Ultimately, what works for your community and organization will be unique. It could be a combination of the above strategies, or a new method that is suited for your community members.

Let us know if we have missed something and we will definitely add to the list. 

Otherwise, all the best! We want to know how these strategies helped you win. Drop a line and let us know 🙂
Featured image credits: Matheus Bertelli

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