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Maximizing Community Engagement

Be open, patient & deliberate.

Community Engagement consistently strikes a chord with many community developers and network builders as an area to learn more about and build skills.  Why are people so eager to connect and learn about this topic?  Is there something about our current society that calls out for a renewed interest or deeper learning about how to engage with others?

Let’s start with a few definitions of what community engagement is…

Put simply, community engagement is the process of involving people in decisions that affect them. This can mean involving communities in the planning, development and management of services.   – from a great how-to guide by The Scottish Government.

Loosely defined, community engagement is the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people. It is a powerful vehicle for bringing about environmental and behavioral changes that will improve the health of the community and its members. It often involves partnerships and coalitions that help mobilize resources and influence systems, change relationships among partners, and serve as catalysts for changing policies, programs, and practices (Fawcett et al., 1995). – by the Centre for Disease Control

Based on our research, we understand community engagement to be “people working collaboratively, through inspired action and learning, to create and realize bold visions for their common future.” – by Tamarack Institute


Communities are groups of people. What are some of the best ways to understand this group, engage them and move forward in addressing complex issues?

UNDERSTANDING takes listening and learning.  This could look very different depending on the group. Formally, you can use surveys, forums and research or consider collaborative conversations and seeking points of view more informally through fun engagement and interaction. Be curious…ask questions. Craft ones that are tough, deep, and emotional because its those kinds of questions that get people thinking. Remember to be open, patient and deliberate in all of your approaches within community.

ENGAGE the group by giving them what they need. Find what makes things relevant for them. That might include what is relevant for the group as a whole as well as what is relevant for individual people too.   Create the space, ask phenomenological questions, celebrate together, and hold generative conversations.

Then, once you have got people engaged, MOVE FORWARD together to address complex issues. We believe that it is through well planned group processes that moves groups to action – and not just any action but one that resonates, is well informed and has everyone’s buy-in.

Reflect on what might happen when any of these strategies are skipped or rushed.  What happens when a community builder doesn’t really understand the group they are with or if only part of the group is engaged in the topic or issue? How effective is action when not everyone is informed and “bought” it?

Give connections time, build trust, demonstrate credibility, and always keep a door open. Be deliberate! Be patient! Be open! – by T.Smyth & T. Dewar (2009)

Interested? Maximizing Community Engagement was the title of our guest podcast with host Tamarack Institute. Here’s the link to the recording.

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