Community Engagement Planning in 3 Steps

Community - from the wall in a McDonald's!These days the phrase “Community Engagement” is commonly heard but not commonly understood for all its power.

This weekend, we finished entirely revising our Community Engagement Action Kit. And so this whole subject is on my brain a lot.

When we use Community Engagement as just one more tool in the toolbox, yes, it is a powerful tool. But when engaging the community becomes your group’s way of being in all its work – well look out!

First, our definition of Community Engagement:

Community Engagement is the process of building relationships with community members who will work side-by-side with you as an ongoing partner, to make the community a better place to live. Considered from the perspective of that two-way relationship, Community Engagement is the organizational equivalent of friendship.

As we know from our real lives, friendship isn’t something we “do.” It’s something we “be.” So how can you infuse that way of being into everything your organization does?

These 3 steps will get you started.

Step 1: What Do We Need to Accomplish, and How Can Engaging the Community Further Those Goals?
The very first step is to consider all your organization’s goals for the year. The goals of your Community Impact Plan. The goals of your Organizational Wellness Plan. The goals of your Program Development Plans. And the goals of all your other plans.

How could all those goals be enhanced by engaging your community more deeply in your work?

Try this: For each of the following sample goals, name at least 3 ways that goal could be enhanced by engaging people in your community. And think about what kinds of people that might be.

• Goal: Create a new program to address an unmet need you have uncovered.
• Goal: Create a succession plan for your Executive Director
• Goal: Expand the reach of an existing program into a new neighborhood.
• Goal: Choose a goal from one of your own plans.

Step 2: Who to Engage?
For each of the opportunities you uncovered in Step 1, list the types of people you could engage to enhance that effort.

Whose lives are touched by the issue at the heart of that goal? Perhaps it is parents of young children – or the young children themselves. Perhaps it is elected officials. Or neighborhood residents. School principals. Public Safety employees.

For example, if your goal is to create a succession plan, your list might include:
• Other executive directors
• HR specialists
• Corporate leaders / local corporate boards who may have recently gone through an executive transition

From there, list names of people. For now, it doesn’t matter so much if you know those people – you can always be introduced by a mutual acquaintance. But the bottom line is that we can’t engage categories of people – we can only engage with real humans. So create a list of names.

Try this: For each of the opportunities you listed in Step 1, list at least 3 types of people or groups whose lives have been touched by that issue. Then for each of those types, list at least 3 people to engage.

Step 3: How to Engage?
The ways to engage are as many as the stars in the sky – or the people in your community! One-on-one meetings over coffee, small group meetings, events, presentations – the list is as long as your imagination, and will rely entirely on what you are trying to accomplish by engaging in the first place!

What you will quickly find in these activities is that Community Engagement is fun. That’s because it is tapping on the passion you have for making a difference in your community.

Because of that, Community Engagement is a great way to engage your board. Unlike fundraising, with Community Engagement, board members don’t have to ask for anything but someone’s wisdom, ideas and passion. And that is always fun!

Try this: For each of the types of people noted in Step 2, list at least 2 ways you might engage those groups or individuals.

Once you begin engaging the community in the work your organization is doing, you will see that the benefits move beyond the ideas you had in Step 1. And that is because the real goal of Community Engagement is building an engaged community – a huge part of what creates the healthy, vibrant places we all want to live.

Photo: Found this picture hanging on the wall at a McDonald’s – art is everywhere!

6 thoughts on “Community Engagement Planning in 3 Steps”

  1. Hildy,

    This is a fantastic article. I particularly appreciate your definition of “community engagement”, and concrete direction about how organizations can get started.

    In our view, Step 1 is bang on. Imagine what would be possible if every organization began the year by clearly determining what would be required to achieve their missions! We encourage organizations to set big, audacious, mission-driven goals … with the knowledge that doing so creates an opportunity (and some pressure) to meaningfully engage many talented and passionate community members.

    I’d like to push you to extend the possibilities within Step 2. When you start talking about WHO, be sure to identify what knowledge, skills and experience will be required to meet each goal. Certainly include people whose lives have been touched by the issue – but also be sure to invite engagement based on the specific skills and knowledge you’re looking for. And don’t limit yourself to people you already know the names of! Put together a position description and circulate it in your community: on volunteer boards, on Craigslist, through local professional associations. Cast your net wide and you will be amazed at the people who step forward with an interest in contributing their professional skills to your cause!

    Two cents… from an organization who is passionate about strengthening not-for-profit organizations through knowledge philanthropy.

    Lynda Gerty
    Director of Communications
    Vantage Point

  2. Hi Hildy

    this is another well-timed article from my point of view – thank you so much!

    This is a little off-topic, but I wonder have you considered electronic publishing? I am in the process of shedding a lot of physical books and possessions and am reluctant to add more of these things, even though your writing and this topic in particular is of great interest. I would purchase your book in electronic format in a heartbeat but I really am hesitating to get it in physical print.

    I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I know you are looking at different ways of working and making a living from what you do. The benefits of electronic publishing I think are great…

    Just a thought.


  3. Lynda:
    Your comment is making me smile. I have to confess that my first response was, “Condensing 120 page workbook into a blog post certainly has its disadvantages!” So thanks for that chuckle.

    And as you did, I’m going to push a bit on Step 2 also – and I’m not sure if we are aiming at the same thing, and if it’s just typing quickly that is making it feel different, so please tell me if that’s so.

    I would agree that “skills and knowledge and position description” are absolutely key if the reason for engaging is that you need help with something and are seeking a person / people to do so or perhaps pro bono assistance, etc.

    However in our experience, the greatest strength of engagement lies in its ability to gather all kinds of information and wisdom and ideas from people from whom we want nothing but that. It is the ability to cast a wide net (as you note) for the purpose of engaging the community to co-build all our efforts together rather than alone in silos.

    So, for example, if we are considering opening a preschool program, engaging parents might help us understand more of what’s needed and what would work well, but also talking with 4 year olds might do the same. And absolutely, talking with other organizations who are doing preschool programs would be huge. And etc.

    So I can see where skills and knowledge might be a good thing to consider with all this, but I fear that a) if we’re listing skills and knowledge, we might forget the 4 year olds, and b) if we’re noting a position description – well there is no position, and further that might preclude our engaging other organizations, and…

    So am I mis-reading your comment? Are we actually on the same page and I’m just reading it differently? Let me know if that’s the case – would love to expand the thinking around the ability of change efforts to be more engaged and open overall.

    Thank you for getting me thinking!

  4. Amanda:
    Glad the timing of this post is helpful! As for e-publishing, we do have some of our stuff available electronically – that’s here:

    We are in the process of working on 2 efforts to make all our books available electronically as well. First, we are hoping to soon have The Pollyanna Principles on the Kindle – and probably our small book, “What Do Funders Want and Why Do They Want It?”

    As for our workbooks, turning them into ebooks has all sorts of potential, which gets my brain going in a ton of directions. Thanks for that – and we’ll keep you posted!!!

  5. Hildy,

    This is a rich conversation – thanks for your thorough and thoughtful response. 🙂

    I absolutely hear what you’re saying, and I *think* our approaches are aligned. Or at least complimentary. But not exactly the same. So let’s see if I can expand a little.

    I understand your point A. (I’m not sure I understand B). By no means do I want to forget the 4 year olds. I’m on board with the community engagement approach you’ve described – and it is vital. And I think if we do community engagement only to involve people who have a vested interest in a particular issue or project, we are missing a huge chunk of our community. In our experience, there are MANY talented, skilled people in our communities who are eager to contribute their expertise to causes and projects. So, for that same preschool program, you might look to engage a researcher, a business analyst, a communications expert, an IT specialist, and a human resoures consultant. My point is when we craft our work in a way that invites and enables participation from ALL the people in our community, we can gain access to almost unlimited energy, knowledge and resources.

    As a sector, we’re not great at providing the community at large with a wide variety of concrete, meaningful ways to positively impact the mission at all levels. We like to bemoan our lack of financial resources, while turning a blind eye to the abundance of PEOPLE resources in our communities. So, we’re saying – invite the community IN. Open up your work to *everyone* who is willing and able to effectively contribute. You’ll be amazed at who shows up!

    Over to you…



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