Community engagement techniques

Principles of community engagement

Why create a community engagement plan? Being engaged with your community is necessary to raise funds and to get the support needed to achieve your goals.

If you want to create a healthy, equal and successful community then you will need engaged supporters, institutions and organizations. Engagement is really about giving everyone a voice in the planning and implementation of community initiatives. It also helps local governments to understand what services to provide if they have access to the work of community organizations who have surveyed and engaged their communities.

When the public are involved in the planning of local services they are more likely to respect those decisions and it helps to knit the community together. It also helps the public to see their influence in the change process and see how they are part of something larger than themselves.

Importance of community engagement

Public involvement in the community planning process is seen as crucial in the healthy running of a democracy. This is evident in the fact that public consultation is part of so many local government decisions nowadays, from public transport to water delivery services. Public participation and community engagement are important in order to:

• strengthen the legitimacy and accountability of democratic institutions

• empower local communities to be part of decision making

• build social cohesion with common causes and issues

• improve the effectiveness of public services in tune with people’s needs

• create more collective action with residents and community organizations

For nonprofits and advocacy groups resources are usually limited and community engagement can seem like an additional cost. However, most of these organizations are able to look past the cost to the long-term benefits of that engagement and how it ties to the organizational mission. In addition, engaging supporters and the public provides access to local knowledge, experience and skills that any one organization cannot replicate. We are stronger together. Community and organizations working together can increase the impact of their campaigns and foster greater resilience of the community as a whole.

The complex and ever-changing nature of communities and participation means that there is no such thing as rules around engagement. However, it is possible to put in place principles of engagement that can be worked on over time depending on local circumstances. The key here is sustained engagement and learning from what that engagement throws up. These principles should hopefully help to guide your practice to address barriers that have help nonprofits and advocacy groups back in the past. The world has changed and it is important that community engagement plans change with it and leverage the technologies that can create new dynamics for communities today.

Community engagement plan examples

Grassroots organizing

Supporters and activists are the most important group of people in any nonprofit or advocacy group but they are often overlooked. A strong supporter base that is active in the community can transform your campaigning potential and your relationship with the community. Grassroots organizing is an ancient practice but in the modern nonprofit it needs to be guided by the following principles.

Directed - Supporters and activists need to within an organizational framework in order to avoid a free for all approach to community engagement. Having everyone trained in organizational mission, ways of operating and in digital infrastructure and reporting is critical. Direction from head office needs to be clear and helpful without getting in the way of local operations and innovation.

Structured - Work carried out in the community by supporters needs to be structured in order to achieve the organizational goals. This might mean a structured outreach for fundraising or coordinated events being run on a specific day. The value of all local grassroots teams doing the same thing is that head office can generate coherent reports based on that activity and they can see results coming through from work.

Digital - The past few years have seen a large scale move from paper-based campaigning to digital based campaigning. This trend is due to it being more efficient and safer from a data protection standpoint. Now with the challenge of Covid, it is also safer and easier to operate remotely using digital tools. Supporters and grassroots teams respond better to having some digital infrastructure in place such as mobile apps for community engagement and a central website or dashboard for managing their local work.

Autonomous - It cannot be stressed enough that all of the previous points about directed, structured and digital working for supporters is in order to give these activists autonomy in what they do locally. Without structure and digital tools grassroots teams are cut adrift from head office and spend too much time either trying to communicate internally or explaining and reporting on their actions that took place offline. Local teams have local conditions and they need to be able to manage their practice based on these conditions but with the support of head office. This is a strong message that comes from all chapter-based organizations.

Action tip: Set up a snowflake model of grassroots organizing for your local chapters and supporters. This model gives local chapters control over actions taken in their commuity but gives oversight to head office. All of the data captured in the local database is shared with the head office database so the organization can benefit. Talk to us today to get this structure set up within 24 hours for you. Simple, effective software solutions for grassroots organizing are being enacted by community groups all around the world. Let us help you with your set up.

What do we understand about the community?

Engaging communities is very often done in the dark with little research done on the area or demographics. Doing statistical research by area is a great first step and a lot of information can be accessed from census data and your city or county offices regarding planning and voting records. Most national governments will also have an online data portal where research can be done. However, doing your own research on the topics that are relevant to your organization should also be undertaken. Either door to door surveys or on-street surveys can give a clear idea of how the community understands an issue. These surveys do not have to be done with a huge sample set to get an accurate picture of the community and the analysis of those surveys will inform future messaging and strategy.  

Up to date research is important with any community initiative as we have seen this year how time sensitive community engagement is and how quickly public attitudes change. Maintain research as an ongoing process that is repeated quarterly or annually at least. The benefit of ongoing community research is that you can begin to see trends emerging over time, particularly if you are asking the same or similar questions. This data is a strong competitive advantage over other community groups and can form the basis of excellent published research that will gain exposure for your organization.

Action tip: Rollout a community survey project with your grassroots teams using Ecanvasser Go. Simply engage your community on-street, at events or even by asking family and friends. Aim for 200-1000 responses in order to have a strong statistical profile of your community.

Partnering with stakeholders

Guess what? You are not the only organization doing community engagement work in your area. As a matter of fact there is a community org, nonprofit or charity for about every 400 people in the world. That means that your area has tonnes of expertise and relationship building already in place with other groups and stakeholders. It would be wise therefore to form alliances with some of these organizations. The benefits include gaining access to a ready-made community with lines of communication already open. It also gives you access to community leaders and activists with experience and insights on how to achieve your goals.

So, what to do? Firstly, map out other groups that you might form an alliance with. You might have a common goal or they might be working on something completely different but would still be willing to partner with you. Secondly, reach out to them to set up a joint event, webinar, or fundraiser so you can begin to form an alliance and get access to their supporters. Remember this is a give and take situation and they will want to gain something from the partnership also.

Thirdly, create a plan of ongoing engagement with these stakeholders where you do joint projects, get exposure to their community and find new ways of supporting each other.

Action tip: Make a map of your community partners with Ecanvasser. You can do this by setting up a tag for all people in your community that are leadership in another community group of interest to you. Now put together a calendar of joint actions for the coming year and start reaching out to these community partners by email, phone or face to face using Ecanvasser tools.

Insights and data

Underneath the soft and cuddly exterior of community engagement organizations beats a hard heart of data. Community engagement, like so much of modern life, is built on data gathering and interpretation. The problem is, many people in the industry either don’t know or don’t acknowledge this reality.

When community groups are looking to engage citizens they need data about those people. Where are they? How likely are they to support us? What income category are they in? When activists are at events they are usually looking to spread information to the community or get the community involved in their work through donations or volunteering their time. This then is a data gathering exercise, one where a supporter’s email is the target data to gather, or their signature on a petition, or simply their viewpoint on an issue. When community engagement professionals strip their work back to this foundational level it can be useful for prioritizing what needs to be done to gather the data that is needed to thrive.

So what all community engagement professionals are creating is a database of their area, broken down either by individuals (with their consent) or by area (and therefore anonymous). The data captured by the organization is then attached either to individuals (example email address, phone number, survey responses) or attached to an area (survey responses, demographic information, etc).

Interpreting this data then becomes the focus with organizational messaging coming from this or strategy to further engage the community. For example, if you have done a survey online about your issue and it is clear from the data you get back that a particular area or group of people feel strongly about this then you might want to reach out to those people face to face or through email to get further information or to convince them of your viewpoint as an organization.

Data is the key to ongoing engagement and forms the basis of understanding the community you serve. Remember if you are capturing personally identifiable information about anyone to manage that information correctly in accordance with data protection legislation in your country. If you can capture consent to hold that information from an individual then that is a great way of moving forward and building a credible database into the future.

Action tip: Set up team training on data capture and management. If you are unsure how to do this then get in touch with us for advice. Now set objectives for what data you want to gather such as updating contact information for individuals or survey responses on a particular topic. Now create your Ecanvasser surveys and contact information fields to allow this data to be captured by your teams. Organise for a data analytics review to be done by the Ecanvasser data science team to review your data insights.

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