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Community Engagement: Tips for Success

Community Engagement: Tips for Success

Community engagement is hard work. It can be a thankless job, but it also can be the most rewarding work with the best people. We’ve had the honor of working with some amazing people who are truly committed to community, future generations, and a healthy environment. 
 
Whether you have been in the technical or policy trenches for years or you’re new to it, engaging people is a skill set. It’s both a verb and a noun – an action and an activity. Above all, it’s a journey.  
 
It doesn’t always have to be about making decisions. It’s also about building capacity, strengthening partnerships and alliances, and keeping the conversation going. At times, there’s too much at stake to give up. 

Built on trust 

No process can move forward or hope for success without a basic level of trust and representation. We build trust by getting to know others in a safe, interactive space. This can happen through storytelling, sharing a personal connection to the topic of discussion, or capturing the motivations of each participant with a photo. Trust is earned; it’s a two-way street that allows creativity and respect to grow.  

Built over time

Give people time to learn together. Allocate agenda time at the beginning for introductions or answers to a prompt, or provide time at the end of the meeting to express gratitude. In virtual settings, set up breakout rooms to share thoughts on a question. Break down barriers by coming together for a meal or drinks. Building long-term relationships can be THE measurable outcome of any discussion or process. Relationship is the connection and communication network needed to sustain communities and secure solutions. 

Beyond business as usual

 As Albert Einstein said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” We need to step beyond our usual ways of addressing issues. Our complex world requires open discussion and an adaptive mindset able to consider other perspectives and outside-the-box solutions. Access a suite of ways (often online tools) to listen, inform, engage, analyze and report, such as surveys, interviews, video, and community-based social marketing. 

Be yourself, not your position

Sometimes people at the table identify with the position of the organization they represent. Personal sharing about why the issue is important to them can help people untangle themselves from their positions. Example exercises include popcorn sharing, real-time polls, or dot exercises.

Success: a scarce commodity

 After years of engagement experience, we’ve noticed that a lot of people have never had a positive experience engaging. Some have no experience, until a personally important issue arises and motivates them to choose engagement. Many feel that processes are ponderous, inadequately focused and poorly managed – and they can be. Some approaches that can alleviate these feelings include:  

  • Setting a positive tone at the beginning and at the end of every meeting 
  • Choose and accept guidelines about behavior standards in the process 
  • Highlight breakthroughs or positive progress every step of the way 
Peak Sustainability Group facilitated a charrette for the Bellingham Community Boating Center to scope ideas for improving access and services at their waterfront location.

Include new voices at the table 

Reach out to and actively engage a broad audience, especially those who are most affected by the issue. Look for unlikely partners. Even if you have agreement within the group, outside interests not included in the process can oppose the result, often in a highly public arena. Politics-fed or “fundamentalist” behaviors can inhibit the process, and so can disrespectful criticism. It’s important to remember that you cannot reduce issues to tweets, mandates, or if-only thinking. Sometimes, engaging interests outside of the process keeps emotions diffused and ensures perspectives are heard. 

We are an impatient society

People can be impatient or simply give up too soon – just when the potential for breakthrough was there. Timelines may push decisions even when we don’t have all the information we need. We can’t always measure success with a checklist. Funding deliverables may require a deadline and people’s time is not infinite. Setting clear schedules and deadlines ahead of time with a bit of wiggle room structures the process while maintaining needed flexibility.

Consider the role of place-based community change

Problems evolve and are often complex. Priorities overlap and solutions are interconnected. There is always more than one right answer, and sometimes piloted solutions allow for experimentation on a smaller scale. If there is a place-specific crisis, expect the context to be muddied and communications to be more turbulent, with relationships and alliances tested and stressed. There will be less time for a perfect solution, so keep communications open and be clear about your goals. Seek to stabilize the situation and be prepared to improvise and experiment. 

Commit to accurate information and facts 

When working in the public sphere, what is the role of government in engagement? Governments have the ability to mobilize their citizens to engage in learning, informed debate and input, and set the stage for more responsive, innovative, and effective governance. Qualified input, data, and information are key to the process.

The value of time, fortitude, and commitment

Time is necessary for relationships to grow. Fortitude allows you to persevere when conversations are difficult – listening is the best way to earn a person’s respect. Commitment helps to continue the conversation even when it gets tough or seems to be going against what you believe. 

Commit to something bigger than yourselves or the present situation

Our firm assisted a group that faced very difficult challenges related to land use and endangered species. They came together to change the way the community looked at conflict and sought a multi-benefit approach to resolving their issues. While the group made many strides together over the years, at times, the group’s process appeared to have stalled or even moved backward. Then one of the participants asked a prophetic question: “What will our children think… if we just give up?” 
 
At first, silence filled the room for a moment as everyone pondered his question. One by one, they all shared the satisfaction they felt building positive relationships, finding opportunities, sharing ideas, and building a legacy for their community. Staying at the table suddenly shifted. They re-committed to addressing the most pressing issues and to innovating together. Their relationships deepened and working together resulted in successful outcomes that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. 


Peak Sustainability Group provides strategic communications services, including facilitation for meetings, charrettes, and open houses, science communication, public speaking and education, community surveys and focus interviews.

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