By Mo Elleissy
Engaging with your community is about more than just consultation. It is an ongoing, explorative, and above all reciprocal endeavour. It will, if done right, create meaningful and trustful relationships between you and the communities in which you operate.
The dangers of tokenism in the community engagement sector are very real. Everyone knows the feeling of filling out a survey, or ticking a few boxes on a form only to see no change, and no indication that they have been heard.
For this reason we need to emphasise the importance of ‘closing the loop’. Letting your community know that you appreciate the time they took in engaging is one thing, but actively communicating back what they have said is much more effective. You are acknowledging, and validating their point of view, as well as opening up a dialogue. Not doing so can indicate a weak community engagement effort and foster cynicism, and cause feelings of scorn and distrust towards your organisation.
One thing that is imperative from the participants of your community engagement effort and your organisation, is openness. For engagement to be successful, you may may need to alter your thinking, or methods of doing things, or maybe even alter your business practices to better suit your community. By demonstrating that you are truly open, the community will become more responsive as they will feel that their ideas and genuine relationship with you may result in something real.
Having said this, there are a few things you can do to make your community engagement effort more successful and trouble-free. Firstly, among your team you need to agree on your overall goals and objectives. These can be a variety of different things but ultimately they will fall into one of three categories, or be a combination of relationship building, decision making or capacity building.
Depending on what you want to do, you can choose from a variety of different engagement methods. These can be either online or face-to-face, or a combination of both depending on your objective and your intended audience .
Frame the conversation, and steer it in the way you want. When you open up the floor for discussion, make sure the discussion has certain guidelines. This will ensure that the topics you want discussed are addressed, and confirm that people who are there to simply argue only have a certain scope to work within.
We need to steer away from the idea that community engagement is a necessary evil with nothing to be gained. If done efficiently, you will create a community that is interested and better informed about your project, open to the idea of dialogue, but above all, they will have positive feelings towards your organisation knowing you've genuinely engaged them.