Defining “Community” for Community Engagement

April 29, 2024
Five hands with differing skin tones lay across a table illustrating community and partnership.

Buzz words. Concepts that are all the rage. Phrases that seem to appear everywhere. 

The term “community engagement” is having that moment in the context of collaboration and organizational development. Many of the leaders who approach ICL for support will talk about the concept when they want to fine-tune their collaboration, or create a strategic plan, or develop a fundraising plan. 

And what do we mean when we use the term community engagement? Engagement with whom? At what level? For how long?

Here’s one definition of community engagement: the actions that a collaborative or organization takes to listen to and respond to the perspectives, needs, and assets of their community. This definition relies on a group’s commitment to create solutions that are community-based and that serve those most impacted by the issues. By understanding the community more deeply, the group opens itself up to new ways of thinking and acting. 

Why might you want to implement community engagement strategies? Seeking input and perspectives beyond “what we currently know” supports the ability to:  

  • Be relevant and connected to the community’s vision and needs,
  • Build relationships and trust with those who understand the issues and who might benefit from the solutions,
  • Think more creatively and innovatively, and identify new experiments that will have more impact, and,
  • Build the community’s investment in your success, including resources and added expertise.

Often community engagement conjures up the image of gathering a set of lesser-known people or leaders from constituencies who have potential interest and perspectives to support the collaborative’s or organization’s vision. This is a classic “join us” posture, and is rooted in an unconscious appeal to “come and help us do our work better.” It can be perceived as being a transactional and potentially extractive form of “community engagement.”

With a stance of truly listening to and responding to the community, the script is flipped. Rather than “join us,” the intent is more “how might we partner together?” With this posture the first steps in community engagement especially include carefully defining what aspect of the community to engage.

Levels of Community to Engage

The work to define “community” can benefit from questions such as:

  • How do we define our “community?” How is it defined by geography? By our history? Or defined by the changing demographics in our area?
  • Who can bring a valuable perspective and new thinking from our community?
  • Who has been especially impacted by the issues, and yet not so involved in solutions?
  • Who might enhance the dominant way we think about our work and bring different discipline or perspective?

In some minds, community engagement means engaging those who have never been involved with the collaborative or organization. However, sometimes beginning engagement with folks who have been part of past work can be a productive way to re-engage and build engagement skills. 

Hone the definition of “community” by considering the levels of community, including a spectrum of how much engagement they have had with your collaborative or organization. 

Levels of community engagement

Your current supporters or members – Who can you re-engage or engage with more deeply? If you are a collaboration, you might start with your engagement efforts with members or participating groups who 1) are not part of the leadership group, 2) are not active in a subgroup, 3) have not been recently attending meetings or events. For organizations, you might start by engaging board members or former board members who have been drifting away, folks who used to volunteer, or lapsed donors.

Your current partners and allies – Who does your collaboration or organization work directly with or adjacent to? How could you begin a dialogue to better understand their work and perspectives, and potentially identify issues where mutual support could be helpful? How could these natural allies help you think differently about community trends, new community needs, or ways to leverage change to benefit the community?

Important community groups – Who in your community is impacted by your issues and has not been involved? Rather than thinking about big categories or constituencies in your community, consider starting with other community groups, government agencies, businesses or cultural groups that have been outside of your group’s circle. Identify leaders in the community that will stretch your thinking, link to parallel issues or human needs, connect you to new or growing demographic groups (age, gender, race or ethnicity, economic strata, ability/disability, or religion), or different professions. Especially look for community groups that connect with or serve those constituencies who are growing in importance for your community.   

Closing thoughts

A final word of caution about community engagement. Don’t begin community engagement activities unless your collaboration or organization is fully committed to continued engagement. Doing it because it’s required by a funder, or a leader in your network insists, or because you think it’s important for equity and inclusion work – these are not good enough reasons to do community engagement.  

Start community engagement with the end in mind. If you are going to take the time to ask, then plan to circle back to those you engaged. Let them know what you heard, as well as how you intend to adapt or change based on what you heard. And, most importantly, plan for how the relationship and exchange might continue or grow over the next year. 

In the next few months, ICL wants to share additional resources about community engagement. For example, here’s an excellent blog post from Nonprofit Quarterly, “How To Do Community Engagement Right.” 

In the comment section below, please offer additional resources that we can share with the wider ICL community. And tell us excellent examples of community engagement you know about. Or if you prefer, use this survey link to give us your feedback. This survey will remain open through the month of May.

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