Community engagement: How to create meaningful connections in an age of distrust

Community engagement is a term used across many contexts and often means different things to different audiences. For the purpose of this article, we speak from our experience of working with local government, charities, and funders to strengthen their relationships with the communities they serve. We’re also aware that this term is often used interchangeably with other concepts such as community outreach, community consultation and community organising.

We hope this article is particularly useful to those who are hoping to build stronger and better-informed relationships with their communities.

The following blog post was written by Maisie Palmer, Consultant at The Social Change Agency

Community engagement

Community engagement is a vital part of any project seeking to benefit the public. When providing services that affect the lives of many, building relationships with the community that you serve is a non-negotiable. Whether you’re a charity, funder or government authority, understanding what communities are thinking and feeling, and taking those thoughts and feelings seriously, is the only road to a legitimate and meaningful partnership.

What is community engagement?
Why is community engagement important?
How should I approach community engagement?

What is community engagement?

Community engagement is all about supporting communities to take ownership of the resources that are available to them. This means taking an active role in creating partnerships between the institution that is providing those resources, such as a local council, and the communities that will be receiving them. Grassroots, voluntary and faith organisations as well as mutual aid groups are often deeply embedded in their communities and have a good understanding of local dynamics. This is what makes them such important partners for service providers.

In the simplest sense, community engagement is likely to involve connecting with community leaders and facilitating conversations about what they would like to see happen in their communities. This might look like restoring public spaces such as libraries or a community garden, engaging in discussions around improving housing standards or planning and programming a community event.

Why is community engagement important?

Over the last two decades, trust in ‘big’ institutions has been in a state of flux. Historical events such as Brexit and more recently COVID-19 have shifted our understanding of public life and how we relate to the institutions and organisations that shape it. For example, the latest British Social Attitudes Survey reported that only 23% of people trust the government to put the needs of the nation before the interests of their party. This begs the question: how can those with institutional power begin to build back trust with the communities they serve?

The concept earned legitimacy proposes that it is the role of public institutions to build bridges with communities who have lost faith in their ability to serve. More specifically, it demonstrates how a public institutions’ legitimacy hangs directly on how much their community trusts them to rightfully act on their behalf. Though we have used the example of government here to illustrate our point, this premise stands for any organisation that has the power, resource and will to engage communities in their activities. In short, it’s on you to put the work in.

How should I approach community engagement?

1. Get real about the role of history

When you work for a large institution, with substantial control over resources intended for public use, communities are likely to have pre-existing ideas about your organisation based on your past relationship with them. Historically, many communities have been underserved and even harmed by organisations and public institutions. We see examples of this frequently in the news, whether it’s black individuals being more likely to be subject to stop and search or international charities such as Oxfam’s failure in preventing abuses of power. It makes sense that some communities are sceptical to work with those that have represented racism, mistreatment and pain to them in the past.

‘What are your concerns about this organisation and is there anything we can do to reassure you?’

The Centre for Public Impact recently released a report on how they set about restoring trust between Americans and local government by working with local communities in four different parts of the US. This involved “acknowledging past wrongs and showing a commitment to confront[ing] present-day […] issues.” In sum, it’s really important for historical tensions to be addressed in the early stages of relationship building with openness and honesty. This may involve asking communities questions such as ‘How do you feel about working with us?’ or ‘What are your concerns about this organisation and is there anything we can do to reassure you?’

2. Recognise that expertise exists within communities

The starting point for community engagement should almost always be that nobody understands what a community wants and needs better than the people that exist within it. Big institutions often work with experts and consultants to problem solve and generate solutions. We at The Social Change Agency believe that the answers exist within communities themselves and it’s about creating safe spaces where those insights can be shared. If you are engaging communities in a consultation process, it is worth considering that individuals should be paid for their time. They are experts too.

3. Getting to know each other is work too

With deadlines, budget restraints and the pressure to demonstrate outcomes, we often want to skip small talk and get right to the finished product. If you have the power to write ‘getting to know each other’ time into your project plan, this could really support relationship-building with your community and will almost definitely make things more efficient in the long run. Taking the time to visit the people you’re hoping to engage with and really understanding what motivates them can help to create the conditions for a durable partnership.

4. Communication, communication, communication

Whether it’s email, Slack, WhatsApp or Facebook, the way we interact often shifts depending on audience and urgency. This is no different when we are engaging with community networks. If barriers to communication emerge, it can drastically affect your relationship and slow down the pace of delivery. At the very beginning of your community engagement endeavour, ask community members how they would like to be contacted and what is most convenient for them. Make it as easy as possible to connect but create boundaries around how often and when is appropriate to communicate. This will give you a solid vehicle via which collaboration can flourish.

5. Defining success together

What success looks like to communities and what success looks like to funders, governments and charities are often two entirely things. Success to a local authority might be engaging 20 different community groups in a consultation process for restoring a local music venue. Community members may visualise success as guaranteeing this space is free to use for certain age groups.

A way of creating a collective goal might be to define success as creating an accessible and affordable space designed by and for the community. It is worth having a conversation about what both of your ambitions are for working together and creating a sense of shared purpose in your collaboration. Establishing a common goal is likely to keep you connected as you move through the logistics of delivery.

Looking for support in creating meaningful community engagement? Get in touch to find out how we can help.

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