Community engagement principles and strategies


There is no commonly agreed definition of community engagement (Butteriss, 2014; Hind, 2010; O'Mara-Eves et al., 2013; Stuart, 2011), and the term is often used interchangeably with a number of other concepts - such as consultation, participation, collaboration and empowerment - all of which are related to community engagement but do not capture all aspects of the concept (Cornwall, 2008; Hartz-Karp, 2007; Melo & Baiocchi, 2006).

For the Tamarack Institute in Canada, community engagement means "people working collaboratively, through inspired action and learning, to create and realise bold visions for their common future". For Cavaye (2004), community engagement is "mutual communication and deliberation that occurs between government and citizens that allows citizens and government to participate mutually in the formulation of policy and the provision of government services" (p. 3). This necessarily means participation with a community of people, rather than an individual citizen, and needs to incorporate the diversity and dynamics of communities.

In private organisations, community engagement appears to be related with corporate social responsibility, which is a relatively new concept that includes the value system of an organisation and its role in the society.

Community engagement in a private organisation is about doing the right thing in a way that truly benefits the business, the shareholders, employees and most importantly, the society.

The business practice of giving back has grown for a reason. A recent report from research firm Nielsen found that 55 % of consumers say they are willing to pay extra for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact. Having a strong guiding principle is the foundation to a successful community engagement program for both small businesses and complex organisations. Having it be mutually beneficial for all stakeholders is what ensures its longevity and continued impact. Community engagement also factors into attracting and retaining talent as more and more people highlight this as a reason to work for or stay with a company.

According to the USDHHS (2011), community engagement is "the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people" (p. 7).

Community engagement is often depicted as a continuum, ranging from low-level engagement strategies such as consultation to high-level strategies such as empowerment (Arnstein, 1969; Cavaye, 2004; Doherty & Beaton, 2000; Lenihan, 2009; IAP2, 2014; Tamarack Institute, 2003; USDHHS, 2011). The International Association for Public Participation's public participation spectrum (Table 1) is typical of the kind of distinctions made between different levels of participation (IAP2, 2014).

Community engagement is essentially a relational process that occurs at a local level. It involves professionals who represent services and service systems building personal relationships with community members and groups, based on mutual trust and respect. This provides the basis for the two remaining key aspects of community engagement - joint decision-making and capacity building.

Understanding community engagement as a relational process has implications for service systems and parent groups. For service systems, community engagement requires having professionals whose role it is to build relationships with community groups - this could be either a dedicated role or as part of their more general professional responsibilities. In community engagement, these professionals are building relationships with a community on behalf of a service system. For this to be effective, the service system itself needs to be acting in a coordinated fashion, with effective communication and common goals. Building integrated service systems is desirable in its own right, but it also makes it easier for the system to engage the community.

In its primer on community engagement, the US Department of Health and Human Services (2011) identifies a set of principles to guide community engagement. These are organised in three sections: (1) items to consider prior to beginning engagement; (2) necessary preconditions for engagement; and (3) what to consider for engagement to be successful.

1. Before starting a community engagement effort

  • Be clear about the purposes or goals of the engagement effort and the populations or communities you want to engage.

  • Become knowledgeable about the community's culture, economic conditions, social networks, political and power structures, norms and values, demographic trends, history, and history of efforts by outside groups to engage it in various programs. Learn about the community's perceptions of those initiating the engagement activities.

2. For engagement to occur, it is necessary to

  • Go to the community, establish relationships, build trust, work with the formal and informal leadership, and seek commitment from community organisations and leaders to create processes for mobilising the community.

  • Remember and accept that collective self-determination is the responsibility and right of all people in a community. No external entity should assume it can bestow on a community the power to act in its own self-interest.

3. For engagement to succeed

  • It is necessary to partner with the community to create change and improve health.

  • Recognise and respect the diversity of the community. Awareness of the various cultures of a community and other factors affecting diversity must be paramount in planning, designing, and implementing approaches to engaging a community.

  • Identify and mobilise community assets and strengths and by developing the community's capacity and resources to make decisions and take action.

  • To engage a community as well as individuals seeking to effect change, organisations must be prepared to release control of actions or interventions to the community and be flexible enough to meet its changing needs.

  • A long-term commitment by the engaging organisation and its partners is vital.