Community engagement tips
Useful community engagement tips to strengthen and define your engagement approach, whether one-to-one, small groups or larger community gatherings.
Reach out to a diversity of people, in fun creative ways to have lots of conversations
All communities are different, so community engagement approaches need to be tailored for each context and culture – the why and the who strongly influences your how. Your why or purpose should determine both who you are engaging with and what/how things are set up. What do you want to learn, share or achieve as a result of the interaction? Once you have your clear engagement purpose in mind, it’s important to do some background work to get prepared.
There is no one size fits all when it comes to engagement. Depending on your role, you might use a variety of methods to engage with diverse people and groups: for example, one on one or (small or large) group meetings, phone conversations, and online communications. Some will be formal meetings that may need preparation beforehand, e.g. developing agendas, making a presentation or organising an event.
Others will be smaller in scale, requiring a different style and level of formality, e.g. a scheduled café meeting or a brief conversation at a community hui to build relationships, exchange information and get to know what’s important to each party. Some may involve working with other partners in joint community engagement activities and could involve the creation of an engagement plan.
For getting started as a new community group or in a new place or role, here are some useful community engagement tips:
Make time to understand the local scene, who’s here and how things happen
- Do some googling
- Chat with neighbours, colleagues, others in the community you may know
- Attend community hui/workshops/meetings to get a sense of local people, place, and context Who are mana whenua? What about tangata whenua, taura here, mātāwaka and tauiwi relationships?
- Which key community leaders, organisations and networks will be useful to have on your radar?
Be positive, proactive and observant
Take every opportunity to meet new people and organisations. A friendly smile goes a long way! Also look for cues in terms of formality, style, tactics and different ways of engaging by watching and learning from other effective community leaders you meet.
Do what you say you’ll do
If you say you’ll follow up by phone next week or that you’ll forward information, do it, or let people know if something’s no longer possible. This shows respect and helps builds trust and confidence.
Relationship building between tāngata whenua and tāngata Tiriti
Relationship building between tāngata whenua and tāngata Tiriti (all others who have come here) organisations, groups and communities is a core component of CLD in Aotearoa. Here are some resources to support you in developing these relationships.
Here’s a resource on developing relationships with Tangata Whenua. Many of the key messages, for example in Atawhai Tibble’s 5 Wais of Māori Engagement (this can be read fully fleshed out in context here), also apply to engaging with communities more broadly.
Ideas for how to reach out
Community hui (meetings) are necessary but not enough to engage people around growing local visions and inspiring local action. Only some parts of the community will show up to meetings, for all sorts of reasons. So, we need to get creative about going to where people are and having lots of conversations. From those conversations, we can shape doable small actions to get started.
Once you are clear on your why (e.g. you know more about this community’s history, hopes and dreams) and have some ideas about what you want to ask, here are some creative examples about how to reach out, that have worked for others:
- Knock on doors street by street and have one-on-one conversations
- Invite people out into a suitable place on their street for a cuppa and a chat
- Use an artificial Christmas tree in a shopping area for people to add their wishes to and as a conversation starter
- Use PhotoVoice or a similar tool to engage people whose voices don’t always get heard
- Engage children in classroom discussion with art materials, props, stationery…
- Encourage the children to go home and talk to their parents about the same questions
- Invite people with disabilities, new migrants, older people and other groups commonly left out to help you design new ways to engage with them and their networks
- Plan a fun community event like a community dinner or family fun day and get people drawing, talking and building images of what they would like as part of the event
- Use existing connections to grow connections, e.g. finding out who has links with the local hapū or iwi and who are the appropriate people to start connections with
- Use a large map of the area as a focus point and discussion opener and ask Where do you live? before going into deeper conversation
Make sure you are inviting participation and sharing information about how people can be involved, not just collecting ideas for ‘someone else’ to action. People might decide to do something together straight away, or to share contact details. Otherwise, let them know how to stay connected.
If you are working with children, check out these fun, educational activities for primary and intermediate students on valuing, enjoying, improving and caring for one’s street, neighbourhood and community from the Ranui Massey Back to Back Project: A booklet for teachers and A booklet for students.
What can go wrong?
There are many things that can get in the way of positive community engagement, e.g. lack of time, transport, childcare or interest, people’s busy schedules, lack of experience or information, poor organisation or communication, a history of bad past experiences, leadership styles/attitudes/behaviours and the sheer fatigue of overcommitted people.
The best way to know how things are going and/or to understand why they are not going well is to intentionally and openly ask. You don’t have to be the expert. Rather, you can ask people from the groups you want to be more engaged about what you need to do differently. When inviting feedback and encouraging constructive dialogue around outcomes, barriers, possibilities, you need to be prepared to honestly and openly listen, reflect, clarify and identify potential changes that could be made. And ideally you will work with those same people to co-design and implement a new way forward. You can turn failure into stronger trust and respectful relationships for the future.