Community can refer to a lot of things, so let’s break it down into the three types of communities in which your project might exist. While some projects might be in only your community, most of you will probably be interacting with some combination of the three.
1. Your community. This is probably the most self-explanatory community — and the one that will be the easiest for you to interact with. Your own community consists of the people around you, in your neighborhood, your town, your city, and maybe even your state. You probably have a lot in common with these folks and you already know, innately, how to communicate with them and get right at their needs.
2. A geographically near but culturally far community. This community might be one you see regularly, but aren’t actually a part of yourself. An example could be a nearby neighborhood that’s populated by people who have a different majority race or culture than the people in your neighborhood. Another example is a group of young moms in your community, when you yourself are a 35-year-old man. Connecting with these types of communities is often surprisingly difficult, as you expect a certain number of similarities when in fact there can be vast, vast differences. Assume nothing and be open to learning everything.
3. A completely foreign community. These are the communities that are super, super different from yours. They’re in a different countries, probably speak a different language, and have totally different cultures to yours. These are the ones that you have to work the hardest to understand, maybe even to the point of learning a new language. When you’re beginning your interactions with this type of community, remember that your way is not necessarily better but different. The initial listen/watch/learn stage of your project will probably be longer with this type of community but it’s worth it to take the time
Why is it important to engage with the local community?
To put it simply, it’s important to engage with your local community because without doing that, your project will fail. Unfortunately, there’s a long history in the charity and NGO world of more privileged people going into less privileged communities and saying, “I know better than you what you need. Just do what I say and everything will work out.”
What happens in those situations? Two scenarios: either the community resists and rejects the would-be change-maker or they play along and take any funds or resources the would-be change-maker is offering, only to abandon the plan one the individual or organization has left. Either way, you’re left with some immediate actions, a nice feel-good feeling for the would-be change-maker, and not a whole of positive effects for the community.
No — you want to change the world. And changing the world means doing the hard work of community engagement, before and throughout the lifespan of your project.
Community engagement can be described as:
“The process of building relationships with community members who will work side-by-side with you as an ongoing partner, in any and every way imaginable, building an army of support for your mission, with the end goal of making the community a better place to live.”
Basically, it’s the process of finding your guides — the people who believe in what you’re doing and are down to make it the best it can possibly be, for their community. They’ll help you with everything from building trust in a community where you’re an outsider to explaining local culture and customs to being a translator, if you’re somewhere that’s totally foreign to your home environment.
How to engage with community
1) Do your research. Spend some time doing research before you even approach community leaders to help you out. Researching demographic information can help you better identify the needs of your community and the gaps in its services. It can also give you background on the community you’re about to approach: what language do they speak? What are some of their customs? What really makes them mad? Have other people attempted similar projects before? Why did they fail or succeed? These are just a few questions you should be asking yourself before you dive into a new community.
Action Step: Make a list of questions that you want answers to about your community. Then, do some research to see if you can do some initial material you can find for your answers. The internet will likely be your source here.
2) Connect with established organizations in the community. A lot of the time, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel — there will already be groups, individuals, and organizations who have set up camp in the community you want to work with. They can be great resources for you as you’re trying to figure out how to engage with the local community. They may be able to give you concrete tips or point you to individuals who will be essential to your success. These are the people that you really need to listen to — just be quiet for a while and take in everything they have to offer.
Action Step: Make a list of organizations that might have the answers to those questions you made a list of. Make a call to or better yet drop by these organizations or visit these individuals to go over your questions. Don’t forget to tell them who you are and what you’re doing. Make sure to connect with them so they understand why you’re wanting to get involved and know more.
3) Find your community guides. Your project needs a person — or persons — to help guide you through the local community, especially if you’re a total outsider yourself. While you might be the person holding everything together, your community guides are the people who are driving it forward.
“Local workers can hold in-depth knowledge of the communities in which they work and can be key to engagement. When the Community Foundation in Wales lost its Play Worker in Anglesey, it noticed a corresponding drop in contact, engagement and local knowledge. This local worker played a key role in engaging many people in the area.” How To Engage With Your Community
4) Reach out to your community guides. As is the case with most things these days, there are both online and offline approaches to reaching out to your community guides.
Offline methods include business cards, other physical marketing material (like fliers or pamphlets), and attending community events, just to name a few.
Online methods may include social media pages and outreach and a blog or website. Referrals from people who already support you and your project are always a great way to build connections within the community and can be obtained either on or offline.
And while online methods are great, nothing really beats getting out there in person when you’re trying to forge strong, beneficial connections.
“Social media did not replace face-to-face contact. In fact, if you look at what makes social media communication so successful, it always boils down to people feeling more connected. Get out into the community and be present! You don’t need to create huge events to do this — host local BBQ’s or potlucks and let your social network contacts know about it. Take pictures and share this afterwards, but get out there and meet people face-to-face. It creates content but also makes relationships deeper. The feedback you get from people one-on-one is precious. You can start a relationship online, but that personal contact becomes important to keep building deeper collaborations and express gratitude in person”
Mila Araujo, 12 Most Ultimate Ways for Nonprofits to Engage Their Communities
Established Organizations: They’ll already have people that they work with, as well as connections in the community that they’ll probably be willing to share with you, as long as you make a good impression. Don’t go in and say, “Here I am! I will save you!” but rather approach with a humble tone and be willing to listen and learn.
Established local leaders. These might include council people, business leaders, teachers, or the grandma who sits on her porch all day and knows everyone’s business. Be open to all possibilities when you’re working on establishing trust in the community.
Here are some more tips from the book Building Capacity in Nonprofit Organizations, edited by Carol J. De Vita and Cory Fleming:
“Identify the infrastructure that can be used to build nonprofit capacity. An environmental scan can be conducted to determine if there are networks or organizational structures that can expand the capacity of community-based organizations. For example, is there a regional association of nonprofits that can help nonprofit groups access information and resources? Are there management support organizations that can provide technical assistance for building organizational systems or technology skills? Are there potential partnerships with the business or public sectors that can facilitate capacity-building strategies? Determining the presence, scope, capacity, and quality of such groups can be helpful in targeting and leveraging resources. Attention should be given to the intermediary or support organizations that can foster capacity building throughout the sector.”
Action Step: Make a list of potential leaders/individuals in the community that you think would be a good fit as your very own community guide on this project. Don’t forget to include WHY. This will help guide you when you’re asking them for their help. Next, reach out using one of our suggested contact methods above.
4) Discover what motivates the community. As an example, let’s take a look at a group in the UK called South Yorkshire Community Foundation. They were working on a community park and, according to the article How To Engage With Your Community on Know How Nonprofit, they succeeded because they took the time to figure out what would motivate their local partners.
“Sometimes the best laid plans will be unsuccessful because those leading have misunderstood or not adequately asked communities for their views,” the article explains. “South Yorkshire Community Foundation has found that one way to success is following the group’s lead. Giving a small grant and some Community Development Worker time to the Friends of Monk Bretton Park has paid dividends. This new group of local people has become constituted, secured several grants and has made a real difference to the park environment. So, what made this group work where others may fail? South Yorkshire Community Foundation explains that Monk Bretton Park is the community’s park and whilst it was run down, it was ‘filled with a great deal of local history and fond memories.’ In this case, personal history and connections motivated this group to achieve so much.”
Figure out what makes people care and you’re golden.
5) Tap everyone you know. Your own communities are probably vastly bigger than you realize and you never know who will have resources, ideas, or help to offer. Talk about your issues engaging with the community you’re working with often and listen to the suggestions that people come up with.
Action Step: Plan a casual salon night / mastermind meeting / or local meetup to get feedback on your project, the challenges or questions you have about engaging with your chosen community, etc.
Identify Roadblocks you may face
Your roadblocks are going to be specific to your project and the community that you’re in. If you’re interested in getting a jump on the possible types of roadblocks you may face, our best recommendation is to speak with other organization leaders who have already established themselves in the community you want to work with. They’ll be able to share the problems they faced and the roadblocks they had to overcome in order to get where they are today.
Action Step: Make an initial list of roadblocks you think you might face with your chosen community. Then, meet with those community leaders / individuals / organizations you originally made a list of and go over it with them to see what you may have overlooked.