By DeRondal Bevly, Community Outreach Executive @dbevly
For past eight years, I have spent many hours assisting Chicago area nonprofits and community organizations. Each experience allows me to gain a first hand knowledge of not only how these groups help improve society, but also how they function internally. Whether it’s pediatric cancer, youth music education or community involvement, each opportunity allows me to learn something that I can build upon to more effectively help the organizations I assist.
While thinking about the “field” of community engagement, I thought about ways to best articulate the skills needed to effectively help organize/lead/volunteer community groups and nonprofits. In addition to researching my own experience and ideas, I came across this fantastic resource. Michael Wilkinson, CMF, and his team created the “Seven Strategies for Effective Community Engagement.” Based on the collective experience of his team, this curriculum teaches organizations ways to better implement community engagement strategies.
While I will not bore you with recapping the full list in this post, I do want to focus on the first two strategies; knowing your purpose and utilizing stakeholders. Pro-active leadership in organizations should employ these simple concepts to leverage the existing relationships in order to maximize the value to all stakeholders.
The first step in knowing your purpose provides clarity and cohesion for the task at hand. The purpose of the engagement, when articulated correctly, provides a blueprint to help navigate community organizations and ensures that you stay on the right path to accomplish your task. No matter how complex the issue becomes, a baseline will allow you to always have a guide. Often I see the community engagement process well into the later stages only to have the stakeholders’ wander aimlessly, trying to figure out the objectives. Creating a simple, clear mission statement for the engagement will save many headaches later.
The second step in the process centers on effectively utilizing community leaders and allowing them to become stakeholders in the issue or project. Many companies today arrive in a community with bundles of cash, a PowerPoint presentation and an arrogant misbelief that they can bend the community at their whim. However, the world around us paints a different story. With the power of the Internet and social media today, almost anyone with a determination to incite change can create dramatic shifts in sentiment. Grassroots community groups are often more organized and efficient all while proving they are capable of delivering the knockout blow to any project, initiative or campaign.
Identifying and courting these key stakeholders is not difficult if you properly articulate what you want and who can help get you there. Dialogue must be transparent, two-way and honest.
The community engagement process can and should be an exciting one. Working with the community to get an understanding of their goals/wishes/turn-offs can help you build a project or launch an initiative that is not only successful, but also sustainable. By providing a clear vision of where you want to go while creating the advocates to help you get there ensures that your presence in the community is a welcome one. But please remember, no matter the situation; treat those across the table from you with respect. The community leaders you will meet with are often volunteers dedicating their excess time and efforts to improving their community. Adding a dose of empathy to the engagement process helps create a positive experience for everyone.
In part two, I will focus on the ending stages of the community engagement process and how the proper steps can ensure successful partnerships heading into the future.