By DeRondal Bevly, Community Outreach Executive
Last week, I wrote a post about the initial steps in beginning the community engagement process. In this post, I present two essential steps in finalizing the process, evaluating the engagement and creating an ongoing process. I see many organizations fail in their community engagement by forgoing these critical steps. The process of engagement goes beyond beginning the process and cultivating stakeholders. Near-sightedness in evaluating these relationships and maintaining them is recipe for disaster. Each engagement should be considered a valuable tool for any business. The opportunities presented allow a business or organization to hear about the crucial community issues directly from the front lines. That kind of intel, when used correctly, is priceless.
Most of us evaluate the results of any business strategy or implementation, so I often wonder why the community engagement process is not measured. Defining a purpose and cultivation of stakeholders are the logical first steps in creating a foundation. Proper evaluation of the entire process allows you to build upon that foundation and adapt to any challenges that may arise in the future. In this economy, the successful organizations are those that pro-actively seek ways to adapt their business models for potential change. The evaluation process does not have to be long and complex, it can be as simple as informally surveying participants, reviewing notes or placing a few strategic phone calls to gauge sentiment. The power of the process lies in the feedback. Internal and external feedback can be used to streamline the process during the next engagement. Internally, team members can explore best practices and tactics to avoid. Externally, checking in with stakeholders to receive their input allows the organization to create better ways to engage the community on subsequent projects. The evaluation step creates the groundwork for the final step in community engagement, creating an ongoing process.
As an organization moves through the steps of engagement, key relationships are built and valuable alliances are born. Once a project crosses the goal line, most celebrate the accomplishment, take a short break if they can and then head to the next project. However, by quickly running through this final step, you can assure yourself of locking in the gains of the hard work you and your team just spent days/weeks/month/years of your professional and personal lives seeking to accomplish.
As a marathon runner, I know in order to lock in the cardiovascular benefits and prepare myself for the next run, I have to take a few additional steps post-run: stretching, icing and eating. The more emphasis I place on those latter activities, the easier the next run becomes and so on.
This same principle should be applied to community engagement. Why go out of your way to identify potential community partners, work with them on a project/initiative, see that project through to completion and then pick up and leave everything cold? Beyond thanking them for their time and efforts, explore reciprocity in the relationship and think of ways you might be able to help them. Also offer to keep them abreast of upcoming projects to see if they might be interested in participating. I find that this is extremely crucial for those in community, economic or workforce development.
While community engagement is not as glamorous as marketing or sales, at the end of the day, the field and more importantly, a commitment to it, can help complete one project and create long lasting partnerships to help with future projects. By clearly defining the purpose and outcome, engaging stakeholders in the process, evaluating that process and finally continuing to develop those relationships, you can create additional value for your organization while developing a go-to network of supporters to assist you in the future.