Five steps to make community engagement less scary

Purple 12 Nov 2020
3 mins

Let’s face it, engaging your community can be daunting.

Our Stakeholder Engagement specialist, Sarah-Jane Dabarera shares five steps you can take to help shake-off the fear and embrace the process of community consultation.

1. Talk to your community

If you’re concerned about how your community might respond, it could seem counterintuitive to just get out there and talk to them, but this is the best place to start.

Starting a conversation with a few individuals first may assist your understanding of community concerns and issues. Early conversations with a sample stakeholder group can improve your research and build the case for more detailed methods. The key question you should be asking is ‘how do community members want, or need, to be engaged?’

This is the first step in building real and lasting relationships.

2. Know your negotiables

Tension can be created between an organisation and a community when the consultation items are unclear. So, my advice is to make them clear.

If you are building a park and there cannot be a swing set, tell people. If you’re building a bridge and you have to close a road for safety reasons, inform the local residents. Make it clear what’s on and off the table, so that people are less inclined to request things which aren’t feasible – and if they do, you need to explain why it cannot happen. People are more likely to be frustrated if they feel like they’re being ignored, than if you tell them right away that something can’t be done.

3. Understand your purpose

Understanding what you’re trying to achieve will ensure you pick the right methods, and level of engagement. Don’t try holding a complex participatory process if you have very few items to discuss. Trust me, your community will be grateful you have not wasted their time. You will also be less likely to start a process that will lead nowhere, or worse, somewhere you didn’t want to go.

If there is an opportunity to collaborate with or empower your community, rather than just inform, give it a go!

4. Know your community and their context

If you’re holding back because your community is known to be particularly vocal or active, don’t panic.

Take the time to understand what’s most important to them – is it more green space, more jobs, or safe places for their children to cross a busy road? Knowing what your community values will help you identify the aspects of your project that may be controversial, or potentially welcomed.

Equally important, is having some knowledge of the good and bad of previous consultation processes (or projects) in the same area. You may find some gold nuggets of information just by taking the time to do some research before you even step away from your desk.

5. Realise honest communication is key

We are all members of communities with different values and ideas. Many of us are members of multiple communities, including ones that go beyond geographical boarders. We all have something to say about the projects taking place around us, good and bad. Acknowledging there will always be “squeaky wheels”, or individuals who will never come to agree with you (but maybe, just maybe will come to accept your proposal) is a good step to becoming less afraid of undertaking an engagement process.

In the meantime, do your best to find some common ground with the silent majority and set yourself up for success by developing a sound engagement program that will help you achieve your desired outcomes.

6. Bring in the Purple Team

And if you’re still stuck, there is option No.6 – bringing in the Purple Stakeholder Engagement Team to provide additional support.Our team of experienced facilitators and practitioners can provide a fresh perspective that will help you deliver a positive engagement process.

Purple’s Community Engagement specialists, Sarah-Jane DabareraCharlie Wilson-Clark, Simon Corrigan, Renee Wilkinson and Kristy Havelberg are available to help your organisation build and maintain real relationships with your stakeholders. 

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