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Top Tips for Community Engagement

Recently we’ve been involved in building communities in Dumfries and Falkirk, two places that are struggling with the effects of poverty and have been identified as receiving less investment than other similar areas.

Over the last five years, we’ve used roadmaps, ideas and a whole lot of empathy to engage with the citizens living in Dumfries and Falkirk. This process has brought out some lessons that our Community Engagement star Judith McVinnie has kindly collated into some top tips to get your projects off to a flying start.

Who are your Community?

Get to know the people who make up your community. Is your community based physically around your place or is it a community of interest? Has that community changed over time, how?

Segment your community into groups of most engaged, less engaged, not engaged at all. Communicate to each group in a different way that works for them, online, printed materials, meetings, open events with the singular aim of getting their engagement.

Network. Build an eco-system of people who are inter-connected. Meet people for no specific reason other than it’s good to have friends, connections, partners, others out there who know what you’re about and what you want to do.

Build further opportunities for your most engaged community members. Identify the less engaged people and encourage their input by working with partners. Don’t forget to make it fun to be in your gang.

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A meme created and shared to encourage community, networking and partnership working in Falkirk

What is Community Engagement?

In a word listening. On a colossal scale.

Before you start - you need a plan of what you are going to do in order to listen well. You owe it to the people who are going to spend their time telling you what you want to know.

And just as important - a plan for what you are going to do with all the information you gather from the engagement. There should be outcomes associated with any engagement work that you are doing so it’s important to take some time to get those right.

What community engagement comes down to is a simple interaction between one person and another, what could be more human and familiar than that?

How do I do community engagement?

When you think about how you are going to engage with your community, my word of warning would be to keep it simple. It’s not rocket science. What community engagement comes down to is a simple interaction between one person and another, what could be more human and familiar than that?

There are many ways to do community engagement in person and online, and the best solution will be a mix of ways to secure different engagement. Borrow ideas from other events you’ve been to, companies you like, articles that you’ve read. In fact, it doesn’t matter what tools you use, it’s about making sure that the way in which you do your activity is open to as many different people in your community as possible and you get a good response rate. If it’s not, learn from it, do it again, differently.

Practice them first if you can. The most sustainable way to keep engagement techniques up will be when it is the most natural way for you to communicate with people. If you’re a talker, get out there to networking events as much as you can. If you are a story writer get writing newsletters and emails. Better still, make a team of different types of communicators.

In most cases, it’s not a one hit, right now we’ve engaged - that’s that done. It should be a continual thing. A conversation. One tip I’ve got for those who are tasked with community engagement. Don’t fill your diaries with meeting - fill it with time where you have the freedom to think about what you’re doing to engage your community and spend the time needed to communicate with your community well.

What Next?

Okay, you’ve done your engagement, we’ve done surveys, events with post-its and drawings and now what do I do with it all? This seems to be often when the whole process goes through thick treacle and slooooooooows down. You’ve got loads of lovely information, ideas and contribution. What do I do with all this information, all this content, all these ideas? The answer: Use it, in fact don’t just use it, milk it for all it’s worth.

More than just using the information that you’ve gained, communicate that you are using it. This is the most underdone thing ever in my experience. Think of it like this: people’s participation in future community engagement activities will depend on what is done with the information you’ve already given them. So, do something with it, okay? For the sake of all of us who might one day ask this individual a similar question in the future!

You might not be able to make change based on the data that you’ve collected, although I would challenge your organisation to think why not? You can use the content you’ve collected to design something nice to look at and share. Try free platforms like Canvas or Piktochart for some nice infographics or Adobe if you’ve got the license. If you can edit photo’s on your iPhone you can design it yourself. Or better still, get a designer on board. Of course be aware of GDPR and the regulations regarding data but as long as you’ve got that all in order, have fun with it.

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An image we used for a report which was a collection of all the ideas we had heard.

When and Where?

To encourage people to give you the time you need, think carefully about when and where you try to engage them.

Go and find where your community are. You will know the local hot spots in your community for example, the school gates, the supermarket, basically the areas that people gather naturally.

Create space for people within your community to talk to one another and collaborate, make it easy for people to tell their story, share their experiences and grow their passions. It is important that your community is heard, listened to and valued. This doesn’t need to be heavy, in fact it could be quite the opposite and creative. If you don’t have physical space or that doesn’t make sense for your community, make an online safe and fun space for people, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Piniterst, LinkedIn – do it all if you can.

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Check out the washing line idea used by The Stove Network and is permanently there for community members to contribute to.

CEIS are a social enterprise specialising in supporting communities, social enterprises and charities. If you want to reach out to discuss your engagement project we’d be delighted to talk to you.

0141 425 2941