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Plan to Engage: Don’t engage to plan

Consistent and varied community engagement is key.

Recently I wrote an article about the importance of non-profits building strong relationships with stakeholders and the community as a whole to achieve organizational goals. In this article, I alluded to the fact that many non-profits avoid “asking” their stakeholders and community for help—even though it strengthens community connections.

In the past I’ve facilitated engagement processes where the non-profit leader has been surprised by how much, and in what ways, those attending want to contribute. At the same time, they were disappointed that more people didn’t participate.

I get it. It is great to see people wanting to help and share ideas; but more is always better. However, given that these organizations had never before done any consistent form of stakeholder engagement, I always question why they are surprised.

I share this to demonstrate two important facts about stakeholder and community engagement:

  1. Stakeholders WANT to be asked for their ideas and input.

  2. Engagement activities should be consistent and varied to attract stakeholders in a way that makes sense to them.

This brings me to the title of this article: Plan to Engage: don’t engage to plan. Too often I find that non-profits hire me to do engagement activities that are directly related to a specific planning process. If you engage your stakeholders and community inconsistently, they may show up and share ideas, but they won’t “own” the outcomes or be truly invested in helping your organization achieve its goals over the long-term.

However, if you build engagement activities into your daily routine—into programs and services—and create a variety of engagement activities, these same people will show up and champion your cause. The key is consistency and frequency. This Community Planning Toolkit[1] is one resource available online (for free) that outlines a variety of engagement tools and when they work most effectively. There are many more.

In addition, you may want to consider how you want to engage them in your project. Are you looking to inform them of what you are doing, or on the other end of the scale, are you looking to collaborate with them and have them involved directly in the decision making? The International Association of Public Participation has a Participation Spectrum[2] that is a useful tool when determining how much decision making power you want to assign to those participating in your engagement activities.

I share these tools with you as they can be used to pull together an engagement plan that outlines how and when your organization will “invite” stakeholders to participate. A simple engagement plan may simply be hosting information sessions regularly for those looking to learn more about your agency. A more detailed plan may integrate outreach activities, community forums, or mapping activities throughout the year.

How might our community relationships change if we implemented a well-thought-out community engagement plan? How might the relationships we have with our stakeholders change? How might we adapt our internal planning processes to celebrate these new relationships? How might our organizational culture be impacted?

Quick links and resources:


[1]Community Planning Toolkit <<>> Accessed: July 24, 2018.

[2]Public Participation Spectrum, International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) <<>> Accessed: July 24, 2018

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