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Beyond the Invite: Strategies for Boosting Participation in Community Engagement Processes

Smiling woman giving a thumbs up.
Get a YES to your participation invitation.

As discussed in The Art of Engagement: Cultivating Meaningful Community Relationships and Empowering Voices: Strategies for Meaningful Community Participation, planning for Community Engagement is straightforward. However, getting people to show up, engage, and share the information you need to make informed decisions can be more challenging.  

Like with most things, the level of engagement you get depends on several factors:

  1. Who did you invite?

  2. How much notice did you give for the event/activity?

  3. How was the invite delivered?

  4. How did you communicate the purpose and benefits of participation? 

  5. What method of stakeholder engagement did you choose? 

  6. With focus groups or world cafés, who facilitates the conversation and gathers the ideas/insights? 

  7. Are you asking the right questions? 

Community engagement is about getting people to share their thoughts, ideas, and insights on a topic of your choice.  What the topic is doesn’t matter. We’ve all been in that space where someone has sent us an online survey, and we’ve looked at it and said, “Oh, I’ll do that later.”  And yet, we never do.  Or we’ve been invited to participate in a community conversation, and something urgent comes up, and we can’t attend.  Or we look at the invite and downplay the importance of our contribution to informing organizational direction. This is life.  We are all busy with competing demands.  

The reality is that, on average, an online survey gets a 20 – 30% response rate when the invitees are specifically targeted and reminder emails are sent. Likewise, in-person focus groups and world cafés often attract fewer participants than we hope for, even when food, beverages or other incentives are offered.  

That’s why it’s crucial that when we set up stakeholder engagement processes, we understand stakeholders, what motivates them, and how to engage them best.  The more participation you have in your stakeholder conversations, the more robust the data informing decision-making.  

Factors that Influence the Level of Engagement

Let’s dive into factors that influence the level of engagement.

  1. Who did you invite? As discussed in Empowering Voices: Strategies for Meaningful Community Participation, knowing who to invite to your stakeholder conversations is essential.  If you have done your homework and created a solid stakeholder plan, you likely have two or three groups of individuals who can provide insight into the questions you seek answers to.  Ensure those you invite have relevant information to share and are genuinely interested in helping your organization succeed.

  2. How much notice did you give for the event/activity? Today, everyone is busy; many are too busy! Often, community leaders are scheduling 3-4 weeks in advance.  Give your invitees enough notice that your event gets added to their calendar. Send reminder notices that express your excitement about connecting with them and hearing their ideas.   

  3. How was the invite delivered? We all want to contribute and share ideas, as that makes us feel like we are valuable to our community.  There are many ways to extend personalized and open invitations to your community engagement process: personal phone calls, event announcements, printed posters, snail mail postcards, email invitations, an online event platform (i.e., Eventbrite), or a combination of the above.  While personal phone invitations rule, it isn’t always possible to phone everyone on our invitation list, plus it can be time-consuming.  Email invitations are the standard in today’s age of electronics and are very time-effective.

Surprised woman happy to get an email invitation.
Generate excitement about your email invitation

Email Invite Best Practices

Here are some quick tips to ensure that your email invite is opened and acted upon: 

  1. Use AI to help you craft a simple and exciting subject line and email message or a copywriter who can keep the invitation brief, lively, and engaging for a reasonable cost.

  2. Keep registration simple – either a return email, “I’m in… see you on the 21st!” or a direct link to a registration page (Eventbrite works well for this). 

  3. Set up your registration system to send reminder emails that communicate more details (including the questions) the closer you get to the event. Again, an online registration system can do this automatically if you set it up correctly.

  4. How did you communicate the purpose and benefits of participation? People want to know what you are asking them to participate in, the required time commitment, and what information you want to gather.  It is essential to ensure you communicate what you want to learn and how their ideas will help your organization shape its future.  Also, it’s crucial to communicate the time frame (hours- start and end time), location (in person or online), and who else might be attending.  Finally, don’t forget to share the benefits of participating – what they will learn, who they might meet, and what incentives are in place (food is good). 

  5. What method(s) of community engagement did you choose? Did you align your stakeholder groups with the most appropriate stakeholder engagement method?  Understanding your stakeholders, how much time they have, and how they prefer to participate is essential when designing your engagement process.  Different groups are better suited to respond to online surveys, focus groups, and phone interviews than others.  For example, if you want to get the political perspective, invite them to a 3-hour focus group (great for them if they're going to connect with their community) or ask them to do a 30-minute one-on-one phone interview (if their schedules are jam-packed).  

  6. With focus groups or world cafés, who facilitates the conversation and gathers the ideas/insights? Once you set up your stakeholders' engagement process, consider who will facilitate the discussion and ask the questions.  An adept, experienced facilitator invites participation from all stakeholders attending, can read the room, and adapt their facilitation strategy if participants are disengaged.  Professional facilitators are also skilled at redirecting and reframing comments, ensuring the essence of the comments is captured. 

  7. Are you asking the right questions? Having the right facilitator aligns with ensuring you are asking the right questions.  If you have worked with a facilitator who has facilitated community engagement processes previously, they will have insights into which questions will shut conversations down and which will open discussions and ideas.  Using open-ended questions that build upon each other is essential to ensure a strong conversation flow and build on emerging ideas. Participants need time to reflect, ponder, and share ideas, so be sure enough time exists by not asking too many questions and allowing dialogue.  

These seven ideas provide a general framework for maximizing stakeholder engagement; however, they are only a partial list.  What techniques have you used to increase engagement in your stakeholder conversations?  Share your ideas below.


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