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Inclusive Conversations, Impactful Results: The Essentials of Community Engagement Planning

Two people planning
Planning for Community Engagement

As with most successful planning processes, crafting a plan is key.  When you want to ensure clear, consistent communications, you create a communication plan.  When you want to define and maximize the results of your marketing efforts, you make a marketing plan.  And, when you want to engage your stakeholders in community conversations, you craft a stakeholder engagement plan.  

What is a Community Engagement Plan? 

Your stakeholder engagement plan, much like a marketing or communication plan, defines your goal/objective, who you are going to reach out to, how you will interact with the stakeholders, which stakeholder engagement methods will be used, how and when you will communicate with stakeholders, the questions you will ask, and how you will use the information to inform your planning process.  

Both Tamarack Institute and SPARK BC have excellent resources to support your community engagement planning process. Also check out HIP’s engagement planning template to gather ideas and accurately plan the client stakeholder engagement process. 

Here are the essentials to include in your Community or Stakeholder Engagement Plan:

  1. The purpose for the Community/Stakeholder Engagement process: What do you hope to learn? Set this goal in advance.  Know what you want to learn and what questions you need answered, as this informs the whole community engagement plan.

  2. How the gathered information will be used for future planning:  IAP2 has developed a spectrum of public participation to help you define how the information will be used so you can communicate this to your stakeholders. 

  3. The invited participants: What qualifies them to be someone we want to engage with? What might disqualify someone? When considering who to ask, consider all your stakeholders: clients, volunteers, staff, partners, community leaders, Board of directors, funders, politicians; the list can go on.  

  4. Be clear about the criteria for the individuals you want to invite: Do you want only those who are currently actively engaged? Or is it helpful to invite alumni to engage in the conversation? Do you want to include only those with positive things to say (not recommended as you won’t hear about the “real” or perceived issues that may be limiting growth) or have a means of engaging with the nay-sayers as well (recommended as they identify opportunities for growth and development)?  

  5. Create clearly defined audience segments based on the types of information you can gather from each group.  For example, politicians may need to learn more about your organization (you can always send an information package in advance). However, they will have insight into what is happening in the political world concerning your work or the sector in which you work. Understanding the political undercurrents and trends is essential to successfully moving forward. 

  6. Once you’ve established your criteria and defined your audience segments, list who to invite.  

  7. The engagement methods that will be utilized for information gathering: How will you collect information from your stakeholders? Tamarack Institute has a publication called the Index of Community Engagement Techniques.  This valuable resource describes the technique, its relationship to the IAP2 spectrum, a description, and things to consider.  

  8. Required resources: What things (staff, money, external supports, online tools, etc.) are required to fulfill your community engagement purpose? Prepare this list in advance to ensure you have time to get everything in place before it is needed.  For example, if you are doing an online survey, check to see what capabilities each of the online survey software have.  

  1. Google Forms is great for a simple survey with only a couple of closed questions, as it enters things into a simple database that you can easily adjust and manipulate.  

  2. Survey Monkey (a paid subscription) is excellent when you host a more extended survey with a mix of open and closed questions, where ranking or rating is required and where participant open answers can be analyzed by the program to identify clusters of ideas/words.  The text analysis feature is handy if you don’t want to spend hours counting and assessing the frequency of words used and common themes. 

Woman doing an online survey
Use online tools like Survey Monkey or Eventbrite to enhance the community engagement process.

Whether you choose Survey Monkey or another survey tool with comparable features, it is worth the short-term investment to get the range of questions and comprehensive reporting features included in paid subscriptions.  You will save money by making this investment, as staff will not need to spend hours tallying up results.

  1. Defined engagement phases: What engagement phases are needed to gather the data and information you seek? Often, community engagement processes involve stages that move from gathering more general data (surveys) to more detailed data (focus groups and phone interviews).  Tamarack Institute’s Index of Community Engagement Techniques can help shape a community engagement continuum that supports your engagement goals and process.  If you define your timeline, the engagement activity, the audience/participants, and how the information will be used for planning and link these factors directly to the different phases, a clear picture of your engagement process emerges. 

  2. The questions you will ask each audience group:  The questions you ask must be directly related to your purpose, the information you want to gather, and how you plan on using the information. Depending on the engagement methods you have selected, you will need to limit the number of questions you can ask based on your identified time frames and methods of participation.  A strong facilitator can help you define the right questions, ensuring you aren’t trying to pack too many questions into one session, limiting the flow of emerging and growing ideas.  Note: HIP is here to help you! ;)

Creating a community engagement plan answers most of your questions and eliminates “winging it,” thus setting you up for successful dialogues.  When the time is invested in pre-planning, the engagement process is simple, effective, and thought-provoking. It forces your organization to consider what is most important to learn, who to it is essential to hear from, and how the information will be used. 

What has been your experience with planning for community engagement? What insights can you share about what worked? What didn’t?  We’d love to read your comments below.


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