The idea that community members need to be involved to some degree in the community development process is an important element to the process' success and the community's continued progress. The people in the community are integral parts of the system, so of course they should do what they can to have a part in improving their community. Sitting back and letting someone handle things isn't going to help matters, and it makes it harder for your voice to be heard in the community forum.
This article will look at the role that the members of the community have in community development. Topics will include engagement, participation, and the value that people hold in their community. There will also be information on how community leaders can improve engagement and participation to better benefit the community during the development process.
No, not that engagement. Community engagement is a term that gets thrown around a lot in community development and leadership practices. It has multiple meanings, depending on who you talk to and what the context is, but community development treats it as the method of connecting people with the intent of ensuring that their needs are met within the spaces of the community.1 For many community leaders, it can be a way to check on the value the community and its facets have for the people who reside there. It's a connection that allows for a relationship between the different parts of the community and makes it so people feel like they belong.
- Does It Matter?-Due to the variations of view regarding community engagement, there is some question as to whether or not its inclusion is really worth it. Should community leaders dedicate their time and resources in the community development process towards measuring and instigating engagement with residents? To some degree, yes, it matters and it should totally be included. There are a ton of benefits that engagement can offer a community, including solutions to problems, increased project success rate, and the development of healthy community partnerships.2 There are very few downsides and those really only occur when engagement is poorly done. The only circumstances where engagement does not have any role in a community is with smaller communities, where there are fewer factors that can impede connections amongst residents.
Its Value In Community DevelopmentInterested in learning more? Why not take an online Community Development course?
The concept of engagement is both a process and an outcome, so its value for communities and community development can be rather extensive. There is so much that is changing in today's society that engagement is one of the few tried-and-true tools that community leaders can use with little modification. The effects and importance of engagement in community development will depend on the factors involved. Namely, how it's used, why it's used, and the demographics of the community. For example, engagement tactics in rural communities are going to be slightly different than those used in more urbanized areas, usually much more direct and attentive in order to reach their intended audience.3
Universally, engagement does have some value that will be of benefit to the community development process regardless of the circumstances it is used in. They include:
- Opens Communication-Engagement usually encourages dialog between the different parts of the community. This is crucial for information and feedback to be able to spread throughout the community. Open communication lines makes it easier for community leaders to understand the gravity the effects of their actions have on the community and its residents.4 It also gives those same residents the chance to have a real shot at providing input and having a voice when it comes to decisions made in their community that can affect them.
- Prompts Interest-In order for engagement to work, you need to catch people's attention first. Residents are more likely to engage with their peers in the community if they have an actually interest in what's going on. The little bits of information that community leaders first through out to start the engagement process act as bait, which prompts people's interests enough to paying attention or at least start to pay attention. If the issues occurring in a community are enough for a person to get involved and have a genuine interest, then they are going to seek out others in the community who feel the same way and bring the situation to the attention of their peers.
- Attracts Resources-Since engagement brings people's attention to certain aspects of the community and gets conversations going, it often allows for news about what the community needs to spread. This can, in turn, alert those in and outside of the community who have access to certain resources of those needs. Such information routes can prompt donations and offerings of those resources that are needed the most, simply because people are talking about them. There are less resources used in the process, which can make such efforts a much more sustainable and budget-friendly option for the community. It's not going to be something that happens all the time-it would be perfect if it did-but the occasional occurrence can make it a valuable commodity.
- Improves Decision Making-To put it mildly, engagement's ability to prompt more people to get involved in their community means that there is going to be a wider variety of viewpoints and problems solving abilities present. Everyone has a different perspective on things and knowledge that allow them to provide different solutions to the same problem. The more information a community has about a particular issue, the more likely they are going to find an efficient solution that has the best results. In community development, where the biggest task is problem solving, that can be a very valuable resources in and of itself. Decision making is one of the aspects that guides the community through the process, so anything that can improve it improves the community.
The role of member participation, especially in regards to community development, is just as equally debated and valued as engagement. The two often play off of one another, with engagement prompting participation and participation improving engagement. However, its importance in the community development process is something that people are unsure about. Sure there are instances in every community where community development still worked despite a lack of participation, but it's necessity to the process is still heavily documented throughout history.5 There's no requirement stating that everyone needs to participate in community development in order for it to work, just that there needs to be a significant amount of participants. There are options! A person can say 'no' to participating in something that they have no time or interest in participating in. Forcing yourself or someone else to participate isn't going to accomplish anything, and may just end up sabotaging the efforts of those that willingly participate.
- It's Value for Community Members-When it's done correctly and willingly, participation can be rather valuable for community members. For the most part, it can offer them a sense of fulfillment and belonging as a member of the community. It also allows them to be in the thick of the community development process, which means they have options and power in the process that they wouldn't have otherwise. Things that they want to see in the community-certain improvements, resources, or services-can be suggested in the planning stages and actually considered as a real option. They will most likely be more invested in their community if they feel like they have actually contributed to it in a meaningful or helpful way.
- Limitations and Obstacles-As wonderful as participation can be, it's not perfect. There are limitations in place that can prevent it from working as well as it should and curb the progress of community development. Aside from people not wanting to willingly participate and there not being enough people involved to get things done, there can also be too many participants. It can overload the process and make it too difficult for things to get accomplished due to the sheer amount of people jockeying to get their own agenda into plans. There are also administrative positions that need to be filled in order to manage the amount of people involved, which can get to be an issue when participation turnout is high.6 For those in leadership positions in the community development process, it can be overwhelming.
How To Improve Engagement Efforts
When engagement efforts fail-and it's always a possibility that they can-different methods need to be used. It is entirely possible that the wrong means are being used in the wrong environment, or that the effort being put into generating engagement is simply not enough. When engagement isn't working as well as it should, you often need to take steps to improve the method(s) being used. Some things that can be done to improve engagement include:
- Focus on Empowerment-As one of the key principles of community development, empowerment can help with almost anything in the process. Empowerment can be strategic in helping people identify what interests them in the community and what motivates them to seek them out.7 Appealing to the wrong interests through engagement doesn't get results, and it can even alienate members of the community if the community's interests are presented as opposite of theirs. Empowerment can help the leadership and members reevaluate what it is that they want for the community, and allow for engagement to act with that in mind.
- Address Obstacles-Certain obstacles can impede engagement's success, just like they can impede community development. Even if you are appealing to the right interests, there can still be something that you are doing wrong. Looking at what it is exactly that is being done to generate engagement or participation can help pinpoint issues that are preventing success. The smallest of issues can still have a large effect, so it's best not to overlook anything just because you think it may be insignificant. Addressing obstacles of any kind early on can help stop any damage that they cause from developing.
- Get Creative-In recent years, there has been a boom in the use of creativity and art to engage members of the public in community development efforts. Creative measures have been shown to offer more strategies that can be used to engage with others and have a wider appeal.8 The various details in the backgrounds of community members means that anything that can work on a large-scale to engage the public is a valuable tool. There's more attraction and interest when people get creative with their pitch and come up with something unique. More options means that there are going to be more people reached. That creativity can also be continued to retain engagement and participation, as the same old thing isn't going to work for long.
- Prioritize-Engagement isn't going to work if people think that there are better issues that need to be addressed than the ones that the leadership is focusing on. The members of a community may view a certain issue as being more of a priority than whatever the leadership is focusing on. In some cases, this can translate as community leaders being out of touch with the needs of the community. That in turn can alienate potential participants who may think that their opinions won't matter. Prioritizing projects based on what the community members want means that there will be more enthusiasm and likely more responses to engagement efforts.9
- Apply Resources-Resources are not just for the improvements in the community development process. Successful engagement requires putting some effort and using whatever you got to catch the attention of community members. In some cases, there may be resources available that can make it easier to reach those members. Technology, for example, has become the go-to resource for community engagement, with nearly every community connecting with members through social media. It's fast and it allows community leaders to measure engagement responses in real time.