The Five Essential Ingredients of Successful Community Engagement


How we bring people together matters. (Photo from August 2005 in Fernwood, Victoria, BC at one of the first of many neighbourhood work parties that eventually transformed a derelict building into the thriving hub, housing and community cafe that is the Cornerstone building today. Happy 10th Birthday, Cornerstone!)

Whether shaping community plans or organizing to make change, how we come together has as huge an impact on our success as what we do or talk about while we’re there.

Over the years I’ve been a part of many different processes, organizations and projects geared at making change happen.

Based on what I’ve learned—sometimes the hard way–here’s my take on the five most essential ingredients to make a community engagement or organizing event successful:

Ingredient #1: Something to Nosh – Everything we do together drives off relationships.  Period.  You can have all kinds of plans, resources and good intentions but you aren’t going to get very far if people don’t feel like they have a connection to each other and what the group is trying to accomplish.

Eating and drinking together is the basic way that we’ve established connection over the past two million years or so.  Including food and drink as part of your program builds naturally off what’s bred in our bones (and also ensures that everyone’s got the fuel to function at their best).

Adding food to your shindig doesn’t have to be extravagant. Buy a bag of smaller local apples and a loaf of banana bread, slice the loaf yourself into smaller pieces and slice a few of the apples and you’re set to give 12-20 people snack for about $10.

  • How: For larger meetings/workshops, explicitly create a time in your agenda prior to the start of business for people to arrive, sign in, grab a snack and mingle.  (Fifteen minutes prior to start is normally about right).  Then have food on the table(s) for the meeting/workshop or invite folks to grab something off a side table as they need it.
  • In smaller groups that meet regularly, another approach is to make a couple snacks on the table just part of how you do business and rotate who volunteers to brings it.  (Myself, I avoid making things “potluck” per se as I think it acts as a barrier for participation for many folks whose time is crunched by other responsibilities.)

Ingredient #2: Guy Smiley – Okay, maybe not exactly Guy Smiley (the affable and somewhat cheesy Sesame Street host pictured below), but you do need someone to lead your meeting or workshop who can channel Mr. Smiley’s best traits: welcoming, warm and higher energy (without being frenetic), and with the ability to keep the group positive and focussed on solutions.

Guy Smiley effortlessly leading an event with some perhaps atypical workshop participants.

Guy Smiley effortlessly leading an event with some perhaps atypical workshop participants.

  • How:  In many cases, the leader of your group or project may have these traits: awesome, let them take on this job.  Sometimes, though, this area may not be your particular leader’s strong suit, in which case someone else should take on this role.
    • This can be a very difficult conversation to have.  Ideally you should try to be forthright.
    • However, if you feel like you can’t, another way of dealing with this is to formally create a separate space in the agenda for your leader to provide a welcome to the group and then have them introduce whomever will be chairing.
    • You can also explain that by having someone else lead that particular meeting or workshop, your leader is more free to participate in the conversations in an equitable way.  (Yes, this approach works but I wish you luck….)

3. A Way for Everyone to Make Their Mark – Too often meetings are designed by confident, opinionated extroverts who think that everyone else in the world is a confident, opinionated extrovert.  The result of this thinking are meetings or events where 75% of attendees listen to 25% self-proclaimed “experts” blather on and leave feeling like they never really got a chance to contribute anything.

Addressing this situation means designing your event using multiple techniques to cater to both the introverts and the extroverts, the snap brain-stormers and those who like to mull.

  • How: None of these are rocket science or new, but they are some my favourites:
    • Pre-Publish the Key Questions: When you send out your agenda ahead of time, frame your topics as questions and include them.  This will enable the “mullers” in the crowd to think about things prior to meeting and better be able to contribute.

      Group strategic planning and mind mapping with sticky notes and REALLY big paper.

      Group strategic planning and mind mapping with sticky notes and REALLY big paper.

    • Use Sticky Notes: If brainstorming together, first ask folks to take a few minutes to write down their thoughts on sticky notes, one thought per note.  Then ask them one by one contribute one idea and place that idea up on a larger piece of paper.  Not only does this technique give more introverted people an equal opportunity with the extroverts, I find doing things in this way actually makes people feel like they have made a mark.
    • Break it Up: This is becoming more common, but creating time in a larger group to break into pairs or small groups can create different opportunities to contribute.  (And be aware that if you suggest breaking up into smaller groups, the people who thrive off confrontational grandstanding at town hall-style meetings will get grumpy; let them know they will also get their chance).
    • If Going Around the Table, DON’T Always Go Around the Table: If people follow each other in sequential order around a table, often what happens is that no one really listens because each person is just concentrating on what they’re going to say when it’s their turn.  Instead, pick in random order or ask the last person who spoke to pick who comes next.
    • Create a DIY Field Guide: Taking folks on a field trip to look at community sites?  Give them something to bring along for the ride and record their thoughts. (What do you like best about the site? What can you see, hear, smell? How might you improve this place with $50?  How about $500?)  Not only will this add something participatory beyond listening to the event guides speak, such a method teaches the most elemental truth of place making: we’re not consumers but active participants making the city.  (And the guides can be collected later to ensure no great ideas are lost).
      • See my sample here: DIY PlaceMaking Field Guide   (Designed to be photocopied double sided and folded in half to make it easier to write on while out and about.  Creative Commons – feel free to copy, riff further and use as you like).
A recent City of Victoria event to gather community input into the Rock Bay neighbourhood had all the essential ingredients I'm talking about here: food, great facilitators, multiple ways for people to contribute, a connector and a meaningful ending.

A recent City of Victoria event to gather community input into the Rock Bay neighbourhood had all the essential ingredients I’m talking about here: food, great facilitators, multiple ways for people to contribute, a connector and a meaningful ending.

Ingredient #4: A Designated Connector – Getting someone to come to your event or meeting is a huge accomplishment.  Ensure that people feel acknowledged for attending and increase the chances that they will continue to contribute to your group by designating ahead of time who and how you are going to foster that connection.

  • How: If you’re doing a larger workshop, designate ahead of time the person who is NOT going to be part of the clean up but instead be at the door to thank attendees as they are leaving and answer any final questions.
    • You’ll also want to designate who is going to send a thank you and next steps email to participants shortly after the event.
    • In smaller grassroots groups, you may also want to figure out who takes on the ongoing role of following up personally with new attendees so see if they had any questions or comments after their first meeting to ensure they keep coming back.

Ingredient #5: A Meaningful Ending – Finally, don’t just end your event with a whimper.  Take the time to thank everyone who contributed, summarize outcomes, describe next steps and figure out what you can do better next time.

  • How: A nice, quick way to gage what worked and what didn’t at an event is to post two large pieces of paper near the exit.  Title one “What I liked best about today’s event was…” and the other “What I think should be done differently next time to make an event like this even more productive and enjoyable is….”.  Ask folks to take a sec before they leave to write down and contribute one sticky note to each poster.

Finally, one last word of “wisdom” I have on this topic is to never, ever be shy about inviting people to help stack the chairs and clean up when your event ends.  Not only will this help out your volunteers who already gave a lot to make the shindig happen in the first place, but again it moves people from being “done for” to being part of the doers.  And, for the change we’re all trying to make happen together, the more doers, the better.

Got a comment to share? I welcome your thoughts here: