5 Questions to Ask & Answer When Practicing Community Engagement

I consider myself a generalist, I don’t have a particular topic of expertise, but I pride myself on drawing on a range of methodologies, practices, and experiences to help my clients grow their knowledge, learning processes, and cultures in order to create a more equitable and positive world.   Which is why I still find it a little bit surprising that certain topics and issues will come up over and over again during a particular period of time. 

Lately, the topic that has been coming up in my discussions with folks working in a range of organizations, issue areas, and contexts is about community engagement.

I think there are a lot of reasons that community engagement is a popular topic at the moment, but one of my biggest hypotheses is this - there are a number of established organizations -- in the nonprofit sector, in philanthropy, in health care and higher education, and in government who have been treating the work of community engagement as activity-driven and transactional for decades.  And they are starting to realize - because of the demands of their funders and the frustration of the communities they work with who are fed up with being “acted upon” -  that they need to change their approach to one that is purpose-driven and intentional if they are going to be able to make progress.  However, many of these organizations do not know how to start to make that change.

Over the last seven months, my friend, sister-in-change, and curriculum designer extraordinaire, Alice Chen of Wayfinding Wisdom and I have been working to develop a community engagement curriculum for a client and a wide range of its partners who are diverse in terms of their missions, geographies, populations they serve, and contexts.

After having twenty-seven, hour-long discussions with staff members at our client organization and twenty-five of its partners, we became acutely aware that it wouldn’t make sense to design a curriculum about what to do to engage the community because the what is dependent on so many factors.  Instead, we wanted to design a curriculum about how to think about what to do to engage the community – or how to build a community engagement mindset.

So, I wanted to highlight four questions that we featured in the curriculum (and one bonus question based on some great work that was just released last week) that are critical to building a community engagement mindset, and thoughtful, intentional, and positively impactful community engagement strategies.

Question 1: What is your organizational mission and how might community engagement help you better achieve it? 

One of the things that comes up over-and-over again in discussions of community engagement is that people see it as work “in addition” or “on top of” the work they are already doing, not as a way to do their work.  In order to flip that way of thinking, you have to start from what your organization is about and what assets it already has – what is your mission, vision, theory of change, programs, policies, cultures, staff, relationships, etc?  And how might engaging “the community,” broadly the individuals and organizations external to your organization help you be better at achieving your mission?  Often, the very people who claim to want to be “solving a problem” for others in the community are contributing to it, because they have not taken the time to understand what the problem truly is and what the people who are most impacted by it need or want to solve it.


Question 2: What is your community engagement purpose? 

One of the things that was fascinating in the research we conducted, was that in twenty-seven interviews, we heard approximately twenty-seven different definitions of community engagement.  Honestly, I’m cool with that because I recognize that the people I was connecting with were working in a wide range of situations and on varying issues.  However, what every group needs to be able to answer is what is your community engagement purpose?  I think that a community engagement purpose needs to have ARMS – it needs to be achievable, relevant, measurable, and specific.  A key part of having ARMS is being able to name the specific group that you aim to benefit through your community engagement purpose and to what end you aim to benefit them. 

For instance, an organization which is focused on child health might have a community engagement purpose of ensuring that all second graders in Townville are getting thirty minutes of physical activity a day.  There are many ways that this purpose can be achieved – through school policy, working directly with caregivers, after school programs, and much, much more.  But, identifying the strategies that will help the child health organization achieve its purpose will require engaging individuals and organizations in different ways until they learn into the solutions.


Question 3: Who are the other actors you might engage in order to achieve your purpose? 

Click on the image to learn more about the process of creating an Actor Map.

Click on the image to learn more about the process of creating an Actor Map.

Speaking of other individuals and organizations who will need to be engaged, taking a note from some work done by FSG, we like calling them actors because there are often individuals and organizations who contribute to a challenge who don’t really have a “stake” in solving it (some even benefit).  Part of building a community engagement mindset is taking the time to create a living and evolving map of who the other actors are that connect to your community engagement purpose and/or core population.  It might seem overwhelming, but if you cross-reference the organizations on your actor map with the existing relationships you identified your organization having as part of question one, you’ve probably identified a good place to start your outreach.

Question 4: How and why are you engaging other actors? 

Click on this image to be taken to the Tamarack Institute’s Index of Community Engagement Techniques

Click on this image to be taken to the Tamarack Institute’s Index of Community Engagement Techniques

This is a big one!  There are a range of different approaches and specific tactics for community engagement ranging from informing people about what’s going on to collaborating to work together to solve a problem to even engaging your core population with the goal that they “own” the work. All of these approaches are valid and useful and dependent on what you’re trying to achieve.  To go deeper into them, we highly recommend you take a look at the work of the Tamarack Institute who have adapted a widely used (and built upon) Community Engagement Continuum, as well as a very practical index of community engagement techniques that is organized by level engagement along the spectrum – inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower (or co-lead).

Click on the image to download the report!

Click on the image to download the report!

Question 5: What are your organization’s principles and values for doing community engagement work? 

While we didn’t have a chance to build this degree of depth into the community engagement mindset curriculum that we developed for our client, I did want to highlight some truly awesome, very recently released work done by Elevated Chicago!  Their Community Engagement Principles and Recommendations are truly excellent with a strong lens on racial and socio-economic equity, and thoughtful consideration of so many things that Optimistic Anthropology considers vital to call collaborative work including mindsets, trust, learning, listening, cultural competency, valuing lived experience, & building collaborative capacity!


This is by no means an exhaustive set of strategic questions to ask and answer when practicing community engagement.  But, these questions are critical to consider in advance and during the course of community engagement efforts if you seek to do the work in an intentional, strategic, and positively impactful way.

For those who have done high-impact community engagement work, what other questions and practices do you consider part of a community engagement mindset? What are some of your favorite resources? Share your answers in the comments or tweet at @AKGold11 with #optimisticanthro.