February 28, 2023
Bad public meetings and community events that fall flat: these are the worries that keep a facilitator up at night. Maybe you plan a big meeting—you print your large-format posters, you wrangle staff for all the “stations”—and hardly anyone shows up. Or those who do show up want only to discuss issues outside the scope of your project, and the conversations have nowhere to go except to repeated frustration. Perhaps you’re stuck in an echo chamber, where you continually hear from the same few, highly engaged community members, rather than the community’s full range of perspectives.
You can do much to prevent these scenarios with adequate planning. Below are questions to ask yourself to make sure you’ve done the work needed beforehand, prepared the right channels for communicating, and made accessible, meaningful engagement.
Take the time upfront to understand the context of the community and how issues have been dealt with in the past.
You’ll need to establish the right channels for interacting with the community, preferably ones already in place and well used by the community.
You know more about the community context, and you’ve thought carefully about the channels for reaching out and connecting. Now it’s time to tailor the information to share.
As you share information with and seek input from the community, ask yourself:
o When interacting with a group, start by asking open-ended questions to understand what matters before zeroing in on outcome-oriented options. You shouldn’t ask, “Do you prefer basketball or volleyball?” before starting with, “What do you like to spend time doing in this park?”
o Share information and ask questions about what matters to stakeholders. This can mean different questions for different groups and in different spaces. Build on what you learn in those early open-ended conversations to tailor your questions to the community’s interests. If you can, let the community frame the questions and encourage direct dialogue among community members, too!
o Language equity matters, and using plain language is essential for a just and inclusive process. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Use language that’s clear, understandable, and direct.
o Provide multiple languages where appropriate. If an event, meeting, or survey is multilingual, outreach to get people there needs to be, too.
o Use compelling, interactive elements and media to help tell a story. Some people learn through listening, others through seeing, and some through doing.
o Ask for input on questions and issues that will shape outcomes. Don’t ask for opinions on something settled or beyond the process’s influence.
o Be clear about the scope of outcomes and what is and isn’t possible.
o Don’t sugarcoat—be upfront about disruption or other challenges the community can expect.
o Respect people’s time and be aware of engagement fatigue.
After launching a process with these questions in mind, it’s important to continue to learn and adapt based on community feedback and leadership. Involve community partners in setting the agenda for meetings and seek other opportunities to share power and direction-setting with them. Humility can go a long way here: by acknowledging and repairing your mistakes, you can start to rebuild or earn trust. This is fundamental to building relationships over time to make community engagement work in an ongoing way. Finally, take time to celebrate progress, both for relationships and the outcomes of the process!