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.

Start Engagement Well Before You Show Up

Take the time upfront to understand the context of the community and how issues have been dealt with in the past.

  • What have community members already shared about their needs and preferences? How can you make sure your engagement reflects understanding of that input and builds on it to avoid redundancy?
  • How has formal “engagement” or informal conversation gone in the past when these or related issues were brought up? What formats, channels, or events worked well? Where was there conflict? Who was engaged and who was not heard? Did community engagement actually influence or shape past outcomes?  Are relationships with those who have done the “engaging” in the past strong? Or is there a history of mistrust, and why?

Use the Community’s Influencers and Channels to Connect

You’ll need to establish the right channels for interacting with the community, preferably ones already in place and well used by the community.

  • What existing networks or groups drive conversation in the community? Is it a small newspaper? A Spanish radio station? Church announcements? How can you use those channels to connect with those whom traditional outreach often fails to reach? Consider additional opportunities for community input beyond big public meetings. Do you have multiple channels for two-way communication, including in-person, virtual events, digital interaction, paper, and other creative options?
  • To which groups or forums should you connect? They could include neighborhood or tenant associations, cultural groups, advocacy groups, houses of worship, schools, youth groups and facilities, and other institutions with credibility in the community.
  • Who might act as an influencer, liaison, or ambassador to target the agenda and engage community members? If appropriate, consider forming a steering committee or advisory group (even on an ad hoc basis) of connected, committed community members to help structure engagement activities and give you honest feedback as the process evolves. Might some of these connected people or groups be interested to partner with you to create events or manage outreach? Consider using some of your budget for these local partners to design and/or implement engagement directly.
  • Have you removed barriers to participation? Participating in public processes, whether coming to a meeting or replying to a survey, takes time and often—if indirectly—money. Practices like providing food and childcare and making events easy to get to help with these hurdles. Directly offsetting the cost of participating with stipends or gift cards may be most effective, especially for groups who face structural barriers and inequities and are thus most often excluded and unheard.

Make Content Relevant, Accessible, and Meaningful

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:

  • Is this relevant?          

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!

  • Is this accessible?

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.

  • Is this meaningful?

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!