Community engagement: 10 questions to ask yourself before you start
Natelle Morgan-Brown, Consultant, Co-creation and Participation at The Audience Agency guides us through key questions we need to ask ourselves before we start on any community engagement project.
- Who are we excluding?
- What might the benefits be in this new connection?
- Am I the right or most appropriate person to build and nurture this connection?
- How will I actively ensure newly engaged communities are effectively welcomed and included?
- What resources are available to support this work?
- What might I be open to learning?
- Am I willing to relinquish power?
- How might I listen authentically?
- How will I know if this works?
- How might we continue to build on these relationships beyond the life of this initial activity?
In order to include, we first need to understand who and how we’re excluding, to then be able to clearly communicate using appropriate language and cognisant terminology.
Do your research. Depending on capacity and available resources, this might involve:
- reviewing datasets from your previous and existing audiences,
- checking statistical data from places like the Office for National Statistics (ONS),
- consulting with stakeholders,
- authentically connecting with community leaders,
- reading the local paper and listening to community radio.
Don’t worry about doing everything all at once. If you’re unsure where to start, use our Audience Spectrum segmentation tool to understand who your current audiences are, who lives in the local area and how you might connect with new people.
In defining who you want to connect with, you should also be considering the ‘whys’ of connection, as in ‘why would they want to connect, engage or visit us?’ Get clear about your motivations.
What benefits do you envision cultivating this new audience will bring? Not solely for you and your organisation, but primarily for the individuals within the identified potential audience groups.
It’s worth remembering that future audiences aren’t generally waiting patiently on the threshold, eagerly waiting to be invited in. People are busy living their lives. They’re already involving themselves in all sorts of community and cultural events that don’t involve you, so think about how your organisation could be relevant and connected to their lives.
What can you offer them?
What might they offer you?
Consider how the audience engagement approach links to your overall strategy.
There’s always potential to do harm even when we mean well. Therefore, it’s vital to understand any blind and weak spots, preferably before any engagement activities begin.
Consciously and honestly examine what you already know, what you don’t know and what prejudices or notions might exist within yourself and across the organisation about the identified community or group.
Consider whether any staff/volunteer training or upskilling might be helpful and if there are prospects to partner with an experienced or qualified stakeholder, ideally one that has existing connections within your communities of interest.
On occasions, forging ahead with an intended community connection based on your own motivations is not the right thing to do – learn to recognise those occasions and adapt your plans.
First impressions are hard to change. Whilst it’s amazing to connect with new people, groups and communities there’s little point if, once engaged, people don’t feel welcomed and included.
Assess yourselves to uncover the tangible and invisible barriers and obstacles that may pose issues for visitors. There are loads of existing good practice available tools and resources from across the sector which may be relevant and helpful such as:
- Dementia Friendly Arts Guide (Alzheimer's Society),
- Best Practice Checklist for events compiled by StageText and
- Shape Arts Access Audits.
If you don’t already have a stakeholder sounding board, perhaps this is the ideal time to start one to help with this long-term assessment and improvement strand.
It’s an obvious question but one which we sometimes underestimate the importance of. Like most projects in life, any authentic community engagement worth its salt will take twice as long as you envisioned.
Invest the time.
Alongside defining the usual practicalities of budgets, time, space and people resources, we should also be baking inclusion into this planning based on the needs and wants of audiences. This may look like:
- provisions for childcare,
- offering meals and refreshments,
- supporting with travel,
- retaining interpreters or translators,
- rota staff to actively welcome visitors,
- contracting qualified support staff and
- supplying tech equipment.
Additionally, don’t forget to identify what resources already exist within the community which might be utilised.
Most of the good eggs are experts in our professional fields but don’t let complacency cloud your judgement about learning new things. What knowledge and skills might communities have that they might be able and willing to share?
Within the Co-creation and Participation team here at The Audience Agency we’re particularly occupied with supporting arts and cultural organisations to identify ways to redistribute, exchange and surrender power and dismantle hierarchy in the reach for genuine equity, diversity and inclusion.
There’s a whole generation of community development frameworks and pedagogies to take inspiration from including Asset Based Community Development, Problem Solving, and Participation and Co-creation methodologies.
Build the act of asking this question into your planning and, if this is a new approach to you, start small then scale up with the results if necessary.
Ensure you’re building and promoting effective mechanisms to continuously listen to audiences (and at the least before, during and after activities) and translate what you hear into action.
Listening is often assigned as the baseline for co-creation approaches, but I believe it should be forming the start of any approach because ‘how can we begin to plan and develop an offer if we don’t know whether people actually want it?’
Unfortunately, it doesn't go without mentioning the importance of safety in these listening mechanisms too. Whether you choose to facilitate in-person or group conversations or request feedback through a paper survey you will need to build a ‘safe container’ to hold this exchange, forecasting any potential risk when hearing things about the organisation that may hurt and readying your team for critical responses.
During the 1996 Labour Party conference, Blair stated that the party’s top three priorities were "evaluation, evaluation, evaluation"* and mine are coincidentally no different. You can’t shut the gate after the horse has bolted so build evaluation into your initial project plan.
Also get consent, start collecting baseline data, be creative and tailor your approaches and have a vision of what ‘success’ looks like for all stakeholders. You can evaluate your own activities but let's be honest, that’s a bit like marking your own homework.
*Ok, I know he actually said “Education, Education, Education” but that’s more or less the same thing, right?
Hopefully, you already considered this question during your planning and delivery phases and, along with the voices of the community, you have some ideas about how this strand might be developed.
Celebrate and share the failures and successes and remember, ‘if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’ so be brave in your next steps.
Natelle-Morgan-Brown, Consultant, Co-creation and Participation, The Audience Agency