What Does it Take for Companies to Engage Communities More Equitably?

Photo credit Brandon Jacoby on Unsplash

Community engagement has long been popular with the corporate sector. Often relegated to market research, hometown grantmaking, and volunteerism, community engagement has historically been a means for companies to “give back” or improve external brand perception. And more often than not, the approach is reactive, reputation-focused, and transactional, grounded in a “savior” mindset, where companies hold the power, resources, and answers about how to effectively support their community.

However, as stakeholder capitalism gains adherents and more corporate leaders seek to unlock the value potential of centering on racial equity (described in the CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity), corporations should reconsider how they engage with a broader swath of community stakeholders. If our goal is to create business value and more equitable outcomes for our stakeholders, shouldn’t the path there also embody the values and principles of equity?

Here at FSG, we are encouraged by the number of companies now exploring how to live up to their commitments to address systemic racism. From national retailers to financial institutions to large local health care systems, clients and partners are designing a new approach to community engagement, one grounded in relational trust and co-creation with community.

Reflecting across recent conversations with partners and friends, we offer the following considerations for how corporations can build a more equitable approach to community engagement.

1. Clarify your reason for community engagement

While many companies we advise are eager to jump to a discussion of the tactics of equitable engagement, we encourage business leaders to first clarify and align on their reason for engaging a community. For example, how might community insights help you fulfill your corporate purpose, inform enterprise-wide strategy, or solve complex business problems? On a smaller scale, does the community have insights around local products and inventory, growth and expansion opportunities, branding, corporate social responsibility strategy, and even supply chain considerations? By clearly identifying the unique value of community perspectives, companies can tap into critical strategic considerations they otherwise would not have access to, thus unlocking the potential for more equitable outcomes for the community. Leading with the mindset that the community has answers that companies themselves do not can help companies avoid tokenizing community perspectives by soliciting them without ultimately using them to inform decisions.

2. Define your community

Based on your reason for conducting more equitable community engagement, you need to explicitly define which community, or communities, you seek to engage. A clear definition ensures engagement efforts are sufficiently specific and relevant to meet the needs of the community members you seek to engage and to provide the desired value for the company. Communities can be defined by a range of factors, including geography, race or ethnicity, gender, ability, socioeconomic status, interests, and values, but oftentimes in corporate discussions the definition of community is vague, implicit, or coded. It is important to push past overly broad or euphemistic terms like “diverse” or “inner city” to understand the specific social, racial, and other demographic factors at play.

Companies can then use data to identify the inequities faced by those populations. For example, as part of a treatment adherence effort, a patient support function within a pharmaceutical company may use prescribing data to identify a population at risk of low adherence where early engagement can have a significant impact, such as “Latinx patients with diabetes, over the age of 65, residing in Arizona, who have lapsed on their treatment for the first time.” The specificity of this definition will allow the company to focus on trends and influencing factors unique to this population and ensure that their adherence strategies are relevant to their target group.

3. Connect the dots internally

As companies examine their engagement approach with clarity on the rationale and specific community, many find they already have a range of connections with the community across different business units or departments. Mapping these ongoing efforts can help ensure coordination and translation of insights across business units. In our experience, this coordination is most effective when community engagement is not owned within a single team (e.g., government affairs, guest insights, etc.), but is shared across a “tiger” team that connects multiple functions (e.g., real estate, recruitment, philanthropy, etc.) with shared objectives.

For example, a large tech company identified that they had multiple business units seeking to build relationships with youth of color in the San Francisco Bay Area. The CSR team was looking to work with community organizations delivering STEM education to youth of color while the recruitment function was launching a new program aimed to build a pipeline of young job seekers of color with technology expertise. Externally, the city government and multiple local foundations (which the company already partnered with on separate initiatives) were designing their own programs to connect youth of color with STEM education and job training. By mapping the internal and external efforts focused on engaging youth of color, the company was better able to understand where they were best poised to engage and uncover opportunities to pursue collective impact with the other local institutions working on similar initiatives.

4. Understand and reckon with history

One of the most important, yet often overlooked, steps toward more effective community engagement is deepening your understanding of the history and context of the community you seek to engage. This step requires exploration, learning, and at times, unlearning the white supremacist accounts of marginalized communities that often dominate historical narratives. All communities are shaped by a unique combination of historical, cultural, and demographic factors. Additionally, companies do not exist in a vacuum, and understanding the ways in which they have impacted their community (via their product, practices, etc.) is essential to understanding the dynamics that will shape community engagement. This process of learning and reflection builds the underlying mindsets necessary for the systemic and sustainable change that equitable engagement can unlock.

We recently advised a big box retailer that wanted to expand its community engagement efforts to begin by examining the history of redlining and its intrinsic link to growth of big-box retail nationally and in their hometown. Only by understanding the historical housing and economic exclusion of communities of color could the retailer begin to understand the dynamics still at play in its community. Further, better understanding this history allowed the company to acknowledge and explore its own role in this history and the impact it was having on the community it was now seeking to engage. This learning and reckoning process made it clear that the company was not fulfilling its corporate purpose for all constituencies and had not been doing so for much of its history. This represented a critical first step in their effort to address past harms and build a more equitable approach to community engagement going forward.

5. Be ready to shift existing power dynamics

Lastly, it is important for companies to be aware of the power dynamics that exist with community engagement efforts and how they can position themselves in a way that encourages true partnership and mutual benefit with the community. When designing their approach, companies should consider how to avoid practices that are extractive and proactively identify ways to share power and decision-making with the communities they are engaging. Companies can consider questions like, “What benefit does the community gain from engaging with us?” “Is this a long-term initiative or a one-time engagement?” “To what extent are we ready to reflect the community’s input in our strategy, even if that means changing or giving up opinions or perspectives previously held by the company?”

Considering these questions prior to engaging with your community can help ensure that there is a shared understanding of your approach to soliciting and acting on community input and that you are appropriately setting expectations. Transactional engagement such as focus groups, grantmaking, sponsorships, and “day of service” type volunteering events can be effective ways to begin building a relationship with different communities—but they cannot be extractive and you must be transparent about your intent and level of commitment. Transformational engagement with communities is only possible through long-term commitment, follow-through, and true power-sharing and collaboration.


In part 2 of this blog series, we explore how to approach this more transformational approach to community engagement. We’re eager to hear your comments, questions, or reflections on this post and about how your company or organization is approaching community engagement. Don’t hesitate to contact us.

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