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What a Toddler Can Teach You about Community Engagement

Anyone who has spent time with a toddler can tell you that there’s one question that is more critically important to that tiny person than any other: “Why?”

“Please put on your shoes.”
“Why?”
“Because we’re going to the store.”
“Why?”
“Because we need groceries.”
“Why?...”

Ad infinitum.

We find that groups or individuals involved in Collective Impact often feel strongly about including community engagement in their work but haven’t really thought through the purpose of that engagement.  If that’s the case for you, I encourage you to channel your inner toddler and ask yourself, “Why?” 

Community engagement sets expectations: that you care about the community’s input and that you will do something with that input. If you don’t know why you want to engage the community and you don’t make that purpose explicit, then you risk setting the wrong expectations and disappointing or angering those you had hoped to include in the work.

The Tamarack Institute has a great engagement continuum that can help you to think through the question of “why,” helping you to clarify your goals. In the context of Collective Impact, you might engage the community to do any of the following:

  • Inform:  provide information and build awareness about the problem that the project seeks to address, about data illustrating progress, the status of the project, or potential solutions that are being explored (see Kat Allen’s post on the Communities That Care Coalition of Franklin County and the North Quabbin for some great examples related to mounting a parent campaign)

  • Consult: gather feedback from targeted stakeholders on the project’s goals, processes, shared metrics, or strategies for achieving change

  • Involve: work directly with the community to include them in the collection of data for shared metrics or implementation of project strategies

  • Collaborate: partner with community members so that they help to develop program elements such as shared metrics or project strategies

  • Empower: place responsibility and ownership in the hands of the community so that they make final decisions and drive implementation of key elements of the project

When I heard Anne Kubisch from The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change speak a few weeks back, she also raised a critical point related to this topic: it isn’t necessary or appropriate to engage all stakeholders deeply at all times.  The key is to be intentional and explicit about your use of community engagement.

Community engagement is critical to Collective Impact, so take a cue from a toddler and make sure that it works for you and not against you. 

Katherine Errecart

Former Director, FSG