The importance of gatekeepers.

Two things have recently driven home to me the challenge of trying to engage people we want to engage, but who aren’t really interested.

The first was when I was talking to a colleague about a physical activity and health eating program they have been planning. It has been working successfully with the general population but they are wanting to trial it with a particularly marginalised section of the community. They have just had to postpone it for the second time due to lack of numbers. It’s a great project, but the demand for the program is not coming from the community.

The second was a bit more subtle, but bear with me. I teach an online course on community engagement so all the marking and feedback is done online. This means that, since a recent upgrade of the web-based program we use, I can see when students have looked at the feedback on their assessments. Its been 10 days since their first major assessment was returned and so far only 60% of the students have looked at their feedback. What’s really interesting is when we consider how many students have looked at their feedback based on the grade they received for the assessment.


All the students who received a high distinction (the students who least need feedback) have looked at their feedback, but only 20% of the students who failed (who need feedback the most) have looked at their feedback.

The course (or subject) is an elective and while some students pick it because they are interested in community engagement, others pick it because it’s online and fits in with their other commitments. It isn’t a subject they are passionate about. They don’t meet any of the teachers and so it is harder to enthuse them. In a way I think this is similar to community engagement that isn’t community led. Some of the students aren’t all that passionate about the subject and only do the work they need to pass.

I quite often go to workshops, talks or activities that are largely preaching to the converted. People are there because they are already interested in the issue. The ongoing challenge is how to engage other people – particularly people who “need” it.

One approach that works is to be community led. If we try to implement programs that are “needed” rather than wanted, we shouldn’t be surprised if we have trouble engaging people. This is one of the reasons that Asset Based Community Development emphasises the importance of community leadership.

A lot of my focus has been on social change where I have been involved in community groups that are trying to change community attitudes. In these cases, we are focusing on what we believe is needed. At one level these groups have been community led (they have mostly been voluntary community groups) but at another level we have been operating a bit like an external agency.

This is where building relationships becomes particularly important. As we get to know people and build relationships, we can find ways to address issues that are of concern to the community as well as addressing issues of interest to us. Hopefully we also demonstrate that we are genuine become more difficult to dismiss out of hand. We aren’t just  some lunatic fringe

One of the current projects being developed by Transition Newcastle is the Transition Streets Challenge. While our focus is on sustainability, we can tap into broader issues by also focusing on how to save money by reducing energy bills. It will also help if we can find people who are passionate about sustainability and who are already well-connected in their streets. If we can find people who know everybody in their neighbourhood and are natural leaders, they can use their relationships to motivate people to become involved. It will also help if the Challenge is fun and encourages community building in the neighbourhood.

Identifying and nurturing community gatekeepers (people who can open gates into the community) is time well spent. If the physical activity program I started with could find a few key people in the marginalised group they are wanting to engage who become enthused about the program then other people might come onboard. For this to happen they may need to let go of some of their control. They might have to make changes to their program so that it becomes more interesting for the people they are wanting to engage.

I think it will be important for the Transition Streets Challenge to allow our gatekeepers (the people who first take on the Challenge) to explore issues they are passionate about and to give them as much control of the process as possible. It will be interesting to see what we learn through the process.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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