Types of community engagement

types-of-community-engagement-picsCommunity engagement takes a variety of forms. I recently suggested that there were three broad forms of community engagement, but last week I realised that I had overlooked a fourth type.

The four types are:

  1. Community engagement with a focus on community development or community building
  2. Community participation in consultation and decision-making
  3. Community engagement that helps organisations, businesses etc. to improve their service delivery or to achieve their goals
  4. Community engagement as part of social change movements or as part of the work of voluntary community organisations

I originally identified the three types for the courses I teach. Because students come from many disciplines, I wanted to think about the relevance of community engagement in a variety of settings.  For some of the students an important focus of their discipline is  community engagement and community building (e.g., social work, development studies); for some of them community engagement isn’t really a major focus, but it is still is recognised as important for good practice (e.g., education, health), and for some community engagement is important at times (e.g., as part of a consultation project) but isn’t a major focus of their work.

Identifying the first three types of community engagement helped me think about how community engagement was relevant to my students but on the weekend, however, I ran a workshop on community engagement as part of a series of workshops for members of community groups.  As I was preparing it, I realised that it was quite different to the other types of community engagement. I also discovered that most literature on community engagement is aimed at professionals. I suspect there is literature on community engagement by community groups, but it is framed as something else like campaigning, asset based community development or building social movements.

Focus on community development or community building

A lot of community engagement is focuses on community development and community building. Community engagement is this context covers to aspects. First, involving community members is an important underpinning of many bottom up approaches (such as ABCD). Second, a feature of strong communities is high levels of social capital and so an community building often focuses on encouraging people to be actively involved in their community generally.

Consultation and decision-making

Many organisations including schools, health services, government departments and planners need to consult communities about a range of issues. By involving the community in meaningful ways, this consultation can be more than tokenism.  A tool that many practitioners find useful is the Spectrum Public Participation by the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2).


The Spectrum provides a useful tool in thinking about the level of community involvement in consultation and decision making. It is important to think carefully about the level of participation that is appropriate for the context and not to promise more than will be delivered. It is important to note that the first level – inform – is not really a level of public participation, as it is only a one-way process. It has a place in the spectrum, however, because it is an essential foundation for the other levels.

Atlee et al (2009) have identified seven principles of public engagement which are useful when thinking about engaging the community in consultation and decision making.

Through adequate and inclusive planning, ensure that the design, organization, and convening of the process serve both a clearly defined purpose and the needs of the participants.

Equitably incorporate diverse people, voices, ideas, and information to lay the groundwork for quality outcomes and democratic legitimacy.

Support and encourage participants, government and community institutions, and others to work together to advance the common good.

Help all involved listen to each other, explore new ideas unconstrained by predetermined outcomes, learn and apply information in ways that generate new options, and rigorously evaluate public engagement activities for effectiveness.

Be clear and open about the process, and provide a public record of the organizers, sponsors, outcomes, and range of views and ideas expressed.

Ensure each participatory effort has real potential to make a difference, and that participants are aware of that potential.

Promote a culture of participation with programs and institutions that support ongoing quality public engagement.

Improving service delivery and achieving organisational goals

There are many cases where community engagement is essential for organisations or businesses to achieve their goals. Many of the events held by charities (e.g., Girls Night In, Red Nose Day) and other not-for-profits (e.g., Clean Up Australia) rely on community engagement. There are many other examples where community engagement is important to the success of organisations or businesses. Take for example the battle between the various football codes to involve children from a young age.

The Chamber of Commerce & Industry of WA (2012) identified some benefits for businesses of community engagement (by building a relationship with a community organisation)  including:

  • Morale building
  • Professional development
  • Brand or status recognition
  • Recognised as a valued member of the community
  • Aligning activities with the organisation’s value.

The mining industry relies on a social license to mine and so is increasingly focusing on community engagement to demonstrate that it is a good corporate citizen and to convince people that the benefits of mining outweigh the negative consequences.

Social change and voluntary community groups

Community engagement by social change movements and community groups can have similarities with the other types, but there are also differences. Often the focus of the first three types is where an organisation that is not part of the community (e.g., a government department) is wanting to engage a community. Quite often these organisation are power holders and are able to implement decisions. Social movements and voluntary community groups are often part of the community and need to rely on others for funding or to implement decisions.  It seems to me this creates a different dynamic.

Bill Moyer identifies four roles of social activism:

The Citizen

  • Upholds a widely held vision of the democratic, good society
  • Demonstrates ordinary people support social change
  • Gives the movement legitimacy
  • Makes it harder for authorities to discredit the movement
  • Reduces the potential for violent attitudes and actions within the movement
The Reformer

  • Transmits movement analyses and goals to authorities
  • Performs parliamentary and legal efforts –lobbying, referenda, lawsuits
  • Works to create and expand new laws and policies
  • Acts as a watchdog to ensure the new laws and policies are actually funded and carried out
  • Mobilises movement opposition to conservative backlash efforts
The Rebel

  • Puts issues on the social and political agenda through dramatic, nonviolent actions
  • Dramatically illustrates social issues
  • Shows how institutions and official authorities violate public trust by causing and perpetuating critical social problems
  • Forces society to face its problems
  • Promotes democracy
The Change Agent

  • Supports the involvement of large numbers of people in the process of addressing social problems
  • Promotes a new social and political majority consensus favouring positive solutions
  • Promotes democratic principles and human values
  • Supports the development of coalitions
  • Counters the actions of the authorities
  • Moves society from reform to social change by promoting a paradigm shift

While each of these are important and they all can involve community engagement, it seems to me that the Change Agent is a role that has a large focus on community engagement. It is the role that focuses on obtaining large scale community support and so community engagement is at the heart of its role.

Recognising this fourth type of community engagement raises a number of questions for me including:

  1. What are the similarities and differences between community engagement by external organisations and community based organisations?
  2. What literature is available on community engagement by social change movements and voluntary community groups?
  3. What do these groups finds work in engaging communities?

I think I will reflect on these questions over the next little while.

[Updated 16 April 2016]

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. What is community engagement?
  2. Ethics and community engagement
  3. Vertical and horizontal community engagement
  4. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  5. What is social capital?

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Working with communities and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Types of community engagement

  1. Livio Da Conceicao Matos says:

    Thank you very much. It is nice to read and explore more.


  2. Victor ifot says:

    Nice piece

    Liked by 1 person

  3. byniatruong says:

    Thank you so much for this. It is really helpful


  4. Pingback: How to Start Community Service Projects – Jennifer Powers Blog

  5. Austin Donahoo says:

    This is a very helpful primer on community engagement!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Kirsten says:

    Love this Spectrum of Participation, great concise table to keep focused!

    Liked by 1 person

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