Types of community engagement – creating boxes?

Types of community engagement _edited-1Community engagement covers a very broad range of meanings, aims and strategies. In teaching community engagement to undergraduate and postgraduate students, I need to find ways to explore the diversity of practice that are relevant to students from a wide range of disciplines. One approach I take is to explore practice in a number of “boxes” even though this runs the risk of inferring they are discrete areas of practices. In particular, there are three areas where I categorise community engagement even though it runs the risk of creating a false sense of separation.

The first is the way in which I structure the courses around three main modules each of which focus on a broad area of community engagement:

  1. Community engagement in community development, with a particularly focus on strengths-based approaches to working with communities (e.g., asset-based community-driven development)
  2. Community engagement in service delivery, particularly schools, health and families
  3. Community engagement in planning and decision-making, with quite an emphasis on the spectrum of public participation.

The purpose for engaging the community, and the strategies used, can vary considerably in each area but there is also a lot of overlap. For example involving people in planning in decision-making is an important part of community development.

These three areas, however, miss other areas such as community engagement initiated by social change movements or voluntary community groups.

The second box, is differentiating between vertical and horizontal community engagement. It is more useful to think of them as two dimensions of community engagement rather than as being two distinct types of community engagement. Vertical community engagement is about the interactions between an organisation and a community, and horizontal community engagement is about the interactions between community members. Many community engagement processes focus on both vertical and horizontal community engagement.

If we look at community engagement in schools, an important focus is engaging families in improving educational outcomes (which is essentially about vertical community engagement) and at the same time it plays an important role in building connections between families (which is essentially about horizontal community engagement).

The third box, is differentiating between community engagement as a process and as an outcome (Bang the Table, 2015). It also applies to participation as a process and as an outcome (Ife & Tesoriero, 2006). At times community engagement is a means to an end (e.g., community engagement in planning and decision-making) and the focus is on the objective or the outcome. At other times community engagement can be an end in its own right and the focus is on the process (e.g., community building events).

Ife and Tesoriero (2006) created a table highlighting some of the differences between participation as a means and as an end which also have relevance to community engagement.

Participation as a means

Participation as an end

  • It implies use of participation to achieve some predetermined goal or objective
  • It is an attempt to utilise the existing resources in order to achieve the objective of programs or projects
  • The stress is on achieving the objectives and not so much on the act of participation itself
  • It is more common in government programs, where the main concern is to mobilise the community and involve them in improving the efficiency of the delivery system
  • The participation is generally short-term
  • Participation as a means, therefore, appears to be a passive form of participation
  • It attempts to empower people to participate in their own development more meaningfully
  • It attempts to ensure the increased role of people in development initiatives
  • The focus is on improving the ability of the people to participate rather than just achieving the predetermined objectives of the project
  • This view finds relatively less favour with government agencies. NGOs in principle agree with the viewpoint
  • The participation is viewed as a long-term process
  • Participation as an end is relatively more active and dynamic

Figure 1: Comparison of participation as a means and an end (Ife & Tesoriero, 2006)

While this division helps to highlight the different emphasis of each approach, in practice community engagement can often be both a process and outcome. For example, in ABCD engaging the community is a vital part of the process, but it is also an outcome. If we look at planning processes (which is largely focussed on the outcome) there are a variety of ways of holding these processes that can help build community relationships (e.g., a World Café) and so the process takes on increased emphasis.

While it may be helpful at times to break community engagement in these types of way, it is important to recognise that in practice there is a great deal of overlap.

If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. A community engagement reading list
  2. Updating a course on community engagement
  3. Teaching community engagement to students from 29 disciplines
  4. Ethics and community engagement
  5. 3 types of community engagement (with related concepts and literature)
  6. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement


Bang the Table. (2015). What is community engagement, exactly?   Retrieved January 12, 2016, from http://bangthetable.com/what-is-community-engagement/

Ife, J., & Tesoriero, F. (2006). Community development: Community-based alternatives in an age of globalisation (3rd ed.). Frenchs Forest, N.S.W.: Pearson Education.

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 Facilitation & teaching, Working with communities and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Types of community engagement – creating boxes?

  1. Janice says:

    This is such a great way to describe the complexity of community engagement. I think clarity of purpose is so important. Thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

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