In developing a sustainability program, especially a community development project, it is essential to determine and strategize on how you will engage stakeholders in the planning and reporting of activities and outcomes concerning that program. After identifying internal and external stakeholders and defining the key indicators you plan to measure achievement of sustainability, the next step is to outline a stakeholder engagement strategy. Below are listed four steps to consider related to engaging stakeholders in your process:
- Engage Stakeholders Early
Stakeholder inclusiveness should be an essential part of your sustainability program. Involving stakeholders early in your process will give your organization an opportunity to understand their character and emerging concerns, while discovering opportunities to address issues before they become a serious threat to your organization’s sustainability. Building an effective engagement strategy will improve trust, collaboration, open dialog and information sharing between your organization and key stakeholders.
- Decide on the Manner in which to Engage Stakeholders
A key point to consider when building your engagement strategy is how you plan to engage, or communicate, with stakeholders. There are many ways to involve internal and external stakeholders including; surveys, questionnaires, one-on-one interviews, focus groups, community panels, or workshops. The manner you choose to communicate with stakeholders determines the level of engagement your organization will conduct; from providing information at community panels, to collaborative problem solving at workshops, to joint decision making at formal meetings.
When determining the manner in which to engage your selected audience, an important step is to understand the needs of your stakeholders, their interest in participating and any resource constraints that might prevent them from taking part. Your organization will need to show that it understands stakeholder’s views, values or concerns in order to build trust and collaboration.
- Decide on the Content and Frequency of Communications
Regular dialog and feedback with your stakeholders should be a pivotal part of your sustainability program. Outlining a detailed time frame for initial and follow-up communications or meetings will help manage stakeholder’s expectations and maximize engagement. An important point to consider is your stakeholder’s preferences as they pertain to frequency; at times quarterly or semi-annual communications might be sufficient.
Your communications with stakeholders should articulate clear objectives and outline any rules of engagement, including information regarding confidential data, privileged conversations and anonymity.
- Report on Findings
Report on the feedback and concerns raised by stakeholders during engagement sessions and outline a comprehensive plan that addresses the issues and information collected. Communicating findings and action plans will help build a level of transparency with stakeholders and reiterate your organization’s commitment to the sustainability initiatives discussed during engagement sessions.
And how do you obtain information from these people. Attending church socials, organizational meetings in the community, and sitting in the local café are some of the best ways to find people. For example, walking the streets of the different towns on the north coast of Jamaica, as I did in 2010, was a great way to encounter and talk to the average community member and obtain a personal but clear idea of what community means to them. Likewise, in my Dauphin Island (AL) sustainable community development (SCD) work (2007) I walked the beaches on weekends to talk with individuals and small groups about the community.
When talking to people where they live, work, play, or pray and asking questions of them about their situations, you can begin to understand the feelings, attitudes, and values people have towards each other, and why. All of these different pieces of data and more, based upon the points listed above, can provide the foundation for a description of the community. And incorporating what you learn into an accurate description of the community you are working with will continually be referenced throughout the conduct of any community improvement effort, which is very important to the stakeholders when they see their own ideas being highlighted as part of the overall community effort.
In addition, there are some specific people that it might be important to talk to. They’re the individuals in key positions, or those who are trusted by a large part of the community or by a particular population. In a typical community these might include: elected officials; community planners and development officers; chiefs of police; school superintendents, principals, and teachers; directors or staff of health and human service organizations; health professionals; clergy; community activists; presidents or chairs of civic or service clubs; people without titles, but identified by others as “community leaders;” and owners or CEO’s of large businesses.
Be prepared to continually network with others while conducting an assessment of what the community you are going to work with really looks like. Every contact you make in the community has the potential to lead you to more contacts. Whether you’re talking to official or unofficial community leaders or to people you just met on the street, always ask who else they would recommend that you talk to and whether you can use their names when you contact those people. Establishing relationships with a variety of community members is probably the most important thing you can do to ensure that you’ll be able to get the information you need, and that you’ll have support for working in the community when you finish your community description and begin your SCD project initiative.
To find out about various aspects of the community, you’ll need a number of different methods of gathering information. These would include searching public records and archives, conducting individual and group interviews, surveys, and capturing direct or meeting participant observations. Observation can take many forms. In addition to simply going to a place and taking notes on what you see, you might use other techniques – photo-voice, video, audio, simple photographs, drawings, etc. Don’t limit the ways in which you can record your observations and impressions.
Outreach to the average community member in order to obtain information might consist of posters in businesses, notes on the Internet, newsletters, community focus groups, after Sunday service church group gatherings, or editorials in the local newspaper. Traditionally, practitioners and consultants have offered questionnaires or conducted town hall meetings to obtain information from the people in a community in order to better understand the group they are working with and what their problems and needs might be. To collect better information and a more real picture of the community, today the practitioner must go far beyond the range of these traditional approaches, trying to reach people where they live, work, play, and pray.
Always start an assessment by finding out as much about the community as you can. Recording your findings and your analysis in a community description that you can refer to and update as needed will keep your understanding fresh and help others in your organization or with those whom you collaborate to effectively communicate with and engage community members.
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