Executive Briefing: Engaging the Community

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Truly effective community engagement involves complex decisions about who to work with (or through), how to engage, and what likely result to achieve.

Best Practices in Community Engagement

Companies are increasingly expected to reach out beyond their traditional constituencies of shareholders, employees, and regulators to make a positive social and environmental impact.

From Scottish Power’s work with local high schools to improve job prospects of low academic achievers to Shell’s global partnership with environmental non-profit Living Earth, there are many great examples of community engagement from which to draw inspiration.

Company benefits of community engagement can include:

  • improved reputation – even beyond the community – leading to competitive advantage;

  • enhanced credibility, legitimacy, and trust among stakeholders;

  • better decision making and risk management with fewer negative repercussions;

  • greater attractiveness as a potential employer.

Truly effective community engagement involves complex decisions about who to work with (or through), how to engage, and what likely result to achieve. NBS has reviewed more than 200 academic and practitioner sources to arrive at the following suggestions for success.

1. First define your community.

Assess geography, interaction, and/or identity.

This step is not straightforward, since “communities” may consist of individual citizens or organized groups. Based on our research, we suggest that you identify relevant individuals or groups by thinking through your own organization’s:

  • Geography – people in your location(s), such as residents and community associations;

  • Interactions – with people who also interact regularly with each other, such as online networks and sports leagues;

  • Identity and issues – people who might share your beliefs, values and experiences, such as environmental activists or cancer survivors.

Managers should also try to identify who in the community has formal or informal authority, and whether the community has the skills or resources to participate in engagement. It may be a good idea to start with someone who has expressed concern, but it is also important to think about those whose voices are not usually heard. Whoever you eventually choose to engage with, a transparent community identification process can help to build goodwill and trust.

2. Decide how to engage.

Give back, build bridges, and/or change society.

Our study revealed three main strategies for community engagement.

  • Transactional – or “giving back” by making donations or investing in the community (e.g. working with schools, providing information about local impact of new developments, fundraising activities with employees, or corporate-level gifts);

  • Transitional – or “building bridges” by involving the community in decision making (e.g. community surveys or public consultation for construction projects);

  • Transformational – or “changing society” through deep interactions and integration with strategic community partners and joint projects (e.g. joint project management, conflict resolution and strategic partnerships).

The first two approaches – though less ambitious than the third – can be highly effective and are the most common. Our key conclusion is that companies should use the right method to fit with their own strategic objectives, mixing and matching types of activity as appropriate.

Common pitfalls include attempting to cultivate too many different transformational partnerships (which could lead to overload in your community engagement team) or talking a “changing society” talk while only pushing out one-way corporate communications (which might lead to justifiable community frustration).

Continuum of Community Engagement

 
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3. Measure results.

Balance quantitative and qualitative indicators.

Evaluation tools should consist of a balanced mix of quantitative and qualitative indicators capturing the input, output and outcomes of engagement – aligned with the firm’s objectives. The process should measure benefits to the community (e.g. money donated, time given by employee volunteers, number of schools visited, skills developed and practical help with addressing social problems), as well as benefits to the firm.

Sometimes the very act of gathering data and reporting can bring benefits, such as employee awareness of social issues and stakeholder awareness of the company and its engagement. However, only truly transformational engagement will maximise benefits for both parties – in the form of shared ownership of problems and solutions, shared accountability and rich relationships.

Whatever the outcome and the benefits, evaluation should serve as the basis for transparent communication, improvements to existing activities, and guidance for future action. Only long-term engagement will bring long-term benefit.

Who Should Read the Briefing

This briefing is designed to help executives, directors, and leaders in community relations, public relations, and strategic partnerships. It presents a useful guide for identifying stakeholders, planning how and why to engage them, and ultimately developing community engagement strategy.

The briefing is an extension of the Network for Business Sustainability's systematic review of the body of research on stakeholder engagement.

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