A Community Engagement Strategy for Negotiating a Package of Community Benefits

Defining the Problem and Setting the Context


In this stage, the group process is explained, the proposed project is presented, and every effort is made to put and keep control of the process in the hands of the community.

This stage covers at least the first meeting, and possibly more. The basic goals are to:

  • Orient the group to the protocols that will govern the collaboration.
  • Provide information about the broader context of this initiative, both by presenting and responding to questions.
  • Discuss the “whys” of the project: why necessary, why now, why here? The start of the formal meeting incorporates some fundamental elements:
  • Thanks to the participants for coming
  • Feedback on what was gleaned from the walkabout
  • An explanation of what the sponsoring organization is trying to do
  • A description of the five-part Community Engagement Protocol
  • A preliminary discussion about givebacks
  • A presentation on the organization’s proposed project
  • A commitment to obtaining answers by the next meeting to questions that could not yet be answered

Around this stage, the process design team spends time between each meeting discussing how the process is going and how it should move forward.

To put and keep control of the process in the hands of the community, the protocol — including choice of facilitator, agenda, place, and time — is reviewed and discussed at each meeting.

  • Introduce and then execute on the “Community Engagement Protocol,” including asking for permission to proceed. Do not assume that the answer will be “yes.”
  • There is a community history of feeling unacknowledged.
    Many community disputes arise out of perceptions of being ignored or imposed upon by outside interests and other communities. Communities near undesirable land uses (such as waste dumps), are likely to bring feelings of anger or hopelessness into discussions about new uses. These sentiments need to be heard from the start.
  • There are leadership issues in disaffected groups.
    The loudest, angriest person in the group might also be the most aggressive in seeking to speak for the group. A practical challenge is to help the group choose someone who is both a respected person within the group and willing to engage in problem-solving discussions.
  • There are challenges to creating a context for problem-solving discussions.
    If the group is focusing on a general-use principle, i.e., “No new development on this site,” or a process principle, i.e., “All decisions about our future should be made by the people who live here,” it is difficult for some participants to shift to discussing how some amount of development might occur or how decision making might be shared. One option is to reframe an issue by asking group members to think about what would happen if things did not go their way. Participants are not being asked to let go of their position or the line they have drawn, but to consider “what if?” This requires great care.
  • Developing durable community partnerships takes significant time and attention.
    Developing community agreements takes time, patience, great care in listening, and a willingness to make what might be major commitments to the community. It also requires a corporate willingness to continue to check on how agreements are being implemented, to help with problem solving and to nurture relationships over time.
  • The sponsor of the process has a vested interest in the outcome.
    Underscoring for the group on a regular basis the inherent conflict of having the sponsor both facilitate the group and simultaneously want a specific result is very important. Any time someone in the audience points to a situational conflict, it should be directly acknowledged and addressed; this includes an offer to step down as facilitator at the end of each meeting.
  • The sponsor/leader needs to give the control and power in the conversation to the community. Participants should be asked: “Do you want to change facilitators? Do you want to change meeting logistics? Are there subjects you want to add? Are we going about this conversation the right way?” The community needs to know that they can make decisions about the process.
  • Trust cannot be forced or demanded. In this process, trust needs to be extended on an unconditional basis by the sponsor/leader. When the community asks at the early stages, “Why should we trust you?” the appropriate response by the sponsor should be, “Don’t.” The sponsor/leader should tell the community that anything that is promised will be put in writing and that promises will be attached to legally enforceable documents.
  • Because people learn in different ways, the facilitator should attempt to combine words and pictures in depicting issues and processes; this will foster greater participation.
  • One of the best icebreakers for a group discussion is to talk to group members about their highest hopes and greatest fears. It’s best to start with the fears. People need to get the negative off their chests before they can go ahead with a discussion of the positives.

Related Examples

Related Tools/Resources

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