A Community Engagement Strategy for Negotiating a Package of Community Benefits



Through conversations with community leaders, the work of this stage is to understand community perspectives and build sufficient trust to enable a process to take place.

It has been said by some that the Australia’s First People, the Aborigines, might embark on a “walkabout” to reconnect with their heritage and personal history in order to regain their spiritual and moral footing. That concept is the foundation of this first stage—building in the opportunity for the sponsor and project team to “ground” themselves by spending time in the community that will be impacted in order to learn, first-hand, from the people who live there.

Given that the convening organization has a concrete purpose—such as obtaining community support to site a new power plant, or to set up wind farms—the goal of this stage is to identify three types of issues:

  • Community perceptions of its own key issues
  • Community perceptions of the organization proposing the action, including initial impressions of the project
  • Community relations among key stakeholders and factions

A series of conversations with community leaders helps to identify others who need to be part of the group process. Ultimately, the work of this stage is to understand community perspectives and build sufficient trust to enable such a process to take place.

The walkabout is an expression of caring and respect for the community and its views.

  • Develop a list of key elected officials, administrative officials, and local leaders to be consulted prior to any meetings.
  • Take the time that is needed to hold extensive interviews/conversations with these individuals.
  • Use the interactions to gather information about the key stakeholder perceptions/values and to start building trust and mutual respect.
  • Develop a list of people to invite to the community engagement meetings.
  • Whenever possible, and particularly if the situation is difficult, or the entity has a troubled relationship with the community, there is real value to the sponsor/leader being a part of the walkabout. The learning from these interviews, and well as the tone with which the comments are delivered, may be critical factors in the way that the overall process goes, and first-hand knowledge beats any report, any time. It helps company executives understand the needs of the community at a cellular level.
  • In the interviewing process, open-ended questions allow individuals to say what is important to them. What’s shared may not seem relevant to the project, but it is all relevant. They are saying what matters to them and that information may suddenly prove useful at some point in the process. As a consequence, give these interviews their own time. Do not schedule them too close together, and be prepared to spend an hour or two on key ones.
  • Take copious notes of these conversations (during the meeting if possible and immediately afterwards if not). If the interviewee grants permission to take notes, there will be occasions when the material being shared is so personal, or so emotional, that it is obvious there should be no note taking at that time. If unable to take notes during the meeting, the interviewer needs to do this as quickly as possible after the meeting, within minutes preferably. Even waiting a few hours will lead to losing a lot of the wisdom from the session. It is helpful to carry 3 × 5 cards to jot down all the key points, which can later be fleshed out with detail.
  • If it feels appropriate, one of the questions to ask about is the history of the place that will be impacted: What was its role in history? What role did the area play in the economy or social structure or religious activity of earlier days? Did certain major events occur in the area? Knowing about the history of a place may be very useful in the process at some point, and having that in a leader’s memory bank offers the opportunity to cite it at the proper moment.

In meeting with people, it may be appropriate to bring something to share: a small tray of haupia, fruits, chocolates, as you would as a guest going to someone’s house. Here is an illustration of how a seemingly simple gift served as a barometer of affinity:

“I took a tray of haupia to someone I had never met before and who I was told was a person I needed to get to know. I met him at his house and we sat down at a table. I gave him the haupia tray, which he pushed as far away from us on the table as his arm could reach. We began talking. I told him something about our project and about what we were doing in other parallel work. After a while, he cut me off. He asked me to tell him who I was, who my family was, how I came to be doing what I am doing. During the course of the conversation we began to find some people we had in common. His hand reached out and drew the haupia about half way back to him. At one point, we talked about a man whom we both deeply admired. He went into the house and brought out an object that came from his association with that man. We spoke of the specialness of the object and then he drew the haupia to him, called out for his daughter, and asked her to serve it to us. We continued talking for a while longer and I have since been able to have many conversations with him. If we had not been able to find connections, things might have gone differently and the tray might never have come close to us.”

Related Examples

Related Tools/Resources

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