Clare Hammond explores the lessons we have learned at Rocket Science about what works when it comes to community engagement.
Government strategies, funders’ focus, and community need is all going in one direction – a growing emphasis on helping those who most need it. These groups come with a myriad of ‘titles’ such as multiple and complex needs, furthest from the labour market, and the hard to reach.
The typical service model goes – people turn up, you support them, they are better off for it. Sounds simple right? Perhaps not. As any staff involved in frontline delivery will tell you, engaging the right groups in the right numbers and in the right ways is extremely difficult. There are a wide range of complex and nuanced drivers for a lack of engagement that services need to navigate.
We recently completed a review of a Scottish Government fund that supported community-based programmes to take a new and more dignified approach to food poverty. We went in looking for evidence about whether the support provided by these projects was helping alleviate hunger, increase nutrition and reduce the stigma and indignity associated with food banks.
What we didn’t expect to find was how much these projects could teach all sectors about engaging people in services and support. The firm community development underpinning to these organisations created a wave of engagement and interest that projects were often struggling to keep up with. Many had even taken the next step and turned this engagement into extra capacity through volunteering and in-kind support, further building their services.
So, what were these projects doing so well? Based on this research and other projects we have worked on recently, we boiled it down to the following.
Their approach to targeting was not to target
Seems counterintuitive right? But projects that didn’t explicitly target the group they were seeking to reach often ended up doing a better job at reaching exactly that group.
Explicit targeting tends to single out and label individuals, usually negatively. Such labels are understandably unappealing and off-putting; driving away a lot of people in most need of support.
I can already hear commissioners and funders screaming – but what about additionally – won’t we end up helping those who didn’t really need it in the first place as well? Broadly, yes. Careful planning for how to do this is important here for this to be remotely sustainable. We suggest considering the following:
- Will diversity help achieve better outcomes? Providing a space where people meet, who would otherwise not, can have positive repercussions on local community cohesion, and can create mutually beneficial relationships between people from different walks of life.
- Can a non-targeted service or support act as a gateway into other more targeted support by building trusted relationships increasing the likelihood that those who need it go on to access other services?
Blur the line between the helping and the helped
This is based on the assets-based approach where everyone has something to offer. In addition, individuals usually want to offer something. No one wants to feel like a ‘charity case’. Too often well-intentioned programmes can alienate those they are trying to help, making them feel indebted to the service, and stripping away any dignity in being given support.
It is easy for people to feel that there is a clear hierarchy of power within a project, where their role is firmly cemented as the ‘helped’, creating a feeling that they are different than the ‘helpers’. This tends to prevent people from feeling empowered and can entrench issues of negative self-image. Ultimately this makes the likelihood of sustained, long-term change slim.
Creating more equitable power dynamics and opportunities for participants to help one another, particularly through informal volunteering opportunities, can reduce this feeling, and can even free up the capacity of busy staff. It can also combat mistrust issues that participants may have had previously with figures of authority.
Enable disengagement and reengagement without fear of consequences
Life can be unpredictable and chaotic, particularly for people dealing with complex, interconnected issues, such as mental ill-health, homelessness, unemployment and alcohol and drug use. This means that participants may fluctuate in their ability to engage with a service, or how useful that service can be to them. However, disengagement with a service does not mean that engagement up until that point has not been useful, or that they won’t be ready to benefit from it again in the future. The option of reengaging can give people a safety net, and help them to feel that, following a setback, all is not lost. It also enables participants to only be part of a project when they are able to really get something out of it, which may actually produce savings to a project in the long run.
Provide meaningful activities with skills learning
A key to effective community engagement is for people to see the value in it. No one wants to be a part of something that they feel is a waste of their time. Any community project needs to think very carefully about the activities and approaches used, and how to label them in a way that makes them appealing to be a part of. Understanding the local context, including the local service landscape and where there are gaps, as well as specific local issues, is an essential part of this. It is important not to make assumptions about what it is people want or need, but to instead ask them what they would like.
Understand that establishing reputation takes time and investment
Community engagement does not happen overnight. It is likely to take time and sustained effort to establish trust within a community and is an ongoing process. Even well-established projects are at constant risk of becoming out of touch with communities or suffering from a lack of promotion.