Conceptualizing community engagement by Carolyn Fisher

Hi everyone! I’m Carolyn Fisher of the Institute for Community Health, and I’m here to share with you a few thoughts I recently put together for a client about measuring community engagement. This client (nameless because I don’t have their permission to share) has a project for which “community engagement” is an important component. They knew it was important, they understood that their project wouldn’t work well without it, but they didn’t have clarity on how to quantify the work they were investing on doing this work. They also didn’t know how to measure whether they were doing a good job.

Hot Tip:  Start by thinking hard about the words being used. “Community engagement” doesn’t sound too abstract, but when I started asking questions, it turned out that different people working on the project did not mean the same things by “community”. Is “the community” defined by all the people who live in a certain area? Or just people who work in the municipal governments, with power to shape policy? Does it include people who work but don’t live in the area? All ages, including children? Can service providers represent the people they serve?

Cool Trick:  Oversample hard-to-reach community members!  Once you have everyone on the same page, ask: which community members will be the hardest to contact? Which community members will be the most challenging to engage once contacted? Then, design the outreach and other activities with these harder-to-reach folks in mind. 

Hot Tip:  Make a logic model. My clients already had a project logic model. However, “community engagement” was just one box on it, and the connection between this box and their other project goals was not very clear. So as part of our conversation about WHY did they need to do community engagement, and what, exactly, they needed to accomplish with community engagement, we co-created a new zoomed-in logic model to focus on the things that would happen within and come out of their existing box.

Finally, it was important for my clients to think about community engagement as not just being a yes or no question — people can be slightly engaged, or deeply engaged, and my clients wanted to measure degrees of engagement to be able to show increases due to their work.

Cool Trick:  There are a few conceptual models out there for understanding community engagement, and most of them have some sort of hierarchy, like this Pyramid of Engagement from Community Catalyst, or the IAP2 spectrum of public participation. As I worked with my recent client, we frequently referred to the pyramid to discuss what deepening engagement would look like and, of course, how to measure it.

I’d love to hear how any of you evaluators out there have measured degrees of community engagement!

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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