The Right Style: Community Engagement

Engaging the people you serve is central to true success. From cities to foundations, from nonprofits to businesses, it’s always people served who make up the heart and soul of strong outcomes and strong communities. Yet too often, prioritizing engagement with people served is done without a coherent strategy. And for some entities, engagement isn’t done at all. 

Engagement with those you serve means establishing a clear line of communication, generating feedback, and understanding what is and isn’t working well in the eyes of people served by your organization or municipality. 

In philanthropic and government sectors, engagement with constituents means truly understanding what people want, what people are motivated by, and the ways in which programs and initiatives are or are not achieving their goals according to those most impacted. 

Polis Institute is a leading expert on community engagement. In this blog, we’ll share practical tools and tips to help you assess your current engagement level, identify paths to stronger engagement, and explain the powerful value of choosing the right engagement style for your organization or agency. 

Assessing Current Engagement

Several models exist to aid organizations in assessing and communicating their current level of engagement. Polis recommends selecting from the five engagement styles offered in the International Association for Public Participation’s (IAP2) Spectrum of Public Participation. The five styles are: 

  • Inform 
  • Consult
  • Involve
  • Collaborate
  • Empower 

With each style, the level of engagement with constituents increases. For example, letting people know about upcoming events, council meetings, advisory meetings, and the like is a way to go about “informing” based engagement. Information is provided, but recipients do not share feedback or input. A post-event survey that allows participants to provide feedback and suggestions would be a part of the “consulting” style of engagement. Typically, in this style, participants provide feedback in designated ways, and the organization determines if that feedback will be acted on. 

By contrast, an advisory committee is a great example of “collaborative” participation and engagement. While it is similar to the “consulting” style in that the organization retains decision-making authority, constituents provide feedback on an ongoing basis and have more open forms of communication. 

As shown, the level of engagement will change during a program life cycle. It is important to assess the style of engagement across program ideation, execution, and review. Below are questions to assess your current level of engagement. 

  1. Are the expectations or requirements to participate in a program clearly communicated in a timely manner?
  2. Do you review written/verbal feedback from constituents or people participating in programs you run or fund?
  3. When feedback is provided by participants, how is this data communicated, reviewed, and acted upon by staff?
  4. How often do you ask constituents or direct participants for perspectives or opinions on new programs or initiatives before they are finalized?
  5. Do you provide any opportunities for ongoing feedback for those directly impacted by programs or decisions made by the organization? 
  6. What mechanisms allow you to capture the indirect feedback (i.e., complaints, suggestions, or compliments) provided by individuals? 

Choosing the Right Engagement Style 

Choosing the right engagement style is a fundamental step to building trust and great outcomes. When we cannot articulate how we engage the community, use the wrong engagement style, or miscommunicate expectations it leads to a breakdown of trust and impacts organizational credibility. Oftentimes this happens because we lack the framework to clearly communicate our engagement style. 

To strengthen organizational engagement with constituents or residents, models such as the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation are helpful. This not only allows organizations to narrow down which activities are best for the level of engagement needed but also to communicate how they intend to engage with the community. Clear expectations are foundational to building trust

Identifying Paths to Stronger Engagement 

Once an assessment of the current engagement style is completed, it is important to outline the desired state for engagement. The desired engagement style may vary for different activities in a single program. However, it is important to choose the right style for each so expectations can be set and kept.  

By establishing goals, objectives, and a timeline for engagement, there will be internal clarity on how this uniquely benefits the organization. No matter the level of engagement chosen, proactively determining the frequency of engagement activities ensures feedback and input is an ongoing process. Once this is determined, reporting mechanisms should be implemented to create transparency through the process and make the information accessible to the decision-makers. 

Identifying and establishing a clear engagement strategy is not just the goal but also a part of the process. Ideally, organizations looking to strengthen their engagement should begin by engaging the participants in what an engagement strategy should include or by requesting their expectations of the organization engaging with them. 

To learn more about effective engagement strategies and hear examples from Polis Institute’s decade of experience, email Polis Institute at info @