Connect: Focus on Community Engagement

The Spring 2018 Community Engagement Academy, which begins on April 12th, will visit three Seacoast communities where active and engaged citizens are making a difference. In each community, local speakers will discuss their community engagement efforts and academy participants will gain hands-on experience using practical engagement tools.

According to Molly Donovan, Cooperative Extension’s community and economic development state specialist and one of the people involved in developing the academy, there are many reasons that community engagement is a vital part of strong communities.

“Community members know a great deal about the problems, and often about the solutions, for a community issue and can be helpful in deciding on a course of action,” says Donovan. “Bringing in different perspectives can make the solution more representative of the ideas of the community and more effectively meet the community’s needs.”

But getting community residents engaged isn’t easy. The biggest challenge, Donovan notes, is the traditional public meeting structure, in which a presentation is made to a board and residents have only a few minutes to comment.

“The first thing we teach is to go to people in the community – use a survey, poster, focus group, interview, online forum,” she says. “Go directly to people to determine their community interests and priorities.”

Five tips for successful community engagement

  • Invite everyone into the community engagement process to share key points on the community topic and listen to participant’s thoughts and ideas.
  • Consider all of the different types of people to engage – youth, families, seniors, homeowners, renters, businesses, leaders, visitors and underrepresented groups such as minority populations, immigrants, the disabled etc.
  • Consider how to engage each group as it will be different. You might engage youth at school through an art project; interview seniors at the senior center; talk with homeowners at an association meeting and pose some key questions at the local business group gathering and gather input on posters located throughout town. Go directly to hard to-reach- groups. Do a survey at a food pantry, have a focus group with the disabled community and meet with veterans at the local VFW post.
  • Have a well-designed community meeting or forum which includes trained facilitators, a format for discussion and deliberation and thoughtful planning of the questions to be asked.
  • Record all information gathered – in a simple report – to share with participants and community leaders so priorities are known and action can be taken.

The Community Engagement Academy is an innovative learning academy taught by experts from University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine Sea Grant and the UNH Office of Engagement and Academic Outreach.

The goal of the academy is to share strategies that engage people, develop leadership and improve local communities. The academy works with practitioners, volunteers and local leaders to build their knowledge, skills and capacity for needs assessment, community engagement, decision-making and action in order to increase the vibrancy and health of New Hampshire and Maine communities.


Sarah Schaier
Former Extension Production Editor