7 Ways of engaging the community
It is always best to identify relevant community groups or demographics early in the recovery planning process and approach key stakeholders from the outset to help develop recovery actions. However, if a recovery plan is already under development or being implemented, opportunities for approaching the community should still be taken.
Regardless of when the community is approached, to improve the effectiveness of project outcomes a complete stakeholder analysis should precede further community engagement. See 'Analysing your stakeholders' for more information.
A checklist of things to consider when approaching and working with the community is available in Appendix 10 (appendixten06348.pdf 20 kb).
7.1 Identifying and approaching existing groups
Key steps to identifying existing groups are:
- using existing networks or contacts to identify local groups or individuals and their interests - see Appendix 2 (appendix206348.pdf 147 kb) for further guidance
- using local environment groups and networks, educational institutions, environment centres, regional coordinators or government agency representatives as sources of information
- being sure to consider, either initially or during the course of the project, engagement with other stakeholders who are not yet engaged in the issue or not as strong and cohesive as others.
Once potential stakeholders have been identified:
- approach groups or individuals over the phone or face-to-face, and follow up with some form of written contact - it is sometimes useful to organise for an introduction by a contact already known and trusted by the group
- demonstrate your connections to existing networks of which they are a part, or connections to contacts that they know
- organise to meet with the group as a whole to present the issue and raise opportunities for cooperation.
- take the time to learn about the area where you are working and the people that you want to work with
- consider the outcomes of earlier stakeholder analysis and communication strategy work (see 'Setting out the actions for community engagement' for more information), and work with existing networks or contacts to refine these documents further
- good first impressions are vital
- be positive about the future and existing possibilities
- be clear about your work and interests, and reasons for contacting the group
- get to know the group and their interests and needs before asking them for support
- when discussing mutual interests and possible partnerships, avoid any ambiguity about where the group might be of use and what outcomes you hope to achieve, as well as what you can offer
- do not enter discussions with prescribed answers and outcomes, but be prepared to work with the community to adapt any existing project ideas or activities to suit both their and your needs
- avoid a heavy outcome-driven approach - allow time for stakeholders to explore the issues at hand
- consultation is not engagement - this must be more than just a one-way information sharing exercise.
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7.2 Developing a group or network from scratch
If an existing support group is lacking, you require a specific and targeted group, or you wish to access a loose community demographic (eg home owners), you may consider establishing a group or network for your needs. One advantage of this is that the resulting group is usually highly focused and effective recovery outcomes are more likely.
Note, if developing a network rather than a group, some of the steps below may not be appropriate. It is likely that community input to management will be less. As a result you may need funding for the first few years, partnership support or considerable input of your own time, and you should consider the long-term management of the network before its establishment.
In building a group or network:
- use the communications strategy - see Communicating for recovery - a guide to developing a recovery plan communications strategy to identify appropriate methods for approaching the community in question (publishing details are in Appendix 13 (appendixthirteen06348.pdf 171 kb))
- speak to local contacts and identify any known individuals or groups who might be keen to find out more about your interests
- if necessary and possible, use appropriate local media to alert the community to your interests
- develop and advertise a public information day to explain the situation and the need for local support - it may be appropriate to include an additional hook for local interest (ie, a closely related issue of concern); be sure, however, to satisfy the public interest in the latter topic during your information event and show how it is addressed through your proposal
- where possible, invite relevant local interest groups or individuals personally, and advertise the event in local papers, at stores and in community halls
- use the event to identify people interested in starting up a 'friends' or support group or joining a network - remember, however, that an effective group needs to largely form itself through community interest and drive, not be pushed
- hold a follow-up meeting of the potential friends group not too long after the first one - if a physical meeting is not possible, identify some other medium through which interested parties can provide their input and group consensus can be gained
- identify a number of activities that participants are interested in supporting
- ensure that the commitment requirements from the group are clear
- lend whatever support you can to help the new group to become established - however, be sure that it still has a strong driving force at the community level
- ensure that group administration and project activities are delegated to group members and not managed entirely by you - in the case of networks, it is likely that a central and funded coordinator will be needed and should probably be located, at least initially, in a well-resourced existing group or agency
- if there is enough support to form a group, identify a group leader (temporary or longer-term) and other support officers - it may take a number of meetings before this is possible
- accept that the above process will often take some time and encouragement, but equally keep up the pressure for development of the new group to prevent interest from waning
- over time, work to ensure that the group is able to be self-perpetuating and not reliant on you for its continued existence, or, if developing a network, that the network is well resourced and supported in the long term by yourself or partner groups
- provide ongoing support but be clear about your capacity to assist (obviously greater support is required early on)
- help the members develop a group workplan and strategic objectives, and help them to stick to that plan
- as planning continues, consider issues such as funding, budgets and accounting, leadership, possible incorporation, insurance, communication and recruitment.
See case study 11 for an example in action.
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7.3 Engaging individual landholders
Most threatened species are found on privately owned or managed land rather than in national parks and on other public lands. To this end, threatened species managers need to work with individual landholders to promote conservation. Often this can be achieved by working through established local groups or networks, but such groups do not always exist and not all landholders are affiliated in such a way. This is particularly true inland in areas where property sizes are greater and connections between regional landowners are fewer.
As with any engagement effort, the response and interest of landholders varies greatly depending on the nature of the individual and the industry in which they work. As a generalisation, for family-run or personally owned properties, landholders are often more open to discussing changes to sustainable farming and conservation activities. Larger company-run properties will have different triggers for engagement and action, particularly increased economic cost and benefit.
Following are notes on contacting individual landholders:
- avoid contacting cold turkey If directly approaching landholders, it is often best to involve a known and trusted contact. This involvement should preferably be through personal introduction, but can be through a verbal reference.
- understand the local social climate In certain areas, a deep-seated distrust may exist towards certain groups (eg particular government agencies or conservation groups). If this is the case, it is often best to develop partnerships with a range of stakeholders before approaching landholders, including groups that are held in high esteem in the region. It is also then worth considering who should make the initial contact.
- understand social motivators Discover the prevailing interests and attitudes of a region to help understand what will be effective motivators for change. If hoping to directly approach specific landholders, first learn what you can about them and their interests.
- understand economic and legislative motivators Listen to the landholder and learn about their interests and motivations before promoting your cause.
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7.4 Different community engagement methods
Sometimes a simple meeting and information session is enough to motivate a group into action, or a face-to-face visit is enough to begin developing a relationship with a landholder. However, in situations dealing with more complex social issues or interactions, or where commitment is not likely to be so forthcoming, it can be useful to use another community engagement method.
There are numerous toolkits or guides containing different community consultation and engagement techniques. These discuss the various strengths and weaknesses of each technique and can be useful in identifying which method of community engagement or consultation is most appropriate to satisfy the objectives of your project.
See Appendix 13 (appendixthirteen06348.pdf 171 kb)for more information.
See case study 6 for an example in action.
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7.5 Providing information
Before approaching an interest group to develop partnerships, consider the type of information the group will need from your organisation. This could be information on:
- the species or ecological community involved
- the threats facing the species or ecological community
- types of actions and activities the community could be involved in
- types of skills and knowledge that would be useful
- the number of people required to implement actions (eg fox baiting across a region versus surveys at a single site)
- funding requirements and potential sources
- support available from you or other potential partners
- the duration and degree of commitment required.
It may be useful to show the group maps of the area under discussion.
Remember, however, that this information should be treated as a guide, and should be flexible to fit into the group's own ideas, needs and interests.
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In developing partnerships or projects, it is vital to ensure that:
- expectations are clear, including project outcomes, contributions required from the group and available support from you or other partners
- the aim of a project is clear
- timelines and commitments are clear
- the needs or interests of the community groups are incorporated when developing the project
- the group understands legal requirements, the processes which you must follow and what your restraints may be
- all insurance and incorporation issues have been considered
- the project includes hands-on activities to maintain community interest
- you consider how the community group can expand its knowledge and skill base and how you can help it to do so wherever possible
- you are flexible in your expectations, timelines and proposals
- you consider the risk of failure and develop the project to minimise barriers to success and have strategies to deal with failures
- a chain of command is determined and adhered to regarding sign-off and responsibilities
- you make every effort to help the group spread the load amongst its members so a single person is not key to the success of a project
- strong management by an organising group or individual is available when multiple land tenures are involved in the project, to improve the communication between and engagement of all parties
- where fundamental changes are required which will affect community members, you avoid introducing them too rapidly or without appropriate consultation
- you build in an exit strategy for either partial or complete withdrawal of your involvement in the community program over time.
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Because your behaviour and rapport with the group can make or break any partnership, it is important to:
- be honest and transparent in your decisions
- be prepared to commit time and effort to support the community group, but be realistic from the outset about your capacity to do this
- ensure that all commitments are followed up - do not promise anything you cannot deliver
- respect the knowledge and experience within the community group, and have a method for managing the community's input (see 'Implementation and maintaining partnerships')
- recognise the group's relationship with and ownership of its region and its wildlife and be aware that you are an 'outsider'
- remember that actions take longer to achieve when working with community groups
- acknowledge the efforts of the community and individuals in all discussions, publicity and official reporting
- provide continuity of contact for the group, ensuring that they become familiar and comfortable with you, a project manager or recovery team member
- attempt to make expert advice available to the group wherever possible by developing ongoing relationships with appropriate individuals or organising focused meetings and field events
- if necessary, investigate appropriate methods for dealing with conflict within the group.
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Communication, like all other good interpersonal skills, is central to any successful community engagement project. Remember to:
- provide all information requested by the group in a timely fashion, and answer all the questions that you can
- maintain ongoing and open communication with the group through the project
- provide regular feedback on project activities
- take as many opportunities as possible to meet with the group face-to-face or talk to members
- listen to the group and its members and really hear what they have to say
- help the group to see connections between its objectives and interests and your own
- speak to the community in a language that they understand - do not dumb down messages but avoid jargon and acronyms and always explain first principles where necessary.
It can be useful to develop a communications strategy for a project (see 'Setting out the actions for community engagement'). This can guide both your communication with the group and the group's broader communication about the project.
For further detail, see Communicating for recovery - a guide to developing a recovery plan communications strategy (pdf file, requires Acrobat Reader - publishing details are in Appendix 13 (appendixthirteen06348.pdf 171 kb)).
For a list of possible communications media and their uses, see Appendix 11 (appendixeleven06348.pdf 31 kb).
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Page last updated: 29 May 2012