Broad—and deep—engagement with community members is a fundamental building block of a successful Heart & Soul Community Planning project. We’ve worked hard to advance authentic engagement because it makes all the difference to building stronger communities; it is a means to an end in our work, and it is also an end in itself for the trust it builds, the ideas it sparks, and the new connections it creates.

Here’s why that’s important:

  • Local wisdom: Local people know their town best. When you get their insights it can transform a project. Local knowledge deepens and gives context to your quantitative data, from wildlife to walkability.
  • Community ownership: Residents need to own the final recommendations of a planning process so that they can be upheld. They need to share in the decisions leading up to the results.
  • Many minds, better results: Research shows that many minds working on a project lead to better results. The greater the diversity of people contributing to solving a problem, the more creative and effective the solutions.
  • New leadership: The next generation of community leaders are cultivated through civic processes. Involve the people who the decisions will effect, and look for leadership in new places. In long range planning, involve the young people who will inherit your decisions.
  • Change the conversation: We’re all tired of the conflicts at public meetings. Instead of looking for reactions to plans already formed, engage people early and allow them to express what matters most and find common ground before a specific development proposal is in front of the city council or selectboard.
  • Create more equitable community solutions: By leveling the playing field and inviting everyone to the table, you don’t leave people and their needs and desires behind.

Top 10 Tips to Heart & Soul Engagement

1. There’s no such thing as the “general public”

Learn who your community is (its demographics, stakeholders, and networks) and how residents get their information. This knowledge is vital to designing effective community engagement and communication activities about your effort. Identify the key connectors who can help you reach these groups. At the same time, remember that no one person speaks for an entire group. See the Orton Family Foundation’s Community Network Analysis Tool.

2. Keep your “promise” to community members

Be clear about how resident input will be used in your project (i.e., how much influence they will actually have). Be transparent about how residents’ input is used and what actions will result.

3. Go to the people

Change up how you gather community input. Go where people hang out, whether it’s physical gathering spaces like a coffee shop or a brew pub, the senior center, or a little league game—even online spaces.

Examples—In Damariscotta, Maine, local organizers went to the town’s hugely popular annual Pumpkin Fest & Regatta, set up a booth, and used candy corn voting in jars to help with early priority setting. In the North Fork Valley, Colorado, the Heart & Soul team held an event at the local brew pub and gathered people’s input on coasters—and from those coasters folks were lifting pints of Love It or Leave it Ale, brewed specially for the event!

4. Spread the word

Create a communications plan that includes project branding, messaging, and tactics for persuasively talking about your project. Use communication channels and messengers that have connections with who you are trying to reach.

Example—Victor, Idaho, had a communitywide Heart & Soul logo contest to help shape the brand and give it local flavor. The result: “Victor: What’s It to You?”

5. Ask for people’s personal stories

To draw in new voices, the Foundation begins Heart & Soul projects by gathering people’s stories about their town. Stories allow folks to express their experiences and opinions in their own words, without needing to understand planning or technical jargon. You’ll hear from people you wouldn’t have otherwise, and build new bridges and relationships through the process.

Example—In Biddeford, Maine, story gatherers went to the local boxing ring and cigar shop, fishing areas and local diners to collect people’s stories of Biddeford. And they shared them in a public event with hundreds of folks as part of rebuilding pride in their town.

6. Understand the power dynamics

Be sensitive to parts of your population who may be uncomfortable participating (e.g., newcomers who come from a culture where participation was unsafe, people whose views have been marginalized in past community efforts). Find a safe way to talk with those groups about their concerns regarding participation and let them tell you how best to engage them.

Example—In Cortez, Colorado, Heart & Soul project leaders communicated directly with the Ute Mountain Ute leadership to understand how to successfully bring information to the reservation and to listen to their concerns and advice. Through this listening and trust building, the tribe members became engaged in designing public art for the City’s southern gateway.

7. Engage in their interests For some groups you may have to participate in something that matters to them first to make a connection.

Example—In Starksboro, Vermont, our project began with cleanup activities because the first thing on peoples’ minds was cleaning up the neighborhood. They weren’t talking about the future. After working together—accomplishing something—we were ready to engage in a broader conversation.

8. Think about the details

When hosting a community event, think through how you can make it more inclusive. Carefully consider the most convenient timing and location depending on whom you’re looking to engage. Provide childcare so young families can attend. Make sure to offer food. And consider transportation needs and whether a translator or facilitator could make a difference.

9. Use technology…if it’s a fit

There are many great new ways to engage people, such as online forums, cell phone voting, and social media. These tools can help make your efforts more inclusive if they are a fit with the crowd you are trying to reach. While not everyone has computer access, many more people have smart phones. But remember, good, old word of mouth and personal connections are still the best ways to get people to participate.

10. Make it fun!

When bringing people together for any meaningful discussion you are also creating the potential for a community building moment. Include lots of activities that make yours a real community event (e.g., local music and food, potlucks, poetry slams, and art exhibits).

Example—Golden, Colorado held a series of neighborhood block parties where you could have your pet checked out by a vet; get a bike tune up and a BBQ lunch while also getting project information, sharing stories and participating in a visual preference survey.

And don’t forget to celebrate your achievements with the community! It’s invaluable to mark your progress and honor your volunteers publicly.