By: Jasmine Malone
As nonprofits, our work is focused on community engagement. Our initiatives directly impact the people we serve by addressing community-centered needs. Community engagement brings group members together to make decisions about their shared future. It entails building and maintaining our nonprofit's many ties with individuals, local governments, other nonprofits, foundations, donors, and local businesses.
This post highlights three areas to focus on for effective and responsible nonprofit community engagement and discusses TechSoup's approach.
Meet the Community Where They Are
How we respond to community needs affects our long-term impact. You should center the community in outreach initiatives and plan to accurately and accessibly respond in the event of a crisis.
This process includes determining our readiness to respond. Develop plans of engagement that assess and reframe current outreach methods. Have a clear understanding of what resources are required to engage and consult with community members while in the planning stage. When possible, compensate community members for their assistance and always relay engagement goals, results, and feedback to the community.
Before starting any engagement initiative, determine what the community engagement goals are. These are some questions to inform these efforts:
- What is our community participation goal?
- What are we promising the community?
- Is this a one-time effort, or are we building an ongoing relationship?
- How will we respond to community members and build trust?
- Who are the community leaders and how can we reach them?
- What feedback are we measuring and how?
- How does our engagement empower the community?
Engaging Accurately and Accessibly During a Crisis
It's important to combat disinformation (messaging that is intentionally misleading) and misinformation (nonfactual information) in order to engage accurately and accessibly during a crisis. How nonprofits intercept and address the information shared with the community will help build trust with its members.
The best first step is to actively respond to false information and rumors. As community leaders, we should address disinformation immediately and respond with corrected, accurate information. We can strengthen this message by including voices of community members, local organizations, and government officials.
Be a reliable source of information for your community. Learn more about identifying and responding to misinformation and disinformation by watching the recording of our September 2020 webinar on combating mis/disinformation. You can also enroll in the Countering Disinformation course from Hive Mind to better educate yourself and your team.
When planning engagement initiatives, consider how you will reach as many people as possible. Formerly incarcerated people, the elderly, immigrants, English language learners, low-income communities, or those working multiple jobs or atypical hours are often excluded from digital engagement. To be as inclusive as possible, focus on how you can reach folks both remotely and nondigitally.
When prioritizing remote engagement, consider the varying ways the community can inform initiatives through social media such as Twitter or Instagram, online brainstorming tools like Mural, and smaller advisory groups that meet virtually on Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams.
If engaging nondigitally is preferred, provide printed newsletters or mailers for the community, hold safe in-person gatherings to discuss community issues, and reach out with phone calls.
What we've learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and other transnational crises is that now more than ever, Internet access and digital resilience are key to sustaining mission-driven organizations. In response to this need, TechSoup has developed our Digital Resilience Program (DRP).
Launched in 2021, the program has 90 participating organizations and is planning to serve around 140 by the end of this year. The vision of the DRP is to progress nonprofit digital transformation by removing barriers such as lack of expertise and funding for civil society.
The program offers an in-depth digital assessment for each nonprofit participant to help them understand their work, their current use of technology, and which new or upgraded technology can help them do their work more effectively.
When asked what aspect of the program he is most proud of, TechSoup senior program manager Adam Eads replied: "One thing I think has been an unintended benefit of the DRP is removing or lessening the intimidation many people feel when it comes to newer technology. In helping people make incremental steps towards embracing new ways of doing things, we have found many people more willing to embrace the process of continual improvement than they were before, simply because they are working with people supportive of that growth, rather than experts speaking a language they may not completely understand."
Leading by Example: TechSoup's Racial Justice Allyship Affinity Group
TechSoup's Racial Justice Allyship affinity group, founded by senior program manager Karen Thomas, is an example of responding accurately and accessibly during a crisis. The group formed in the fall of 2020 in response to the racial justice movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Initially, members focused on educating themselves on matters of racial and social justice. Then they brought in TechSoup's director of equity, inclusion, diversity, and culture, LaCheka Phillips, to help guide their internal efforts. These efforts include major outreach initiatives that match racial justice–focused nonprofits with TechSoup programs and services, such as the DRP.
They are also engaging the TechSoup member community by hosting a virtual series that highlights nonprofits focused on antiracism, antidiscrimination, and human rights.
When engaging communities in our new world, we want to respond accurately and accessibly. You can foster relationships with community leaders by sourcing their opinions on community issues and participating in community activities. Provide accurate information by relaying and combatting disinformation publicly. Lastly, we must be a reliable source of information and resources for our communities.
Where to Learn More
- Eight Community Engagement Lessons from the Last European Refugee Crisis (and How We Can Do Better This Time) (CDAC Network)
- Community Engagement during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond (PDF — Urban Institute)
- Nonprofits Integrating Community Engagement Guide (PDF — Building Movement Impact)
- The Importance of Community Engagement During a Crisis (Video — United Nations Humanitarian)
- Guide to Accessible Public Engagement (PDF — OMSSA)