Why Successful Community Engagement Paves a Two-way Street

When Anna, a program coordinator with Empower Me, answers her phone on the weekend to speak with a community member who is struggling with their energy bills, she isn’t just answering questions. Nor is she simply billing hours or sending off cookie cutter infographics. She’s asking questions and digging deeper. She’s actively seeking to understand this person’s unique needs and concerns, and in doing so, she’s building important relationships within the community. Herein lies the heart, and key, to strong community engagement: genuine and mutually beneficial relationships. In other words, a two-way street. While Anna gains important insights into the communities’ needs and barriers, the customer with whom she speaks receives tailored advice and education. Both receive something valuable to the benefit of the other.

Are Well-Intentioned Strategies Leading to Community Burnout?

Yet in many environments, community engagement is often associated with “community outreach,” a traditionally one-way approach to extracting knowledge and information from the public. Well-intentioned outreach strategies might include hosting focus groups and listening sessions or handing out surveys. But to communities that have filled out one survey after another, or regularly voiced their perspectives only to be met with silence and the absence of change, these strategies can begin to feel transactional and even extractive. Too often they pave one-way streets, allowing program designers to benefit at the expense of community. As a result, communities are often left feeling frustrated, burnt out, and in the dark.

Their response is warranted. It takes only a moment to envision a community that has cited high energy bills and a lack of understanding and education as a key challenge. That same community is now being asked to provide further insights and feedback into other utility programs that don’t address the needs they have already identified. How many times must we repeat ourselves? they might ask. Or, what’s the point in exploring more problems when nothing’s been done to help with the problems we already surfaced? Embedded in these questions is a sign of exhaustion and dispiritedness at the prospect of sharing more information without receiving additional benefits.

Assumptions Equal Risk

Furthermore, seeking feedback from communities often relies on a set of assumptions that risk eroding relationships even in the absence of burnout. The first and most common assumption is that communities have enough knowledge and understanding of a subject, be it electric vehicles or solar energy, to provide clear and constructive feedback. This is not always the case. While feedback may be offered, it doesn’t always reflect communities’ true vision and needs. Until communities receive additional education and are equipped with a better understanding of the topic at hand, new programs built on the assumption that communities hold the same level of understanding run the risk of disappointing community members who did not fully understand what was being asked. These same individuals may also have been unaware of the cascading implications embedded in their feedback.

Secondly, there is an assumption that priorities, needs, and visions are inherently aligned. This assumption dilutes the purpose of community engagement, as it leads with a statement (this is what we’re planning to do), as opposed to a question (what should we be focused on?). Just because a utility cares about something, it’s important to remember that the community may not feel the same way. To foster genuine relationships, communities must have an opportunity to say, this is not important to us.

Shifting to a Two-Way Engagement Model Surfaces Multi-Solving Benefits

Community burnout and frustration is more likely to occur when community engagement activities give into the temptation to silo engagement efforts between programs—treating each interaction with the community as an isolated event rather than part of a larger, interconnected dialogue. Addressing communities’ needs holistically not only builds trust and rapport, it allows organizations to transform the traditional “outreach” model into a two-way “engagement” model that has multi-solving benefits. Housing, affordability, climate change, transportation, and education become interconnected issues, with interconnected solutions that provide a greater chance of meeting both parties’ unique needs. Instead of hosting three separate listening sessions on the topics of transportation, efficiency, and demand response, utilities can engage in deeper, more meaningful conversations that build relationships and establish trust, explore communities’ needs, and find solutions that address both community and utility needs.

The program Anna works with, Kambo Energy Group‘s Empower Me Program, has brought this two-way engagement model to life. The program delivers multilingual education, support, and coaching services to ensure underrepresented communities have access to utility, energy, transportation, climate, and efficiency programs. Empower Me focuses on enabling reciprocity and mutual benefit by offering value to the community by meeting them where they’re at and addressing the needs they themselves identify. These needs often encompass education, support, capacity building, and awareness initiatives. By way of this approach, the organization (and by association, Empower Me’s utility partners) are investing time, money, and attention into building community relationships that lay the foundation for future engagement efforts.

What Does Two-Way Street Engagement Look Like in Action?

Imagine this: the ability to acquire critical “on-the-ground” insights while simultaneously supporting community members by delivering valuable education and training opportunities. An educational workshop, for example, naturally surfaces key insights into communities’ needs, concerns, hopes, and aspirations. In this kind of environment, conversations flow organically. Relationships are built and information is exchanged by both participants and presenters.

What’s been described is a realistic model, but it takes time and effort. Moreover, it requires significant investment in the community. Empower Me has tested and proven this approach time and time again. Through the Empower Me model, local community leaders are hired to act as advisors or liaisons. These individuals, known as “Mentors”, funnel helpful insights and knowledge into and out of their communities. The information funnelled helps underserved households identify opportunities to save energy and money, reduce their environmental footprint, and improve the comfort, safety, and affordability of their homes, while the information funnelled out supports future program design choices and delivery methods.

It’s a tried and tested approach that, if applied thoughtfully, can unlock an abundance of new opportunities.

Key Takeaway

Community engagement is more akin to a marathon than it is a sprint. Authentic relationships are not built overnight, nor can they be bought. They are slowly and intentionally grown, and they must be continually nurtured, but they ultimately lead to greater benefits for utilities and communities alike.

Authors

 

Yasmin Abraham

Yasmin Abraham

President and Co-founder, Kambo Energy Group

Yasmin is President and Co-founder of Kambo Energy Group, a social enterprise that reduces energy poverty and improves housing in communities that have been traditionally underprioritized across the Pacific Northwest. She is a leading expert in equity-based energy and climate programming, working with governments and utilities across North America to design and deliver inclusive solutions. Yasmin holds an MBA from the Sauder School of Business, a certificate of Diversity and Inclusion from Cornell University, is a member of the Efficiency Canada Governing Council, a founding member of the National Affordability Action Council, a member of the Faculty Advisory Board for the Sauder School of Business at UBC, and a member of the Zero Emissions Building Task Force at the City of Burnaby.

Emma Gammans

Emma Gammans

Director of Marketing and Communications, Kambo Energy Group

Emma is a strategic communications professional with expertise in corporate communications, business storytelling, community engagement, and creative writing. With a passion for energy and sustainability, she leverages the power of communication to constructively explore complex issues and uses storytelling as a tool to discuss divergent perspectives. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Creative Writing from the University of Calgary.

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