What do soliciting budget input from local residents, putting on international-themed speaker and networking events, and hosting interfaith discussion groups have in common?
Trying to attract and engage people who wouldn’t normally attend is almost always the hardest part. Trust me.
As a former policy manager at a civic engagement firm, current board member of a World Affairs Council young professionals group, and on-and-off anti-Islamophobia Meetup organizer, all here in Denver, this has been much of my life for the past year and a half.
Here are four tips and tricks for you to move past “the usual suspects,” bring in demographically and experientially diverse locals, and boost non-traditional community engagement.
Social Media is not a Cure-All
Social media is amazing for a lot of reasons. It lets us keep in touch with people thousands of miles away, or, if you’re my sister, classmates literally three seats from you. It spreads information efficiently and, if done well, effectively. And, let’s face it – our ego always loves it when our pictures get liked and our 140-character pontifications are retweeted.
But when trying to reach the hard-to-reach, there is a tendency to over-rely on social media. It’s easier than traveling to marginalized communities or making those essential phone calls to key stakeholders. But by that same token, the reactions we get from “interested” or even “RSVP”-ed community members are ephemeral and can’t be counted on.
My colleagues and I have learned this the hard way. In addition, with ad buys being relatively affordable on many social media platforms and their analytics robust, there is more than a passing temptation for many organizers to try to boost attendance by simply throwing money at the problem.
Social media is an indispensable tool, but unless you have a proficiency for spitting out viral videos or Internet-breaking memes, it is nothing more than a complement to other organizational techniques, in spite of the Millennial and economic diversity of social media users. Don’t let social media take your mind off the basics – face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and partnering with like-minded organizations.
Even When You’re not Organizing, You’re Still an Organizer
If your goal is to genuinely engage diverse individuals and community groups, never take your organizer hat off. I can’t count how many useful connections I was able to make while in an Uber, at a bar, at another organization’s event, or even while playing kickball (true story – happened last week).
Now, nobody likes people who usurp conversations or who treat every interaction instrumentally. As I belatedly discovered from a previous sales gig, some of the most helpful contacts come from listening, not talking.
That is not to say sit in the corner like 18-year-old Kevin. I’m talking more like swallow your pride, view awkwardness as a positive (it makes you more memorable!), and learn from the work others are doing around you like 28-year-old Kevin. Business cards come in handy, but more important is a willingness to listen to the ideas and opinions of those around you, and be open to tweaking your own project as a result.
My colleague and I changed the emphasis of a couple of our interfaith Meetups more towards supporting local Muslim businesses after being challenged by a community member curious about why interested locals weren’t “walking the walk.” Needless to say, we gained more allies as a result.
Similarly, we at WorldDenver have learned that one of the best ways to compete with all the other activities that appeal to young professionals is to informally listen to the wants of young professionals (especially those who don’t normally engage with us) in our daily lives, and consequently craft events that mesh their interests and preferred event times with our international focus. It’s not rocket science. But it means you have to always be open to interacting with others about your project and a million other potential things, both on the clock and off.
Response is not the Same as Engagement
When you walk into a room you’ve never been in, full of faces you’ve never seen, and are asked questions you’ve rarely heard, what’s your response? If you’re like most of us, not a whole lot.
Humans are creatures of habit, and when we find ourselves out of our comfort zone we often lock up and have a hard time confidently and assertively expressing our opinion.
This is why engaging groups as diverse as Millennials, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities takes a whole lot of creativity and shouldn’t be approached solely as a numbers game. A “numbers game approach” would address community members’ discomfort with meeting tools that try to maximize data points in a given amount of time, since you might not see them again. Think loads of survey questions answered by hands or clickers, forms passed out at the beginning of the meeting then collected at the end, and structured tablet apps that measure participants’ progress.
Don’t get me wrong – these are all important techniques, especially for a data nerd like me. But I’d argue that for first-time participants from diverse backgrounds, they often lead to simple responses, and not wholesale engagement.
What are some alternatives?
- Try breaking up your attendees into small groups for an easier entryway into discussion while allowing those that came together to remain together.
- Short tea/coffee breaks have also worked for me in the past, but only if the organizers consciously seek out those who are new and/or haven’t spoken up much before to make them feel more at ease.
- Seek out community leaders from the groups you wish to engage beforehand, and invite them to your meeting to come and speak.
You would be surprised at how often people zone out at public events, even the best planned ones, until they see and hear from somebody of a similar age, background, or interest. And if this all this takes up crucial time which would otherwise be spent obtaining a large amount of data points, I say it’s well worth it if it helps to build bridges with a few new folks who will help spread the word and increase their own engagement next time.
Even Caviar Gets Old
Whoever coined the phrase “you can’t have too much of a good thing” lived in an era where good things were scarce and attention spans lengthy. That is not today, at least for a big chunk of Americans, many of whom are the ones we all have a hard time attracting and engaging.
What this means is that the pressure is always on organizers to come up with new ways to breathe life into often-static community engagement efforts. We’re not only up against city council meetings, nonprofit potlucks, and after-school leadership summits. We’re also facing off against Game of Thrones, the gym, date night, and the NBA Finals.
Is it a hopeless fight? Well, we’ll never be able to draw in some people. But the majority, I’ve found, can be convinced to at least show up with a little bit of creativity.
Why not mix up your activist art seminar with artsy foreign flicks every now and then? Events that incorporate wellness and the outdoors can both build community spirit and serve as vehicles for public feedback. Gearing certain programs towards couples (perhaps in conjunction with daycare) allow you to somewhat stealthily tailor your message towards education and quality of life issues. And while there is no way to match the excitement of watching Steph vs. LeBron, the civic engagement handbooks are rife with examples of young people brought into the fold through afternoon community sports leagues, whose timeouts and break periods are perfect opportunities for getting participants and their families better acquainted with your organization.
Moving past the usual suspects is a continual work in progress.
- So, am I overly simplifying things?
- Do you think you have the “secret sauce”?
- Are there successful (or not-so-successful) examples that you would like to point out?
Let me know!