Community Engagement is More than a Trend. It is Key to a Social Enterprise’s Success

By Vicki Pozzebon, Founder & CEO of Prospera Partners

At Prospera Partners, we believe that community engagement is key to a social enterprise initiative’s success. But, what is community engagement and how does a small business or social entrepreneur do it well?

While there isn’t a singular definition for community engagement, in general it’s the concept that everyone who is affected by an issue that impacts their community should have a say in that issue – how it’s implemented, solved, or envisioned. It’s mutual decision making that involves the people/community  being targeted or talked about, rather than having a group that is removed from that community making decisions on their behalf.

Social enterprises and social entrepreneurs can create lasting impact by engaging with the communities they intend to work with and benefit in their social enterprise. For instance, I recently met with a nonprofit organization focused on breaking the cycle of re-incarceration by providing training and support to individuals for jobs, mental health resources, and other services. This peer-run and lead organization held a community conversation with the people they have helped and served to talk about what kind of business they would have an interest working for, and one that the organization would start as a way to train folks and bring revenue to the organization.

The result? A downtown coffee shop and screen printing business are now in the works. This will be a place to train their community, serve as a safe place to gather and socialize, and offer services to anyone else who wants a good cup of coffee or needs screen printing services. By going directly to their community to ask what they wanted and needed, this organization was able to find the best fit for job training and business services, while also increasing the organization's revenue and thereby their ability to continue to provide services in the community.

While most social enterprises don’t consider this an important part of their planning strategy, I see it as essential. Community-centered strategic planning can be a powerful way to find your organization’s new direction or program plans. Social enterprises often start like the example above, seeking ways to increase revenue while serving their communities, but using old models of strategic planning to make that happen just doesn’t work anymore. It’s critical to not make decisions for the community you serve behind closed doors around a boardroom table and instead support your community – the reason you exist – through thoughtful, provocative, fun, engaging facilitated planning sessions where all voices are heard and respected in the process. Invite your community into conversations and ask for input and suggestions. They just might surprise you!

Another way to engage with clients and/or constituents is through community-centered evaluations. Ask your community how programs have helped and supported them. Facilitate community conversations that provide opportunities for real input. Make sure the evaluation process is accessible, using well-designed short surveys, in-person conversations, and follow up sessions with key stakeholders. Ask hard questions of your organization and listen and learn from your community how to integrate their feedback into programs or future plans. Community-centered evaluations can provide valuable and useful feedback for grant reporting or to investors.

In short: participate in more community engagement for better results. It’s 100% possible to turn to your community for more than just strategic planning and evaluation. It’s not just about marketing and outreach. It’s about relationship building and trust. Community engagement can be thoughtful, well-planned, and actionable with the right plan, tools, and facilitators. 

Want to know more or need help developing an actionable community-centric plan for your business? Reach out! Email me at vicki@prosperapartners.org or check out Prospera Partners’ website: prosperapartners.org.