Pitching for Community Engagement

There is a lot that competes for our attention in life and work. In seems to becoming increasingly difficult to commit to those things we most want to be a part of. In fact, I would go one step further and suggest that it is increasingly difficult to even notice those things that we would like to become a part of because those things we are currently engaged in keep us distracted most of the time.

Recently I was with my dear friend Peter McDonald from Uniting Communities in Adelaide. Peter asked me to spend some time at his recent Faith In Action Conference working with community builders wanting to engage more of the community in doing the work of the community.  The key outcomes from my session at the conference will be a focus for another post. The focus of this post is what was most striking insight for me through the conversations I was having with the other attendees at the conference. The most frequent question asked of me was: How do I encourage other members of my community to start initiatives they believe will help the community thrive?

Put another way, people where asking:

  1. How do I get my community’s attention; and
  2. How do I engage my community in supporting itself to thrive?

I am asked these two questions often and I feel I have a perspective to contribute to how they might be considered.

My Art of Hosting background has introduced be to many of the principles that underpin how living systems operate, which shed some light into why it is often difficult to encourage communities to shift attention from what is to what could be. For example:

  • a living system pays attention to what is meaningful to it in the here-and-now
  • a living system seeks novelty as a way of cultivating its diversity and enhancing its resilience
  • a living system only accepts those solutions it co-creates
  • a living system can not be controlled, it can only be teased, titillated and inspired to consider different possibilities and undertake different action

In working with the group during Peter’s the Faith In Action Conference, I was reminded of another project I was recently involved in focused on sparking, shaping shipping awesome ideas for the future of health provision in Victoria. A key discovery from that project was the Architecture of an Awesome Idea (a topic for another post). In sharing this previous discover with the community building group I was working with, they crafted a six step Pitch For Community Engagement process.

Pitching for community engagement.jpg

The process commences with Step 1: Surprise.

A living system seeks novelty and pays attention to that which is truly different that what it already knows or has. Take a moment to consider those things that catch your attention – most likely they are the things that truly stand out from the norm. An invitation to the community to become involved in something different to what it is already doing needs to be surprising. It needs to be surprising enough for that community to shift its attention from its current focus onto something else (i.e., your invitation!).

Step 2: Simplicity.

Now that we have the community’s attention (however fleeting) we need to make sure that what we are inviting the community to become involved in is readily understood with a strong connection between the offer and how being involved helps build the strength and future viability of the community. Put another way, the invitation needs to be Simple and easily read and understood in an instance.

If a community member does not understand what they are being invited to become involved in then they are not likely to say ‘Yes’ instantly. Any invitation that goes into the ‘I will think about it later’ pile is likely to find itself lost in the clutter of life’s other commitments.

Step 3: Suspense.

But, although the invitation needs to be simple to understand and engage with, it can’t be simplistic. As a good friend, Neil Houghton, once shared with me, a good invitation carries with it a degree of Suspense. The invitation needs to spark suspense for people to start to wonder  ’what might be’ in getting involved. Without a degree of suspense the community will not shift its focus from what to what could be – suspense encourages what could be thinking.

As community builders, we can only excite and titillate the communities we are a part of to move in a direction that cultivates its future ‘thrivability‘, we can’t tell a community to change. More often than not, if we invite a community to engage in the creation of a more hopeful future it will engage in the journey; after all, we all have a self-preservation instinct. But, it will only do so if it decided to do so itself.

Step 4: Safety.

In pitching for community engagement for an alternative future, it is crucial that the invitation also resonates Safety. Certainly, living systems experiment – living systems constantly experiment with what could be – but unlike many other living systems human beings have an additional element to navigate: Consciousness, which can be translated into ‘risk aversion’!

Sometimes we can over-think something and, as a result, start to consider how doing something outside of the status-quo might lead us into dangerous territory. We all do it. When was the last time you did something different to your norm? How long did you ponder it before trying?

Now put that into a social context. Imagine going against the community (even if we do so with the best intentions of the community front of mind) and failing. Now, if the community is accepting a member not succeeding (and most communities are) all would be OK, but if not the possibility of being cast out of the community might arise. Put simply, if an invitation to explore ‘what else thinking’ is not safe we may not take up the invitation.

Step 5: Share-ability.

For me, this is the big test of the scalability of any invitation for a community to engage in different thinking towards alternative futures. If the people you invite are not willing to readily share your invitation with others in the community – to enlist fellow travellers – then the invitation will fail. Living systems only accept solutions that it co-creates, so the community needs to engage itself to find those solutions for its future that it most wants to be a part of making a reality. The more a community shares an invitation to engage in ’what could be’ thinking with other members of the same community the likely that the invitation will result engagement from the community.

Often times I find myself being invited into a community to support greater community engagement. It can be a tricky proposition for me because I become a member of that community, but I am not of that community. So I am always mindful of creating the conditions for a community to find its way, rather than giving it its ( read – my ) way. This is where the art of asking a powerful question comes to the fore.

Step 6: Spirit.

The most powerful invitations are those that connect both heart and mind within the community. Invitations that inspire a calling or the engagement with a cause are the most energising for a community as they offer a sense of collective purpose. And what greater cause to become involved in than the future of one’s own community? Invitations that release the spirit of the community to engage with the work of the community and the future can be incredibly mobilising – we can all think of an example when community mass mobilised to address an issue impacting the future viability of the community (e.g., serious bush-fires and floods, etc).

So what’s the ‘so what’?

In our increasingly busy lives, how do we get our own attention and engagement in supporting ourselves to thrive? How do we surprise ourselves enough to open up to what else could also be? What are the simplest new activities we could undertake to experience what else is also possible? What about our future holds us in suspense? Where do we feel most safe to try experiment with something new that might build our thrivability? Who can we connect with so share new experiences? What are we called to be a part of that engaged us intellectually, emotionally and spiritually?

I think these six steps of encouraging community engagement have relevance in a range of contexts. When was the last time you decided to engage yourself in ‘what could be’ thinking? When was the last time you invited your work team to do the same, or your organisation? Surprise sparks novelty and novelty releases the spirit of a community to become more resilient.