Monday, January 18, 2010

Extending Genuine Invitations

Community Engagement is on the minds of many school board leaders today.  They struggle trying to understand how community engagement differs from traditional public hearings. And they struggle trying to get other than the usual suspects to attend.

Community Engagement is more deliberate and provides for two-way dialogue with school district stakeholders--including parents, students, teachers and other staff, community leaders--basically anyone with an interest in the district.  Ensuring that you get more than the usual suspects requires a little bit of effort.

After identifying the purpose of your community engagement work, it is important to give consideration to the "guest list" and the way you go about inviting people to participate.  If your stakeholders do not perceive your invitation as genuine, your agenda could be derailed before the process even begins.

Developing multiple modes for delivering your invitation is important.  Because you have different groups with various connections to your district, you need to send invitations specifically directed to each group.  Simply sending a notice home in student backpack mail is not sufficient--even for parents.  Not all students are responsible and timely mail carriers! 

Other ways to reach your stakeholders--announcement on your website, press release to local papers, special notice to key communicators asking them to invite five people to the meeting; notices in staff newsletters.

Of particular note:  how to reach those groups who traditionally fail to attend our events.  Ask people from those groups to invite people on your behalf.  America Speaks designs large scale town meetings on public policy issues and works to achieve a representative sample from the community.  They accomplish this by asking leaders in under-represented groups to extend invitations on behalf of the America Speaks organizers. Then they ensure that these groups have a genuine opportunity to attend by scheduling meetings at times and in places that are easily accessible.  They also provide transportation and child care.

Also keep in mind that when you decide to move from the traditional public hearing format to formats that allow for dialogue, you may be working to overcome community skepticism that may go back a long way. Be patient.  Once you begin to engage with your community in two-way dialogue, people will come to understand that you are genuine in your invitation.  Word will get around and more people will be interested in participating the next time.

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