How to Organize a Citizen Engagement Initiative

The strategies and actionable steps that will guide you in fostering meaningful connections and participation within your community. It's time to initiate positive change through your very own citizen engagement initiative!

Eimear O'Neill
5 minutes
How to Organize a Citizen Engagement Initiative

As the author Margaret Wheatley once astutely expressed, “there is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” Citizen engagement is one of the most powerful means of tackling local issues and achieving robust solutions - especially from an NGO’s perspective. Empowering community members to be the driving force behind local change is also an excellent way to demonstrate the importance of grassroots activism. This will hopefully encourage more people to get involved in localized movements and initiatives in the long term. 

Organizing a citizen engagement initiative? Let’s act!

STEP 1: Identify a problem and how your community can help to solve it

Before engaging with your community, identify a singular community-based issue which your NGO wants to tackle. 

  • Pinpoint the specifics of this problem and how community involvement will help to correct it. 
  • Invite someone in your community who is directly affected to help you understand the magnitude of the issue. From this, you can more accurately map out the solution and a role for your community to play. 
  • Determine if there is a sector of the community you want to target. Is it more beneficial to engage a neighborhood who will have a particular interest in the matter, or to engage the community at large?  
  • Establish what resources you have. How many volunteers, how much time, and how much of your budget can you allocate to a community engagement project? This will shape your approach to tackling the issue and the type of solution you can achieve. 
  • Form partnerships with interested stakeholders who can support your initiative. Examples of this include collaborations with other NGOs, movements or local interest groups.

STEP 2: Choose what type of initiative you want to implement 

The next step is to decide how you want to engage your community. There are four main ways of doing this: 

  • Provide your community with outlets to share their opinions and views, and in doing so, amplify their voices. This can be done by organizing a petition which your fellow community members can sign to signal their support for a cause. Local town hall meetings also allow your community to voice their concerns about issues of interest to them as they arise. Organize them on a regular basis and ensure that each meeting has clear objectives. 
  • Organize local actions and projects which your community can actively participate in. This will ensure better visibility and understanding for the value of the work your NGO or movement is doing. Organize collection drives, clean-up events and volunteering days with local shelters and resource centers. Organizing actions of any kind is best done with the help of digital tools or software, such as a Citizen and Activists Relationship Manager, which can make some of the more tedious administrative tasks involved in organizing volunteering activities run far smoother! 
  • Educational initiatives can enlighten your community on the scale of the issue and the ways in which they can actively get involved. Host information evenings to bring your community together to learn more about the issues facing your locality at large. Listen to them, they might have potential solutions! Distributing informative leaflets within your area will allow you to rapidly share all the necessary information with local households. For this, you need to organize a volunteering team, map out an area for leaflet distribution and design an effective flier. Consider investing in a canvassing app for this! 
  • Enrich your community’s skillset so they can organize actions of their own to better support your team’s efforts. Not only will this allow for your cause or movement’s work to spread much further than what your individual team is capable of achieving, but it will also provide your community with a sense of empowerment. They’ll begin acting for themselves to create the change they wish to see in their area! Organize workshops in which you can educate your community on how to create an action of their own, and the types of resources, skills and planning required to successfully orchestrate this. 

Hosting information evenings will enlighten your community on the scale of the issue you're tackling.

STEP 3: Consider inclusivity and accessibility

Accessibility and inclusivity must be considered to ensure quality of participation in citizen engagement processes. According to the OECD, citizen engagement actions should reflect the diversity of the community and should allow any interested person to take part. 

  • After any citizen engagement initiative, assess which sectors of your community were underrepresented. Consider whether everyone has an equal opportunity to access and participate in your actions. Think about personas such as parents, people with disabilities and sexual minorities. 
  • Host events and actions that are cognisant of the other time commitments people may have. For example, hosting an event in the evening ensures that those who work 9-5 schedules can attend. This will allow for the maximum number of people to partake. 
  • Provide your community with a mix of opportunities to share opinions both in person and online. For example, organize a town hall meeting, and also provide an online forum for citizens to share their opinions and ideas. This will allow more people to participate. 
  • Young people account for a significant portion of any community’s population. Yet despite this, they are continually excluded from civic participation. Combat this by accessing young people where they are- organize actions in schools and colleges to ensure young people are included. After all, they represent your community’s future! 

STEP 4: Evaluate your efforts

At the end of any citizen engagement project, take the time to assess the overall success of your initiative. 

  • Data analysis software is useful for evaluating the profiles of those who took part and were interested in your projects. This will help you to assess what age demographic participated the most, which issues most concern your community, and who was underrepresented. 
  • Consider whether the project yielded your desired outcome, and whether it was workable within your timeframe. This information should inform your future efforts.
  • Find a way to communicate your efforts to the wider community, not just to those who actively participated. Start a website or social media account which documents your initiative, or reach out to traditional media outlets to cover your story. 
  • Determine how many of those who partook in your actions or received information from you are interested in getting involved again. If large numbers are interested, create a system for communicating with these contacts in future. If not, devise a stronger plan for sustaining interest for future actions. 
  • Design a plan for implementing the recommendations, ideas and concerns which your community members have shared with you. Community members have an intimate knowledge of their local area, as well as historical, technical, and cultural insights. Their opinions matter, so make the most of them! 
  • Institutionalize the practice of promoting citizen engagement within your organization. Incorporate it into all aspects of your work- it’s an important way to both promote your NGO’s efforts, and also to empower your community to take action! 

Citizen engagement has long operated as a launchpad for meaningful change at the local level. It’s one of the most important ways to empower ordinary citizens to be the vehicles for improving the quality of their own lives, and the lives of their fellow community members. As an NGO or movement, encouraging activism is essential for the important role it plays in a functioning democracy. 


8 Tips on How to Encourage Citizen Participation- Commonplace

5 Ways to Improve Citizen Engagement Initiatives- GovTech    

Executive Summary | OECD Guidelines for Citizen Participation Processes- OECD 

6 Reasons Why Public Participation and Community Engagement are Important - Social Pinpoint - Social PinPoint 

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