community engagement

Facilitating Community Engagement:  Skills and Competencies

I have been fortunate enough through my career to have sat as a member of community coalitions and advisory groups that were highly effective.  In my Master’s degree program I studied community engagement processes and was mentored by some very skilled community leaders.  I have also had the fortune of managing successful coalitions and advisory committees.  Through these experiences, I have come to understand that the skills required to facilitate a community-based group process are different than simply facilitating a group.

There is a large body of literature supporting the “how and why” of the coalition development process, community engagement and community organizing (a few of which are listed below) so providing “coalition development 101” is not my intent. Instead, the focus in this post I want to focus on the unique skills required to facilitate a community engagement process like a coalition or community advisory group.

I once had a conversation with a distant colleague and we were reminiscing about a mediocre community engagement processes that we both served on.  We were discussing the quality of the facilitators who led the process and we agreed that, while the facilitators ran productive meetings, that meeting facilitation skills were not enough to sustain what was a complex community collaboration process.  As we brainstormed together, we created a list of competencies that the paid facilitators lacked in managing the process.  Taken together the list suggests the requisite skills needed to meaningfully facilitate community engagement processes.

1.  Meeting Facilitation:  Not wanting to throw the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater,” the obvious fact needs to be stated. Having strong meeting process skills comprises the first competency of managing community engagement.  Being able to develop a meaningful vision, mission, goals, objectives, group process, documentation and communication cycle are the foundational skills of any facilitated process.

2.  Consensus Building and Dispute Resolution:  A second skill area required for community engagement involves understanding mediation and interest-based problem-solving.  Facilitation is not the same as mediation, despite the fact that many conflate the two skills. The ability to separate interests, needs and impartially structure a process that mediates differences is very different than a facilitation skill of ensuring equal voice and participation. Consensus building and dispute resolution lay the foundation for building structures of trust.

3.  Systems-thinking:  I consider systems thinking to be a core facilitation competency in general.  However, in the context of a community engagement processes, systems-thinking takes on critical importance.  Specifically, when one is facilitating a community engagement process, it is imperative that the facilitator understands both the “bricks and mortar” infrastructure of the community (i.e., organizations, policy, and governance) but also understands the social infrastructure of the community.  Without an understanding of how systems work, a facilitator engages the community with a truncated depth perception especially when it comes to the critical processes of stakeholder analysis and power analysis.

4.  Empowerment Theory: Community engagement also requires more than a cursory understanding of empowerment educational theories.  Based on the application of the theories of empowerment educators like Paulo Freire, facilitation becomes the act of self-determination and equity for the community. True facilitation designs a respectful process that allows individuals to co-create solutions and in the process develop mutual trust, respect and a sense of community.

5.  Participatory Evaluation and Outcome Mapping:  Finally community engagement requires an innate understanding of participatory evaluation theories.  The process of facilitating community engagement is just that — Engagement.  When community engagement is not going well, the root cause is often traced back to a reliance on meeting facilitation skills and focusing on the means and not the end. Understanding participatory evaluation theories give a facilitator a deep appreciation and understanding of the ends-planning rather than means-planning.  Ends-planning influences the process design and often necessitates a re-thinking of traditional facilitation tools.

As I reflect on the list of skills and competencies required to effectively facilitate a community engagement process, I realize that the goals of this list are high and it is a rare moment when the task, resources and group allow all of these skills converge.  However, what it is clear that the overriding theme of facilitating community engagement is the paradoxical challenge of giving away control and power in order to accrue back trust, collaboration and process ownership.  Facilitating community empowerment requires not only an understanding of group process but, in the words of a mentor of mine, “group process squared.”  Community engagement takes basic facilitation skills and requires them to be lengthened, deepened and expanded by a social theory multiplier.


Coalition Development Resources

Web Resource (PDF):  Developing Effective Coalitions
Web Resource (PDF): EPA’s Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Model
Book: The Spirit of the Coalition
Book: Coalitions and Partnerships in Community Health

Photo Credit: Chelsea Creekmore



Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.