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Working with Communities

Engaging community groups with research can be challenging and rewarding. Here are some of the most important points to consider.

A dinner table with napkins and glasses

Imagine you are on a blind date. You meet near work for a few drinks and it seems to be going well, lots of laughs and you discover a surprising amount in common. You head to dinner, somewhere your date booked, but they tell you it’s great and the menu does look fantastic. What are you going to have? A burger? Too messy. A salad maybe? Pretend to be healthy at least for one night. The waiter comes over and your date orders some wine for the table and then says “I’ll have the mushroom risotto with a small salad and my date will have the same” before closing the menu and handing it back. How would you feel?

This is the situation that is played out all too often in public engagement. It happens when we decide what a community want or need without asking. It is very easy to fall into the trap of speaking for communities, deciding every detail before providing them a finished product for them to enjoy (or reject).

When targeting a community, especially those not typically engaged with research, it is important to ensure that the target audience have a strong voice throughout the creative process. To borrow the rallying cry of disability rights activities in the 90s: “Nothing about us without us is for us”.

Start your conversations early As your ideas start to form find a spokespeople or representatives from the community you wish to work with. Be clear and open about what you want to achieve and what resources you have available. Always remember you are coming from an organisation with thousands of staff and a budget measured in hundreds of millions, this comes with some baggage and expectations. Even if you don’t have access to resources you may have greater flexibility in terms of time and money than many community groups.

Plan together

When you have some community voices listen to what they would envisage from the project, not just in terms of enjoyment or interest but if they would like to achieve anything through partnership. Have your own goals in mind but try and integrate these with the goals and interests of the community you are working with. It can be helpful to write a list of “what I want to get from this experience” and a corresponding list of “what do the community want from this experience”. Work to meet the expectations of both lists to come up with the most effective engagement.

Reward your partners

It is notoriously difficult to pay partners for their time, but there may be other ways to thank your partners for the work they have put in. Simple things like covering the cost of venue hire, artists fees or consumables can take the pressure off small community groups. Ensure your partners aren’t left out of pocket or over worked to deliver your goals.

Plan for tomorrow

It is harder to make than it is to maintain connections and partnerships. Concentrate on the delivery of the festival event but spare a thought for where things might lead in the future. Before you deliver the event discuss or plan for how you will stay in touch with partners or how audiences can learn or experience more. Don’t make audiences wait until next year’s festival, signpost them to something interesting in the meantime.


Imagine that first date again only this time listening to each other, finding out what each of you want and like. Make sure to split the bill and to let them know how much you’d like to see them again. Who knows where it might lead.


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