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Systematic Review: Engaging the Community

Community engagement can offer firms and communities vital benefits. This research identifies what we know about how to achieve them.

Companies are increasingly expected to reach out beyond their traditional constituencies of shareholders, employees, and regulators to make a positive social and environmental impact.

In community engagement, firms work collaboratively with people to address issues affecting their well-being. Company benefits of community engagement can include:

  • improved reputation – even beyond the community – leading to competitive advantage;

  • enhanced credibility, legitimacy, and trust among stakeholders

  • better decision making and risk management with fewer negative repercussion

  • increased culture of innovation

  • greater attractiveness as a potential employer.

Truly effective community engagement involves complex decisions about who to work with (or through), how to engage, and what likely result to achieve. To identify insights and recommendations, NBS commissioned a systematic review from Dr. Frances Bowen, Dr. Aloysius Newenham-Kahindi, and Dr. Irene Herremans. They reviewed more than 200 academic and practitioner sources, focusing on three questions:

  • What are best practices in community engagement?

  • What processes lead to successful community engagement?

  • How can success be measured?

Download the full 35-page Systematic Review for an in-depth look at the research project. The Executive Briefing is a condensed version of the Systematic Review, while the Introductory Guide provides step-by-step advice.

Give Back, Build Bridges, and/or Change Society

The research revealed three main strategies for community engagement.

  • Transactional– or “giving back” by making donations or investing in the community (e.g. working with schools, providing information about local impact of new developments, fundraising activities with employees, or corporate-level gifts); will will

  • Transitional– or “building bridges” by involving the community in decision making (e.g. community surveys or public consultation for construction projects);

  • Transformational – or “changing society” through deep interactions and integration with strategic community partners and joint projects (e.g. joint project management, conflict resolution and strategic partnerships).Figure 1 describes different dimensions of these strategies, from typical activities to type of learning.


Figure 1: Continuum of Community Engagement


Recommendations from Research

Research provides four core insights into best practice.

First, best practice in community engagement involves fit between the engagement context and process in order to achieve the best outcomes for both the firm and the community.

Second, the payoffs from engagement are largely longer-term enhanced firm legitimacy, rather than immediate cost-benefit improvements.

Third, more value is likely to be created through engagement which is relational rather than transactional, since purely transactional interactions can be duplicated by other firms and thus offer little potential of gaining unique competitive advantage.

Finally, firms which desire a genuine shared ownership of problems and solutions, shared accountability, and richer relationships must follow a transformational approach.

The researchers looked to the cutting edge of practice to identify best practices at each stage of the engagement process (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: Best Practices Principles for Community Engagement


Note: Numbers in parentheses refer to the sources as listed in the PDF.

Many Factors Influencing Success

While research can recommend general principles for engagement, possible and appropriate strategies vary by situation. Figure 3 captures this complexity. For example, governmental policies (institutional context) might influence priority areas for engagement. Attitudes toward the company (community context) might make outreach more or less difficult. The organizational context is the firm’s own position; firms may be constrained by resources or strategic considerations.


Figure 3: Antecedents, Behaviours, and Consequences of Community Engagement


Who Should Read the Briefing

Community engagement can offer firms and communities vital benefits; this research identifies what we know about how to achieve them.

This systematic review and related resources can help executives, directors, and leaders in community relations, public relations, and strategic partnerships. The systematic review also provides recommendations for researchers on how to extend academic knowledge of this area.


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    The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) is a non-profit advancing sustainable development to build a fairer and more environmentally sound future. We aim to improve business practice by facilitating knowledge sharing across an international community of business leaders, scholars, students and policy makers. With these stakeholders, we co-create high-quality content that enables practical action. Our content focuses on 6 critical sustainability themes, from climate change to social justice.

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