Tools and strategies for community engagement

students working at a whiteboard
Engagement creates a mutual and reciprocal exchange of knowledge, resources and sustainable transformative relationships

This part of our guide helps communicators understand best practices for community engagement. Quite often as communicators, you may seek input on topics, issues and themes you may not have experience with, or you may try to create an environment that is open to dialogue. It is important to listen without judgement and be open to learning from others. A lack of diversity among Canadian communicators and public relations teams is well documented and thus requires both acknowledgement and action to ensure that plans, language, visual elements, etc. are representative of the diverse range of individuals on and off our campus.

An important first and ongoing step for communicators in post-secondary institutions is self-reflection and practicing cultural humility, which means being open to learn from and about others. It requires understanding our own cultural histories and the ways these continue to inform biases in our own life and work. By considering the roles we play, being reflexive about our own biases and cultural histories and actively practicing cultural humility, we can begin to move toward communicating using a more anti-oppressive framework.

Listen without judgement and be open to learning from others


What is community engagement and why is it important for Waterloo communicators?

What and who is community?

In any discussion of inclusivity, it is essential to recognize the word community as both a verb and a noun. Community is something that is always in process, and so as a verb, community is an action or actions taken to be part of and contribute to a group that may share goals, experiences, similarities or attributes. As a noun, and thinking as communicators, we might consider community to be stakeholders or a stakeholder group; they are someone or a group who has a stake in the work we do.

In his early work on stakeholders, R.Edward Freeman (1984, p.46) defined a stakeholder as anyone who “affects or is affected by” the work of the organization.While the term stakeholder risks dehumanizing individuals and their unique experiences, the definition Freeman offers – anyone who affects or is affected by our work – is a good way to begin to think about who we mean when we say community.

Within the systems that exist, we cannot include everyone in all the work we do, but there are times, particularly when the work affects people in the community, that considering engagement might be the right thing to do.

Why is engagement important?

Engagement with the campus community can provide perspectives and experiences outside your own that can make your communications more inclusive, relevant, and valuable to your intended audience.  

Engagement creates a mutual and reciprocal exchange of knowledge, resources, and sustainable transformative relationships. It allows diverse communities to connect and learn from one another and enhances individual and collective experiences rooted in mutual support and collective care. In addition to the exchange of knowledge systems, engagement with the campus community is a protective factor against mental health concerns, stress, isolation, and feelings of not belonging. Engagement is important for Waterloo communicators as it moves us towards creating a further equitable, diverse, and genuinely inclusive environment.  

When should you consider community engagement and how?

It is important to reach out to your faculty equity officer with any questions or if you need help.What we mean by community engagement here, refers specifically to those individuals or groups you may be thinking of as sources or subjects for a story or project.It is important to recognize when we should think of engaging, and when it is not necessary.Often campus communicators engage out of fear of not engaging enough, which leads to the risk of over engaging and burdening community members, specifically those from equity-deserving groups.To distinguish when you should consider engaging, please consider the questions below:

  • Are you impacting multiple communities?  
  • Do you require engagement across campus, and input from multiple stakeholders?  
  • Are you engaging because you need content that you do not already have? 
  • Are you engaging because you want others to verify the truth? 
  • Are you engaging for other resources?  

It is important to ask yourself these questions prior to engaging to ensure that your intentions are clear and match the intended impact. Once you have gone through these questions, and have decided that community engagement is needed, it is recommended to decide where your project/activity would lie on the stakeholder engagement continuum.

Community engagement can look very different as there are various levels of engagement that range from informing people to active collaboration. The stakeholder engagement continuum is a resource that ranks what types of projects require the least to the most amount of engagement.It is recommended that prior to engaging you review the engagement continuum that follows and place yourself on the specific level of engagement (1-5) that matches your project/initiative.

  1. Inform: Provide stakeholders with balanced and objective information to help them understand the project, the problem, and the solution alternatives. (There is no opportunity for stakeholder input or decision-making.) 
  2. Consult: Gather feedback on the information given. Level of input can range from minimal interaction (online surveys, etc.) to extensive. Can be a one-time or ongoing/iterative opportunities to give feedback to be considered in the decision-making process) 
  3. Involve: Work directly with stakeholders during the process to ensure that their concerns and desired outcomes are fully understood and taken into account at each stage. Final decisions are still made by the consulting organization, but with well-considered input from stakeholders. 
  4. Collaborate: Partner with stakeholders at each stage of the decision-making, including developing alternative solution ideas and choosing the preferred solution together. Goal is to achieve consensus regarding decisions. 
  5. Empower: Place final decision-making power in the hands of stakeholders. Voting ballots and referenda are common examples. This level of stakeholder engagement is rare and usually includes a small number of people who represent important stakeholder groups.

Best practices for community engagement

Use what is already here and do some work yourself before asking others. Students and employees at Waterloo have strong and competing demands for their time, energy, and commitment.

Avoid overburdening campus community members

1. To avoid overburdening campus community members with requests for engagement, consider the following before embarking on a project or initiative: 

  • What are the objectives in engaging with the campus on this topic? 
  • Is engagement needed? And if so, where on the engagement continuum does this work fall (see When should you consider community engagement)? 
  • Do other people on campus have similar objectives in their communications work? 
  • If yes, connect with them to see if they already have answers, data, information, that can help you meet your objectives 
  • Are there information portals that already exist where you can find the information you need? And have you thought through how you can share the information you learn with colleagues? 
  • Unsure? Use existing internal communications channels to put out a call to colleagues to enquire if work has already been done in this area. 
  • Have you thought about the ways your ask can be mutually beneficial? 
  • Have you considered compensation and/or acknowledgement? 

Avoid transactional engagements

2. Avoid transactional engagements.

Develop ongoing relationship with groups to keep conversation purposeful and proactive. Stay connected with other communicators on campus so you can build on pre-existing/shared knowledge as you develop stories.

Create engagement plans

3.  Create engagement plans that focus on engaging with individuals with an openness and curiosity for understanding their perspectives. As standard, include space and opportunity for those you are engaging with to express their preferences and needs in a way that is safe and comfortable. 

  • Consider referring to the Inclusive Meeting Guide, developed by the Equity Office. 
  • Considering diverse gender identities and expressions of our campus community, how can you create a safe and welcoming virtual or physical space for your engagement?
  • Normalize the use of pronouns where people are comfortable to share them. 
  • Consider using profile names in virtual spaces as a way to share your pronoun, if you are comfortable doing.

Some social identities and experiences impact interest in and ability to engage

Identities and lived experiences

  • Racial, cultural and/or ethnic background
  • Religion or spiritual affiliation
  • Nationality, citizenship status, and immigrant/refugee experiences
  • Indigenous identity and expression
  • Gender identity and expression
  • Sexual orientation and expression
  • Socioeconomic background (including income and housing)
  • Education and vocational training
  • Age
  • Disability, physical abilities and health conditions, including physical and mental health
  • Neurodiversity
  • Historical or ongoing experiences of trauma, or systemic oppression and marginalization
  • Political beliefs, especially where these are in a minority
  • Geographic identity (e.g., urban, sub-urban, rural)
  • Caring relationships (e.g., caregiver)

Barriers to access

  • Physical accessibility that impacts arrival to and mobility within a space, as well as ability to participate in different engagement processes
  • Geographical access, including transportation needs or the need to decentralize engagement initiatives to provide opportunities in accessible locations
  • Financial access, for instance the need for financial compensation to take time off work
  • Linguistic differences
  • Accommodations for diverse visual, auditory, or speech abilities, such as the need of ASL translation and/or live captioning (CART services)
  • Time constraints based on work, family or other responsibilities, or health conditions
  • Caregiving needs
  • Dietary needs
  • Literacy, including digital literacy
  • Mental health or spiritual support needs, especially when broaching sensitive topics
  • Fear of harm from active institutional discrimination, harassment and exclusion
  • Concerns around data security, confidentiality, and anonymity that may affect participant’s free expression
  • Lack of trust in engagement processes and institutional agendas

Cultural considerations of time and place

When scheduling engagement initiatives, it is important to consider cultural barriers related to time and place that can impact accessibility and inclusion. For instance, historically or culturally significant dates may impact attendance, be perceived as culturally insensitive or cause tensions between communities, within a community, and even within families.

Some individuals, for example, observe periodic fasts, days of rest, community assemblies, gatherings, ceremony or other cultural or spiritual practices at prescribed times of the week or year.

Diverse cultures of communications and ways of knowing

When planning campus community engagement, consideration of differences in ways of knowing, meaning-making and communicating, as well as epistemological differences and neurodiversity are important. Navigating these cultural complexities requires deep and broad consultation with communities of interest.

It is important to consider the inherent power dynamics that exist within the campus community and consideration of these dynamics should include the roles people play on campus, along with many of the identities and experiences listed above.

Contact us

If you have any further questions about tools and strategies for community engagement, please contact University Communications by email at We’ll help connect you with teams in the right campus offices.


Take a look at our resources for community engagement.