Where did all the people go? One reason you’re getting a low turnout at community engagement events and 10 things you can do about it

Rebecca Reyes
August 11, 2015

Use these tips to get a higher turnout at your next community engagement eventIf you’ve ever organized or attended a community event like a town hall meeting, a meet and greet with your lawmaker or a public forum and were surprised that not many people showed up, you’re not alone.

It sometimes seems like people are too busy or don’t care enough to take action. That’s probably true for some people. But for others, they’re tired of spending their time in programs or at events where people don’t value their opinion. They don’t want to participate in something that has a low chance of making any difference. No one does.

Unfortunately, traditional methods of engagement have gotten a bad reputation. Once people have participated in a poorly run event or community engagement program, they’re not likely to come back.

When you’re trying to mobilize people to become more engaged in their community, you have to overcome the negative connotation associated with public participation. It sounds like an impossible task to overcome this kind of barrier, but it can be done. 

The good news is, when people get a taste of another form of engagement, they’ll want more. That means more people will want to participate again, tell their friends about it, and even volunteer to help coordinate the next program or event. It means you’ll be able to host a program or event that engages the community and see the room filled with people wanting to take part in creating change.

Here 10 ideas for how you can get started:

1. Acknowledge that some people may not have had a positive experience with public participation. 

Whether your program or event builds on an existing form of engagement or you’re trying something new, preconceptions may affect your outcome. Now that you’ve recognized this reality, you’ll be able to take steps to build a good reputation for this kind of work.


2. Think like a skeptic when you are creating your messages and marketing materials.

What would you say to someone who has participated in the past and had a bad experience? How is your program or event different? People need to know that your way of engaging the community will be different, so let them know!


3. Invite people who haven’t been invited before or who don’t often attend community events.

The demographics of our communities are changing, and unfortunately the leadership doesn’t always reflect the diversity of our communities. Be intentional about reaching out to different groups in your community, especially ones who are underrepresented. Having those diverse voices, opinions, and ideas will make your event and your community stronger.


4. Start small.

Changing people’s perceptions won’t happen overnight.  Start with small events or activities and work up to a larger event if that’s your goal. Try things like incorporating engagement activities into your workplace or hosting sample dialogues at various existing community programs to start building a positive reputation.


5. Try different ways of engaging the community.

There is no one size fits all for any community or situation. Try different engagement processes or programs and adapt them to fit your unique needs.


6. Focus on quality.

When people participate in a well-run event or program, you’ll start to build a positive reputation for your organization, for the events you host, and for community engagement in general. Participants will recommend your event to their friends the next time around – that’s the best kind of outreach you can have.


7. Show participants that you value their opinion.

The best way to do this is to truly listen to what they have to say and to take action as a result of their participation. For example, if you’re inviting the community to talk about the city budget, perhaps the community can decide how to allocate a certain amount of funds. Even if the community is only able to influence a small percentage of the total budget, if they have a positive experience with the process then it will increase their respect and trust for the difficult decisions city officials have to make. Another option is to ensure that the city mayor is present in the conversations and will truly listen and take into consideration the community’s concerns. Whether or not people have a direct impact on decision-making, they want to know that their time, experiences and opinions are valued.


8. Get creative and make it fun. 

People want to spend their free time doing something they enjoy. Think about how you can make your program or event something that people of all ages will want to attend. Food, entertainment, and activities for children are great additions to a more traditional program.


9. Keep track of what you’re learning about your community.

Test different locations, times of day, types of events, length of commitment, online and offline options, etc. Keep note of what works and what doesn’t so you can improve each time you ask the public to participate.


10. Share what you’ve learned with others.

We’ll be able to create stronger communities if we share what we’ve learned with each other.  Write an email, blog post or report with your findings to distribute with your network.

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Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and our tools, advice, and resources foster that kind of change. Whether you’re grappling with a divisive community issue, or simply want to include residents’ voices in city government, Everyday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process, using a racial equity lens, can help.