Community engagement is highly advisable for any project that aims to sell ecosystem services, to ensure fair outcomes for local communities and the long-term success of the project. Project developers can build connections with local stakeholder groups early on to spot both risks and opportunities.
Community Engagement contains three groups of considerations or ‘themes’ that project developers or enterprises may want to explore throughout the design and development phase. Click on each of these themes to the right to read more.
You can also read case studies of projects that are working with communities, find useful links and a checklist of all considerations specific to this milestone below.
You can first identify the community stakeholders of your project and their interests to make engagement more effective. This may include identifying preconceptions around certain features of your project and considering the role you would like the local community to take.
This is a simple question but an important first step in community engagement.
Community stakeholders are commonly defined as those who are based in or have links to the local area of the project – forming ‘communities of place’. Examples may be local residents, volunteer and area-based groups, farmer clusters, businesses, schools, and local government representatives. For ease, you may choose to mentally separate these stakeholders from the local sellers, buyers, investors and delivery partners in your business model.
The relevant community stakeholders are those that have influence over the project and/or those that are affected by the project’s development and operations, including any benefits and risks. You can use the power-interest matrix to map these stakeholders out more clearly. Those who (should) have high interest and/or high influence would naturally require more engagement than those without.
It is advisable to work with a trusted local partner to identify key stakeholders, such as community development networks and support organisations. This will make identifying community stakeholders easier. Approaching the stakeholders with these organisations would also give your project more credibility.
Note: Communities can also be defined as ‘communities of practice’ where people share a particular experience, role or interest. This would refer to other project developers, ecologists and financiers in the wider nature-finance space. Though these stakeholders can also be valuable to engage with, the following considerations focus on communities of place.
This knowledge may be valuable context for your engagement strategy. Consider stakeholders’ awareness of environmental issues, historical efforts to address environmental improvements, the perceived success or failure of these efforts, and any unintended consequences that resulted.
For example, if your project is creating a wetland to sell nitrogen units to property developers further downstream, you may receive a positive reaction from local angler groups perceiving a wetland as benefitting fish population levels nearby.
Conversely, a project that is delivering natural-flood management (NFM) in a flood-risk area might be faced with residents who feel disenchanted with previous efforts to reduce flooding. In this case, it is advisable to carefully position the project and make clear any uncertainties, experimental features or lack of guarantee in flood risk reduction.
Similar to the above, community stakeholders may have prior knowledge or experience around the use of private finance to enable nature-based projects. These can lead to positive or negative opinions that should be addressed for more effective engagement, and to minimise the reputational risk of the project.
For example, local conservation groups may be against carbon or biodiversity offsetting projects, as these can be seen as a form of greenwashing for buyers that then give them a ‘licence to pollute’ elsewhere. Similarly, projects that require land acquisition may be sensitive in communities where land and property values are pricing local residents out of the area.
Community engagement can also be easier if you frame the project and its benefits in the context of wider strategies for the local area, namely those adopted by local authorities.
However, you may have designed your project to have benefits beyond environmental gain, and these can apply to socially focused strategies and plans. The concept of a ‘just transition’ is gaining traction across local communities in connection with the perceived trade-off between environmental and social or economic gains, and more local authorities are discussing how to minimise or resolve this.
Putting your project forward as an exemplar can be a powerful way of gaining support, both with local government representatives and wider community stakeholders.
You may encounter larger groups of community members that are difficult to contact, for example resident populations of nearby villages or minority groups that have historically been underrepresented. In this case, it is advisable to work with representatives or leaders that can act as a go-between. For example, local council representatives, conservation volunteers, business owners or long-time residents, among others.
If you are unsure of who to engage with, the local delivery partners on your project, community development networks and support organisations may have suitable recommendations.
It is important that your representative has a good understanding of the project, is aligned with its core values, understands their expected role, and is accessible to both the project team and the group they represent.
There are varying degrees of engagement and responsibility that community stakeholders can play, and deciding what role you want your community members to take will be key to planning your engagement strategy.
For example, they can be:
- Beneficiaries – simply benefiting from the project and its success, with no active involvement. Note: when community groups face any downside with the project, such as costs and risks, it is advisable to give them a more active role in the project.
- Advisers to the project – through their involvement in consultations, working groups, surveys and evaluations to which they provide their local insight and feedback.
- Contributors to management – membership of forums and steering groups that work alongside the core project team to supervise progress on the project’s activities, such as the implementation of interventions or monitoring.
- Deliverers of the project plan – on behalf of the partnership and as local successor bodies that will take over the full responsibilities from the core project team
- Decision makers – you may choose to give community representatives some continuous decision-making capacity, such as a registered directorship within your legal entity (see Milestone 6), but also when periodic consultations are taking place about strategic choices and other major decisions.
With a deeper understanding of who your community groups are, their interests, and what role you would like them to play in your project, you can plan engagement in a more deliberate and considered way.
Community engagement works best where it is an ongoing process enabling relationships and trust to build and strengthen over time, so you should also be prepared to iterate your engagement approach as you learn more.
At this point, you may have identified several community groups that you want to approach and can set out high-level points they will initially be interested in:
- A brief summary of the project and its desired impact, including any relevant context of the local area, such as addressing historical biodiversity loss
- The purpose of engagement – why you are engaging the community at this stage, what role you would like them to take, and what benefits they stand to gain
- The scope of the engagement – what specific feedback or activity you are looking for, how you plan on gathering this and over what period of time. You may also need to clarify what is out of scope in terms of their influence, and what extra information they need to meet your ask.
Note: As the number of stakeholder groups increases, it is advisable to have a consistent message or narrative for external engagement with any group. This message can be tailored to reflect your different audiences, but consistency will build trust.
Consider writing out the above points for each community group you are approaching and checking that the messaging is aligned.
To be most effective, it will often be necessary to combine a range of mediums and methods for engaging with the local community, depending on your project and its size. Below are a few broad mediums that you can use:
- Project-focused meetings – This is a broad term and meeting types can range from one-to-one interviews with community representatives, through to conferences, workshops, and Community Reference Groups (CRGs), or Citizens’ Panels, if the project has enough scale.
- Public meetings and events – Consider requesting time or space at a regularly scheduled public meeting, such as council meetings, flood forums, community fairs and local business conferences. These can have the advantage of being well-attended and well-organised. These work well with a strong mediator.
- Community representation within the project’s governance – You can demonstrate the project’s commitment to engagement and empowerment by embedding a community representative directly in the project’s governance structure, for example through a registered directorship within its legal entity. This topic is covered further in Milestone 6.
- Email – Engagement over email is a very common medium, it can include simple one-to-one dialogue with a community member, or a regular e-newsletter to a wider mailing list. You can use free-to-use platforms like MailChimp and Sendinblue for the latter.
- Local media – Media releases in print and digital form can be used to disseminate information to the community in a relatively quick manner. In this case, a newsworthy angle for your story is necessary along with visual material and a concisely written press release. This can be with local or national outlets, depending on the angle.
- Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and other social media apps can be used to raise the profile of the project and call for ideas. Some of these platforms also can be used to monitor wider conversations and reactions that relate to the project, such as environmental policy rulings, which can further inform your engagement strategy.
- Advertisements – This can include more traditional media sources, such as radio and print which might give discounted or free advertising space to projects with a strong sustainability element. You can also create paid campaigns over LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media platforms. This option is usually more suited to large-scale or catchment-based projects.
- Engagement Apps – Likewise, with enough scale you may consider using apps like CitizenLab, VOiCE and Commonplace, which are designed to engage larger audiences and get feedback. These are more popular with local authorities, which can use this software across a range of topics.
- Project website – If your project budget allows, consider the creation of a standalone project website (or webpage on an existing site) where you can post regular project updates and public-facing material. You can also use this to create a two-way information exchange, for example by hosting an online discussion forum or questionnaire (see below) on the site.
- Surveys and questionnaires – There are many free online survey providers, such as SurveyMonkey and Google Forms that can efficiently capture feedback, though the depth of survey responses can vary. You can also use hard copies for in-person meetings, if certain stakeholders feel this is more accessible.
- Photography, video, art and creativity – Visual or creative representations of the project’s potential can be a simple but powerful way of starting a dialogue. For example, SCOTLAND: The Big Picture has created a series of ‘Rewilding Reachout’ films, stories and ebooks, which explore the principles of rewilding and showcase how its NextGen rewilders – young people across Scotland – are addressing the challenges of climate breakdown and nature loss.
When planning an engagement process, project developers can expect some friction or barriers in engagement. Below are some high-level barriers to consider:
- Lack of resources – Not all community groups have sufficient time, capacity, and resources to attend and respond to all engagement requests. Consider the timing of your engagement in relation to these constraints, how well the stakeholders understand the commitment you are asking of them, and any compensation or other incentives you can offer for this ask. Farmers, for example, may prefer breakfast meetings.
- Underrepresentation – Certain community groups may not have as strong representation as others, such as younger or older generations, people with disabilities, or religious groups.
- Inaccessible technology – if you are using digital mediums, such as virtual meetings, some stakeholders may not be as familiar with this technology or not have good access (e.g., poor internet), and therefore not feel as engaged. A blended approach of physical and digital mediums is generally recommended in this case.
- Lack of technical understanding – Environmental markets and nature finance are complex topics, and it can be easy to disengage or alienate community groups with a less detailed knowledge base, for instance by using too much scientific jargon in communications.
- Lack of interest – Community members may also not find the project interesting, for example if the benefits are unclear to them, if these benefits are delivered over a longer time period or if they personally do not feel a sense of community ownership
- Distrust – Certain aspects of the project may make community stakeholders hesitant to give feedback or take an active role.
- The effectiveness of the project in delivering suitable environmental outcomes
- The ethicality of involving private finance, such as offsets, in nature-based projects
- The value the project team places on community engagement, i.e., that decisions will be taken regardless of the community groups’ input.
- Opposition – even if your project brings jobs and environmental outcomes, some citizens will simply oppose your project because they are worried that its success may result in increased traffic on the road and impact their house prices.
This depends on how the project relates to the community, the role you wish your community stakeholders to take, and resources available for engagement.
For example, if the project presents no downside risk to the community, and you wish for them to act only as beneficiaries, you may consider engaging once project design has been near finalised in order to manage limited time and resources. Conversely, if there are community risks and costs involved – including opportunity costs – it is advisable to include community members in the project’s design and/or management structure, in order to give them a sense of influence and ownership.
Consider plotting the varying levels of community engagement across the entire lifespan of the project, including its development, implementation and operational phases. This can also help to account for any costs of community engagement.
Building feedback channels into the project is a powerful way of engaging with the community and helps to demonstrate that you value their input. Consider what feedback mechanisms you are using, such as surveys, questions during meetings and community steering groups.
Across these feedback mechanisms, you may decide to keep an ongoing ‘feedback log’ to make sure you are best capturing and considering all community input. A log may also help to evidence to these community stakeholders that you are acting on their feedback (see below).
Equally important is what response will be provided to community members on the engagement process, and how they know their feedback has been acknowledged and acted upon.
Those who have provided feedback have given their time and knowledge and it is advisable to recognise this by keeping them updated about the project. For example, through direct emails to those who have given feedback, or a public FAQ document on questions and comments that have been asked to date.
Demonstrating where community stakeholders’ feedback has directly influenced the project’s design or management itself will further help to reinforce participation and engender a sense of connection with the project.
It is particularly important to provide feedback on engagement processes where there is a significant difference of opinion between community members, in order to minimise any tension with a clear rationale and any compromises made to best serve the community as a whole.
This consideration is not to offer a direct answer, but instead to highlight the importance of estimating the costs of your community engagement activities, and to set aside funds where needed through the lifetime of the project. Consider that effective community engagement can deliver more benefits than costs and can therefore be viewed as an investment on behalf of the project.
The most significant community engagement cost is likely to be the time spent by the project team. Other costs may include printing and distribution costs of materials, advertising costs, website development, venue and catering hires.
Once the project has moved into its implementation or operational phase, it will start to deliver impact. This section focuses on the benefits to community stakeholders and how to ensure those benefits are relayed, as well as touching upon the benefits that communities provide.
At a higher level, consider whether the community stakeholders will have a general interest in how the project is performing, according to your key performance indicators and business plan (see Milestone 5).
At this point, you may have spoken about the project with several people who will now have an interest in the project’s success. For example, in a rewilding project the community may wish to know how initial habitat creation works are progressing, and later on what species are noted to have returned to the site as a sign of success.
For improving visibility, you may wish to use your community engagement channels to share results of the project, such as through parish newsletters or on social media. Even if there are no results that directly impact the community (for example flood risk reduction), sharing performance results may help to keep stakeholders interested and increase levels of trust, preventing the impression of the project becoming a ‘black box’ after initial engagement ends.
If your project aspires to benefit community groups, it is important to consider how exactly these benefits are being measured and reported, in order to maintain integrity and trust with external stakeholders. Ideally this would be through a set of specific, measurable and time-bound objectives.
For example, if a wide-scale peatland restoration programme is purporting green job creation and upskilling of the local population, a community stakeholder may ask:
- How many jobs is this programme creating and how long are these jobs lasting?
- What formal certification is being offered as part of this ‘upskilling’, how many individuals are receiving upskilling, and what employment prospects does this offer beyond the programme?
Another way of ensuring community financial benefit is through an asset lock applied to the legal entity of the project, which prevents the assets from being transferred away from the project unless for a specified use (see Milestone 6). This can include the funding of other nature-based projects in the local area, or more socially focused enterprises. It is an effective way to demonstrate that no private member of the project will excessively benefit.
Not only is this commitment demonstrable to community members but it is also legally enforceable. This increases the credibility of the project’s commitment to community benefits.
Profit-sharing with community groups is possible. In the case of Scotland’s project by Trees for Life, the community is offered a percentage of carbon sales. There is a clear definition of community within that project, and the amount is evaluated on an ongoing basis.
Equally, community engagement can provide a number of benefits to the project itself, and with the above result in a mutually beneficial dynamic that improves the project’s robustness overall. Examples of what community stakeholders can give include:
- In-depth knowledge of the local environment, economy and wider context, for use in project design and later once the project is operational
- Advocating the project, for example in buyer and investor engagement.
- Guidance on what they think will be acceptable to other community members in terms of project positioning and engagement
- Volunteering on the project directly, such as in its implementation stage or with ongoing monitoring and maintenance
- A stronger sense of awareness, respect or indirect ownership of the project, which can lead to better use and care of the site if it is publicly accessible – such as with urban parks
Nature-based projects can deliver many benefits to local communities and are essential for addressing both the loss of nature and the effects of climate change in the UK. However, projects can also present risks and costs to certain community groups, and it is advisable to address these in a transparent and open way.
Such risks can be smaller in size. For example, if a habitat is being created over a three-month period, local residents may see increased traffic on the roads as diggers and crew travel to the site. Larger risks may include local land prices increasing significantly in value, if a number of land acquisitions are made as part of the project. Consider embedding these risks into your project’s risk log (see Milestone 5) and what mitigating actions you can take.
An open dialogue with the relevant stakeholders about these risks is advisable, including the actions you’re taking to minimise them and the benefits that the project can give in return. This approach can proactively minimise negative sentiment towards the project and potential resistance that could jeopardise it, such as through the granting of planning permission.
This consideration is to highlight the potential hidden ‘social capital’ that nature-based projects can have with effective community engagement. When the project is in a smoother phase of delivery, such as when the habitat has been created or restored, you may consider other opportunities for the project to build upon its impact in different ways.
Anecdotally, projects that have engaged with the community and raised their public profile have had other organisations offer to collaborate using the site(s). Examples include partnerships with local health charities to offer ‘green social prescribing’ to the public, the inclusion of nature-focused educational content in local schools, and partnerships with universities to gather scientific data on the project’s impact in a more robust and detailed way.
You can download a Word copy of the Community Engagement Considerations as a checklist here, to help with your own project planning.
Alternatively, you can find a simple list of the Considerations below:
Identifying community stakeholders
- Who are the community stakeholders that are affected or can affect the project?
- What history does the local community have in relation to the environmental issues the project is tackling?
- Does the community have any previous experience or assumptions about the use of private finance in nature?
- Does the project align with any local government strategy?
- What representatives of larger community groups can I engage with?
- What role do I want my community stakeholders to take in the project?
Direct engagement with the local community
- Have I clearly defined the project’s purpose and the reason for engagement?
- What are the best mediums for engaging with the community?
- What barriers to engagement might there be?
- At what point do I want to start engaging with the local community? Is there a clear view of community engagement across the project’s lifespan?
- How am I receiving and reviewing feedback from the community?
- What response or feedback should the community members receive in turn?
- How can I budget for the costs of community engagement?
Sharing outcomes and benefits
- How is the community being updated on the performance of the project?
- How are benefits to the community being quantified and tracked in the project? How are these being evidenced to the local community?
- Can I share profits with the community?
- What benefits could my project gain by involving the local community?
- What are the risks, if any, that the project poses to any individuals or groups within the community? How are these being managed?
- Are there organisations or initiatives that the project can work with and ‘synergise’ further environmental or social outcomes?
On the 4th of April at 12pm, the Green Finance Institute and the National Lottery Heritage Fund hosted the second in a series of webinars in support of the Facility for Investment Ready Nature in Scotland (FIRNS). The webinar focuses on community engagement and benefits in the context of nature-based projects that utilise private finance.
The webinar covers:
- What Community Engagement and Benefits (CE&B) means in the context of nature-based projects that utilise private finance
- Why project developers should undertake CE&B, and the benefits it offers to projects
- How to undertake CE&B, practical steps and advice on how to start a Community Engagement plan
- The importance of Community Engagement & Benefits in the context of a Just Transition, as supported by the Interim Principles of Responsible Investment in Natural Capital
- The focus of Community Engagement and Benefits within the FIRNS and the dual funding stream from the National Lottery Heritage Fund
- Where to go for further resources, and future webinar topics
The webinar also hosts a panel of third party project developers and advisers, who share their advice on how to approach Community Engagement and Benefits. The panel includes:
- Claire Thirlwall, Director, Thirlwall Associates
- Emma Cooper, Head of Land Rights and Responsibilities, Scottish Land Commission
- Sandra Holmes, Head of Community Assets, Highlands and Islands Enterprise
- Marian Bruce, Enterprise Manager, Affric Highlands