The ABC’s of successful community engagement


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Are you thinking about carrying out a community health campaign? Is there a health crises in your community that you want to address? Every community health initiative must be planned and designed with the key stakeholders in mind-the community itself. No matter the sophistication of the proposed project, or the skills of those tasked with the responsibility of implementing it, a successful campaign is partly hinged on the engagement of the community with the process. Communities have a major influence in assuring the success or failure of any meaningful health initiative. Public health practitioners must be versed and proficient in effectively communicating with community stakeholders, in order to increase the likelihood of sustainability of any health modification initiative.

Community partners must be integrated in the planning and execution of community health projects, for meaningful impacts to be achieved. At the crux of designing any project is the value of long term sustainability, therefore health practitioners must be equipped with the tools needed to engage communities effectively. The following steps should guide program planners, in carrying out successful community health discussions with community stakeholders. These can be summed up as the first steps or the ABC’s.

  • Altruism: Altruism is a genuine selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. It is defined by the Cambridge English dictionary as ‘the attitude of caring about others and doing acts that help them, although you do not get anything by doing those acts’. Altruism is a display of genuine concern and interest in the health, welfare, comfort or happiness of others. Community health initiatives should be motivated out of a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the people it is being designed for. Communities must feel engaged with the process, to assure success. Public health officials must display empathy and show genuine interest in modifying any health outcome they wish to address. Communities must be empowered in voicing their concerns and interests about proposed health initiatives, to endorse a total commitment to it. Public health campaigns must not be seen as only trying to modify or alter some statistical figures, but be viewed as being designed to improve health outcomes. For example, in combating the public health burden of malaria in endemic regions, several international organizations have gone ahead to supply insecticide treated bednets (ITN) to some vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and children under 5 years old. However, unless a community fully comprehends and comes to appreciate the real intentions of the donors, such an effort may just be carried out to fulfill another statistic. These ITN’s may well be used for other purposes such as sieving cassava, addends to clothes, etc. rather than used for the original purpose it was intended for. Communities can see through your intentions, they can read your mind and some cannot be fooled. Therefore, public health projects must be designed and communicated across to communities in a truly altruistic and empathetic nature, to increase the likelihood for long term sustainability.


  • Basis: The basis of a problem is the corner stone of its main argument. It is the main idea or emphasis that needs to be communicated. The basis of any public health problem is the main theme, foundation, fundamental point or principle upon which any sustainable community health initiative is hinged. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines basis as the bottom of something, considered as its foundation. The basis defines the public health problem as well as the scope of the problem. It answers the 3 ‘W’ questions:

a.) What-What is the problem? Define the problem and the context in lay man’s terms. At this point, some form of data that characterizes the problem and its extent would be useful. For example, in addressing the public health problem of substance use and overdosing in a community, the use of publicly available data may convey a better meaning to the proposed beneficiaries of the project. Rather than stating that, “there is a substance use problem in the community”, a better approach would be: “the recently released data from the community’s department of health indicates that a certain percentage of men, women, teenagers or young adults are caught in the web of the problem”.

b.) WhyWhy is this a problem? Here, public health officials are tasked with the responsibility of coming up with theories about why the problem exists, taking into account several health models such as biological, environmental, political economy etc. At this point, concerns on why the issue is a problem in one community, and not in another may be addressed. Community representatives may be interested in finding out how to modify several health determinants, in impacting the problem positively. Public health practitioners must be equipped with the right information, which should be communicated to community officials in the most simplistic way as possible. This is imperative because, what may be considered a public health problem in one community, may well be regarded as a routine way of life in some other cultures and communities, which would thus hinder the achievement of any meaningful changes to that problem. For example, female genital cutting (FGC) is currently regarded as a huge public health catastrophe against women, with several obstetric and gynecologic complications resulting from the practice. However, in some cultures, female genital mutilation/cutting is still regarded as a legitimate rite of passage for women, and thus its practice is still rife in such communities. Therefore any successful public health outreach in such communities can only be achieved, if officials are able to effectively communicate to these groups of people about why FGC is a problem in their community, and not the case in other communities. This very critical step requires the use of community actors/champions-people from the community that are in a better position to communicate the basis of this problem across to their constituents.

c.) WhoWho is affected by this problem? The basis of the public health problem must include the people affected. This cannot be too vague and broad. The problem statement must be specific and targeted at a defined group of people. It cannot be over-reaching, but directed at a certain group of people. A problem statement should not be generalizable, but designed with a particular community of people in mind. For example, a problem statement should not state that it is addressing substance abuse/overdosing amongst teens in Massachusetts. This statement is broad, and too generalizable. Rather, the problem statement should be directed at individual communities, such as “addressing substance abuse/overdosing amongst teens in City A, or B, or C, or town A, or B, or C. A problem statement targeting a defined community is more likely to be successful than one that is overtly generalized.


  • Clarity: Clarity is the ability to be easily understood, i.e. the quality of being clear, coherent and intelligible. The Oxford English dictionary defines it as the quality of transparency or purity, or being easy to see or hear. Community health dialogues must be clear and easy to understand. You must be able to effectively communicate your goals and strategies to the people you are going to serve. Avoid the use of jargons, and rather be concise and clear in your approaches to the problem. This is where you detail the pieces of your project to the beneficiaries, and describe what you intend to achieve and how you intend to achieve it. Communities must have a clear understanding of your public health initiative, if you want all hands on deck to increase the likelihood of success. It is helpful to use bullet points or digits to outline your work scope, as this quickly puts the main points across. Clarity is essential for effective community partnerships and engagements. Communities always want to feel engaged in the process, and being clear in your program approach is a good place to start that engagement. Avoid being ambiguous or equivocal, and let your main points come across as succinct, direct and uncomplicated. In being clear with your project description, you want to also communicate the expected time frame of the project, administrative formats and other pertinent information that may be relevant to the proper execution of the project.

Without adequate buy-ins’ from community partners, a community health initiative may well be considered a failure from its outset. Building and establishing a successful rapport with community stakeholders, is critical to the overall success of any community health project. Health initiatives should be designed for the people and with the people, to increase the likelihood of sustainability. A good place to start is by successfully engaging the community in the program planning and execution, by incorporating the ABC’s-Altruism, Basis and Clarity in all dialogues

To your continued success! Cheers!!!

Evi Abada



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