DEFINING SUCCESS IN COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
In community engagement work, there is often a tension between progress (what you accomplish) and process (how you accomplish it). Depending on your perspective, if you haven't achieved the goal that you set out to achieve (the progress), you may see that as an all-around failure. But even if you don't achieve that original end goal, you may have done excellent work with a community that built their capacity to take on the next challenge, played a role in their growth and transformation as individuals, or helped them develop the agency to identify their own needs and challenge the status quo. How communities emerge from a process is also a measure of success.
In evaluating community engagement work, the terms successful failure and unsuccessful failure can be helpful (Weinbaum, 2004). A successful failure is one in which the original goal was not achieved, but the effort resulted in other valuable outcomes. For example, a neighborhood organization may have undertaken a campaign to develop abandoned land into a park and utilized an engagement process that improved relationships among residents, developed organizational capacity, and resulted in ongoing partnerships with stakeholders outside of the community. Their initial attempt to win approval for a park was defeated, but they emerged from the process stronger and more prepared for their next project. That is a successful failure. Compare this with an unsuccessful failure, which is when the goal is not reached and no positive outcome is realized. Think about the above example of a neighborhood organization seeking to develop a park. If instead of using a well-designed and executed engagement process, the organization took an insular approach and did not work to involve community residents, stretch themselves to grow as an organization, or seek partnerships with outside groups. If they failed to win approval for a park and didn't realize any other positive results, that would be termed an unsuccessful failure.
In addition to redefining your own ideas of what success is in community engagement, the community you work with needs to have input into how they choose to define success. Having these kinds of conversations at the initiation of a project is important, as it is an opportunity to introduce the idea of successful and unsuccessful failures and develop a broader definition of success.
Please keep the following in mind:
Failure in the short term may turn into a success later on. Not every attempt succeeds on the first try. But every attempt should help prepare for the next.
Things seldom go according to plan. In working with community projects, leaders and goals can quickly change and evolve. The goal you started out with, may not be where you end up going.
Look for opportunities for positive outcomes to emerge. Unintended consequences and unintentional gains are what we didn't plan for, but happen anyway. Some examples could be that adversaries may become friends or unexpected partnerships develop. Building social capital is always a success.
Patience is required. These are long term processes and we seldom get to see the end result. When we work as outsiders with communities, our time is often limited and we won't always be around to see the fruits of our labor. That doesn't mean we shouldn't plant the seeds.