Community education and outreach planning is a natural extension of the work of Independent Living Centers throughout New York State. The Centers are community-based organizations with core programs and services that involve and engage people community-wide every day. The development and utilization of a documented plan will assist the Center in thinking through goals, message, and methods in an effective and cohesive way, resulting in better use of resources and more targeted outcomes.
In the end, the complexity of the issue and the number of stakeholders involved determine the scope of the community outreach plan. Even so, in each instance, there are key steps to the creation of an effective community education program. Those steps include:
1. Write a Situation Statement: The situation statement is a statement or definition of the issue the Center is seeking to build community awareness and support for.
Example, Situation Statement: People with disabilities in our community lack accessible, integrated, and affordable housing to live independently.
2. Define Goal(s): The goal more specifically defines what the Center is looking to achieve by engaging the community.
Example, Goal Statement: To create a coalition of decision-makers and stakeholders to engage in a public dialogue about the need for accessible, affordable, integrated housing for people with disabilities.
3. Identify Audience(s): The audience will vary greatly and will most likely fall into one of two categories: A.) Decision-makers/people with influence; and B.) Information consumers. Both audiences are equally important and can impact outcomes. Decision-makers/people with influence may include elected officials, directors of non-profit organizations, media, business leaders, and public interest groups. Information consumers may be Center volunteers and constituents, families of people with disabilities, our social media network, community leaders and interest groups not as directly involved with this issue, and others.
Example, Audience: City of John Doe Housing Authority, City Councilwoman Jane Doe, County Legislator John Doe, ABC Construction Company, Community Center for the Disabled, Local Chapter AARP, local media outlets, Center consumers, staff and contacts, etc.
4. Craft a Clear Message: Your message must clearly state your position and be written in a way that will engage and motivate your audience. The Center will refer to and use this message in three ways: 1.) to rally, build and focus the coalition, 2.) in all of its communications; and 3.) as a tool to consistently focus the discussion in community forums.
Coalition partners want and need a clear and concise message. This is essential to their ability to be an effective ambassador on the issue at the center of your community education program.
Example, Message: City of John Doe lacks options for people with disabilities to live independently. Recent statistics show X% of people with disabilities in our community who desire to live independently currently live at home with relatives or are institutionalized. Statistics also show that people with disabilities who live independently achieve a greater quality of life and contribute more substantially to the local economy.
5. Identify Incentives for Engaging Targeted People and Organizations: Incentivizing people’s involvement is one of the most overlooked steps in community education planning. By identifying incentives we are answering the question each stakeholder will ask, some privately and other publically – WHY should I get involved with this issue?
For example, Incentives: Federal funds are available to support community development if managed properly. This issue provides an opportunity for elected officials to take the lead on an important public issue. More integrated, affordable, and accessible housing benefits both people with disabilities and our aging population. Communities benefit when all people are able to live full and independent lives.
6. Identify Your Outreach Methods: Step five provides the answer to the WHY question. Step six, is the HOW. What method or methods will the Center use to achieve its goal(s)? Community outreach typically includes multiple steps. Each method takes into account a different audience, allowing the Center to direct its message and communication appropriately.
Example, Methods: Build coalition (audience: decision-makers). Hold public meetings (audience: decision-makers, public). Hold press conference (audience: media, decision-makers, public). Write editorial letter (audience: all). Create housing information section on website (audience: consumers, families and staff). Weekly social media posts. Create housing news section in e-newsletter, etc.
7. Identify Your Spokesperson(s): People identify with passionate, knowledgeable people. WHO leads the community outreach program is another key to its success. The Center must identify a spokesperson and educator capable of speaking to the issue and engaging “the audiences” at all levels.
8. Develop Tools or Measures to Assess Progress: The evaluation of your community education program is the primary tool for deciding next steps. Measures may vary. The larger and more complex the issue, the longer it may take to see progress. Define your measureable outcomes before implementation. Define your benchmarks for progress, then be sure to
Example, Measures: Six productive coalition meetings over a 12-month period; Media coverage from two key media outlets; Increased communication from ILC to consumers and all stakeholders on issue; Accessible, Affordable Integrated Housing white paper and proposal submitted to Mayor for consideration.
9. Develop a Timeline: Your timeline is your schedule for implementation of your outreach program.
10. Implement Your Plan! Implementation requires an understanding of each audience and the use of the appropriate methods and tools to inform and engage each audience based on situation-specific needs. The most effective community education programs take the time to make these determinations during the planning phase. Implementation is then keenly focused on 1.) the building and nurturing of relationships on both an individual and organizational basis, 2.) effectively and consistently communicating the Center’s message; and 3.) evaluating and re-evaluating progress.