The terms “community engagement” and “community development” are sometimes used interchangeably. After all, both ideas are based on the strength and improvement of our communities. Nonetheless, there are a few key distinctions between the two concepts. Let’s take a closer look at what they are.
Community development vs. community engagement: a different scope
Let’s start with a few definitions. ‘Community engagement’ has a wide range of meanings, but in its broadest sense, it means bringing the community into the decision-making process, streamlining execution, and creating a feeling of mutual trust between community members and their representatives. This could include polling or surveying the community’s opinions on a particular issue or topic, asking them to weigh in or share ideas, or even assisting in allocating city budgets. Overall, it’s all about using collective intelligence to make better, more accurate, and democratic decisions.
‘Community development’ is slightly broader than that. According to research by Susan Kenny (2007), “community development is a holistic approach grounded in principles of empowerment, human rights, inclusion, social justice, self-determination, and collective action.’ According to researcher Jessica Smart, “community development programs are led by community members at every stage—from deciding on issues to selecting and implementing actions, and evaluation. Community development has an explicit focus on the redistribution of power to address the causes of inequality and disadvantage.”
The main differences
Smart suggests a clear distinction between community-based work (or community engagement) and community development. Community-based work, she states, means that the issue or problem at hand is usually defined by the agency (or local government), which develops strategies to solve these problems and decides to involve community members in these strategies. Community development, on the other hand, empowers community members to identify important concerns and plan implementation strategies to solve these issues.
In plain English, this means that community engagement can be a part of a community development strategy, while community development encompasses more than just engagement. While community engagement is particularly suited to support local decision-making and agenda-setting, community development is a bottom-up approach that is often used to shift power in the way social issues are addressed, particularly to support disadvantaged communities.”
Cases: community engagement and development in practice
While most of the projects facilitated by our platforms are community engagement projects—initiated by the local government to improve decision-making—there is an increasing trend towards including more community development through bottom-up engagement approaches such as community proposals and community assemblies.
In the London borough of Newham, UK, community assemblies open to anyone living or working in the area gathered to define local priorities. Working groups of residents, councilors, and other local stakeholders were also formed to supervise the project from beginning to end and ensure it really served the community’s local needs. In the final stages of the project, 82 projects had been chosen (approx. 10 per neighborhood), including community gardens, green highways, youth programs, community safety, and pop-up markets. Because the key challenges were determined by community members and meaningful change happened at the neighborhood level, this initiative corresponds to some of the development principles.