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Chapter Five: Community Participation and Empowerment

26 October 2012
People listening to talk (AP Images)

Community Participation and Empowerment

This is part of The NGO Handbook, published by the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs.

People and communities are the heart of why an NGO exists. Regardless of the issues they address, all NGOs were created to make people’s lives better and communities stronger. Yet NGOs can be more than humanitarian organizations to ease suffering. They can also be empowerment organizations to spur people to realize their aspirations for better lives and communities. To achieve this potential, NGOs need to give community members the knowledge, skills and confidence to address their own needs and advocate on their own behalf.

A good way to begin is for your NGO to open doors for community members not only to participate in projects, but also to help plan, manage and evaluate them. Your NGO can facilitate broader civic participation in a number of ways, by:

• Investing in leadership development and supporting new leaders to define problems, identify solutions and establish action plans.

• Organizing “visioning” sessions that invite community members to share their dreams for their lives and communities, then combining them into a collective vision.

• Coaching community members to be their own advocates and voice their concerns to elected officials and government decisionmakers.

• Advocating for the creation of structures and mechanisms that make government and elected officials accountable to citizens.

• Mobilizing people to vote.

Participation and empowerment are mutually reinforcing. When people participate, they learn new skills, gain confidence and develop their own voice and ability to control their lives. And when people feel empowered, they are more likely to participate. In this chapter, we’ll illustrate this by showing how another hypothetical organization, Health for All, approaches community participation and empowerment.

Define Your Community

NGOs define community in different ways. For some, community means a geographic area — a neighborhood, a village, a city or a region. For others, community refers to members of a particular ethnic minority, language group, age group or gender identity. And others might define their community as anyone affected by a particular issue, such as HIV or youth unemployment. Your NGO needs to define the community you seek to engage and empower.

Cultivating New Leaders

NGOs need to cultivate new leaders within their communities, whether they are geographic or based on addressing a shared problem. You do this by building people’s skills and providing them with opportunities to step into leadership roles. By cultivating new leaders, you ensure that your NGO’s work will go on after the founders are gone. Equally important, you create a situation in which people affected by a problem are part of its solution.

The leaders you cultivate will amplify your NGO’s work in a number of ways, by:

• Educating others in the community about the issue.

• Serving as the messengers in public education campaigns.

• Advocating with government or elected officials and by attending meetings or giving testimony.

• Mobilizing others to get involved, speak out and take action.

Health for All has been providing health-education workshops targeting low-income women and has been successful in helping them adopt good health practices. Now, Health for All wants to start a Women’s Leadership Project to train low-income women to become community leaders on health issues.

Start by Involving Community Members in Your NGO

When the people you serve are involved in your NGO, your NGO will be more successful. Not only will your projects be more relevant to their needs, but you will build collective ownership for your NGO’s mission. Your community members will be more willing to support your NGO and its work in the future. In addition, by investing in the skills and leadership of the people you serve, your NGO will expand the pool of talent to help carry out your mission.

The NGO is going to recruit a few women who participated in the workshops to begin meeting weekly. The NGO will focus discussions on what it means to be a leader, what kind of leadership is needed in their community and what kind of leaders the women want to be. The project will hold training workshops designed to build basic skills, such as how to:

• Analyze a community problem.
• Develop solutions.
• Plan events and projects.
• Manage tasks, timelines and resources.
• Run a meeting.
• Speak in public.
• Deal with conflict.

While providing formal training is important, remember that people learn by doing. The most effective leadership programs guide participants through the process of picking an issue to tackle, identifying solutions, then carrying out an action plan. Health for All’s Women’s Leadership Project will guide its participants to:

• Identify an issue, such as why so many women in the community have been getting sick from preventable illnesses.

• Analyze the root causes. For example, funding for the government primary care clinic was slashed, with the result that many women are being turned away. Also, government-funded health education campaigns have been cut.

• Identify and prioritize what they want to change. They decide they not only want funding restored, but also the clinic to develop better outreach and education for women with low literacy levels.

• Pinpoint who they need to influence — the person with the power to restore funding — and decide what kind of message is most likely to persuade that person.

• Finally, the women leaders mobilize other women in the community to sign a petition, send letters, or stage a vigil in front of the regional office of the health ministry.

After new leaders “graduate” from your training, find ways to continue nurturing and supporting them. You can do this by:

• Hiring them as staff. If Health for All secures additional funding to expand its health-education projects, it can hire leadership-project graduates to conduct outreach, coordinate workshops or even provide training.

• Engaging them in advocacy. If Health for All decides to advocate for greater public funding for maternal and child health clinics, for example, it can invite graduates of the leadership project to help design the campaign, craft the messages, and advocate with public officials.

• Supporting them to become engaged in other community projects and coalitions. Health for All can introduce newly trained leaders to other NGOs and coalitions where they might get taken on as staff or volunteers. In this way, Health for All’s leadership project benefits the whole sector.

• Creating opportunities for them to implement their own ideas. If the new leaders have an idea for a project — such as a public awareness campaign on the importance of prenatal care for pregnant women with HIV — then Health for All might help them raise funds to launch the project. The confidence they glean from this project might propel some of them to found their own NGO, which would be an ally of Health for All.

Look for Your Community’s Natural Leaders

All communities have “natural leaders” — individuals whom others seek out for advice, look up to, and listen to. They might be elders respected for their experience or young people able to motivate others. Some may have formal education; others may not. If you don’t already know who they are, ask your community members when you conduct a needs and assets assessment. Then, invite these natural leaders to participate in a leadership program.

Promoting Wide Civic Engagement

Your NGO can promote civic engagement in ways other than grooming new leaders. After all, not everyone is cut out to be a leader. Your NGO can create opportunities for people who are not leaders to contribute to bettering their communities. Generating broad civic engagement will ultimately help your NGO accomplish its mission.

The ways that NGOs can promote civic engagement range from simply creating opportunities for people to articulate their vision of the future to mobilizing them to get out and vote. NGOs can be instrumental in getting people to realize that they have a voice and a vote!

To Empower Others, NGO Leaders Need to Step Back and Let Go

If your NGO is going to build new leaders and empower them to lead efforts to effect change, then the NGO leaders and staff must be willing to step back and let others lead. To be empowered, people must be responsible for their own successes and failures.

Inviting Community Members to Shape a Vision

For people who have never had a say in shaping their future, a powerful way to begin is to invite them to share their hopes and dreams for their lives and their communities. Health for All could hold visioning sessions with different segments of the community, such as youth, elders, adult women, or men, or in different neighborhoods of the city. In the sessions, you could ask participants questions such as: If everyone in your community had health care, what would it look like? What would be different?

Health for All’s Women’s Leadership Project could bring together women from a low-income neighborhood to create a collective vision for a community that fosters women’s health. Visioning processes often ask questions such as: In your vision for the future, what would women’s lives be like? What would the community look like? What kinds of resources would it have to support women’s health?

Civic Engagement

Civic engagement encompasses a range of activities that allow citizens to express their views and take action to effect change.

• Helping in neighborhood meetings, clean-ups, or cultural festivals.
• Volunteering with an NGO or other community group.
• Attending city council meetings or giving testimony at public hearings.
• Participating in meetings or forums to discuss community issues.
• Writing letters to the editor.
• Taking part in rallies, marches, or vigils.
• Voting.

Organizing Projects for People’s Participation

Helping people to form a collective vision for their community is the first step to get them to see that they have a voice in shaping their future. The next step is to help them see that they can make a difference. NGOs can organize various activities in which people can make changes — large or small — to improve their communities.

Health for All, for instance, could sponsor mural projects in the neighborhood, inviting youths to paint the walls with scenes of a healthy community. Health for All could also organize neighborhood clean-up days, where people come out to clean their streets and parks. The NGO’s board members could help by appealing to businesses to donate supplies for these activities.

Your NGO could also seek to make the government a partner to support such efforts. This would provide opportunities for officials and lawmakers to build goodwill with the public and strengthen your NGO’s ties with the government. We’ll talk more about NGO-government relations in the next chapter.

Engaging Community Members in Advocacy

You need to involve community members in speaking about the issue your NGO deals with. The people who are most affected by an issue are the most credible messengers to government officials and other decision makers. In countries with sufficient margins of freedom, NGOs can organize people to sign petitions, write letters, make phone calls and provide testimony. Your NGO needs to support them by furnishing information and other tools to be effective.

For example, if Health for All advocates with the health ministry to improve sanitation in the region, it could recruit and train community members to speak out on the matter. Community members could help shape the key messages for an advocacy campaign, then present testimony and facts to government officials about the impact of poor sanitation in their communities. It would be especially powerful if a few community members told personal stories of how the health of their children has been affected. Health for All staff could work with community members to draft their talking points and coach them on delivering them. In countries where the political environment discourages community activism, your NGO needs to carefully consider its advocacy strategies. You want to make sure that your community is well-informed about any risks of government reprisals.


Advocacy is the act of promoting a position with the decision makers who have the power to effect change. You can advocate with government officials to get a new law passed or an existing one changed. You can advocate with officials of a government ministry to change their rules or practices. Many NGOs advocate for increased funding for a particular problem or issue, such as primary health care or education. NGOs can also advocate with business leaders for greater corporate social responsibility.

Advocating for Governance Structures that Support Engagement

In countries where civic activism is legally permitted but not widely practiced, an appropriate role for NGOs would be to advocate for the creation of mechanisms of civic engagement. NGOs could work together to advocate for:

• The adoption of requirements that local elected bodies hold open meetings for citizens to voice their views on new laws under consideration (i.e., public hearings).

• The use of community advisory committees or citizen oversight commissions by government ministries to receive community input and answer community questions.

• Greater transparency in the decision making process and access to information for citizens, such as requirements to publish voting records or make certain documents available for public scrutiny.

NGOs can educate officials to recognize the value of such structures and mechanisms in helping them to meet their mandates and generate greater public support through increased accountability. At the same time, NGOs need to educate their communities that officials are accountable to them, and citizens have a right to hold officials accountable. To do so, the communities need information and access to officials, both of which NGOs can provide.

Help People Tell Their Stories

Advocacy is about telling stories that help decision makers understand the impact of a problem, law or policy on people’s lives. NGOs can encourage community members to step forward and share their stories — whether as testimony at public meetings or as part of the NGO’s general education and awareness-raising efforts. You can do this by recording people’s stories in writing and on video and posting them on your website and other media.

Health for All, for example, is leading a coalition of NGOs to press the health ministry to create a citizen advisory committee to provide input and feedback on the ministry’s health programs. The NGOs see a role for themselves in recruiting and training community members to serve on the committee. Health for All encourages graduates of its Women’s Leadership Project to apply for seats on the committee. The NGOs want to make sure that the committee is structured in a way that it is outside the control of the government or a particular NGO.

Mobilizing and Educating Voters

Finally, NGOs can promote voting as a form of civic engagement. The political system permitting, NGOs can register voters, educate them about the importance of elections, sponsor forums for candidates to meet community members and mobilize voters to turn out on Election Day.

Civic Engagement Serves the Public Good and Helps Government Do Its Job Better

In dealings with appointed and elected officials, NGOs need to hammer home continuously the message that citizen input and oversight will ultimately result in better government services, and help the officials fulfill their mandate. Further, this will show the officials that broad civic engagement is a way to tap into citizens’ own resources to improve communities, thus complementing what government can accomplish on its own.


Strengthening community participation and empowerment is key to an NGO’s efforts to bring about sustainable change. Your NGO may have exemplary planning, management, and governance practices, but if you are not building a strong base of community leadership and engagement, your NGO might not outlive its founders.

As with other aspects of an NGO’s work, you need to build your own capacity to support and sustain community participation and empowerment. You need to start by educating your own staff, volunteers and board members about what NGOs can do to generate civic engagement. Educate yourselves about the political process, understand the power dynamics, identify the role your NGO wants to play and build relationships with government.

You also need to listen to your community. What are they ready and willing to do? Where do they want to start? Some people may want to limit their engagement to their own neighborhood or to a narrow problem that directly affects them and their families. They may need time before they are ready to speak out on large policy issues.

There is no one right way to promote community participation and empowerment. You can start small, try different approaches, and learn as you go. Remember, regardless of your NGO’s specific mission, the more that individuals understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens, the more effective your NGO will be.

Two men holding banner (AP Images)

Members of the Anti-Poverty Campaign tap community support in Los Angeles, California.