Recently I have been ruminating on the difference between community engagement and community mobilization. “Ruminate” is a great word for a Leap Day because the extra day gives us more time to really think on something, right? In the United States, where I do much of my work, we seem to prefer the term mobilization more than engagement, though we sometimes refer to mobilization as engagement and vice versa.
The more I have studied and practiced both, the more I find the mixing of the two terms to be confusing, problematic, and incorrect. I can hear at least a couple of my colleagues say, “Whoa, Tom, aren’t you splitting hairs? It’s all the same, come on.” I will grant this much: there are elements of each in the other. However, the priority and emphasis we give to each is important because they are not fundamentally the same.
Whether we choose to prioritize and emphasize engagement or mobilization, it will make a difference in how we work with the community.
In my efforts to parse the difference between the two, I have identified some important distinctions. These need to inform our choice of engagement or mobilization and how we do them.
- Personal v. Public Approaches: Engagement is a relational approach that taps the power of personal social networks to systematically build an ever expanding circle of participation and support. Mobilization is a more public approach as it tends to use group and mass promotion and marketing strategies via traditional and social media.
- Less v. More Resources: Because engagement is relational, it requires fewer resources. Often it just needs people who have friends or acquaintances and a social network they are willing to engage. Okay, maybe it will sometimes cost the price of a soda, a cup of coffee, or another beverage to lubricate the conversation. However, mobilization can be more resource intensive because many traditional outreach strategies are expensive. Even social media is increasingly finding new ways to charge for expanding one’s reach.
- Empowerment v. Compliance: A key aspect of engagement is empowerment: it draws communities into meaningful participation which also empowers them to be the decision makers for their own future. This is because, in the best engagement scenarios, the agenda for change is generated by the community, with the community, and for the community. In this sense, community change through engagement is intrinsic, arising from within it. Mobilization tends to enforce an extrinsic, pre-determined agenda on a community. Communities may go along (comply) with the agenda of the funder or a powerful local group or organization. Often they do so hoping they will eventually get what is really needed in the end. Sometimes it is merely to get along with the powers-that-be in the community to make life a little bit better.
- Ownership v. Buy In: Engagement and empowerment fosters ownership of the community issue and its solution as people become invested through relationships and personal stories. These make it “personal.” Mobilization build interest, and even some commitment, as people acknowledge the importance of the issue. Yet, because of the impersonal nature of mobilization, people may be less likely to fully participate in the change or feel a sense of personal empowerment and ownership.
- Long Term v. Short Term: Community engagement may not be as flashy as the strategies used in mobilization, but engaged communities which change through participation, personal empowerment and ownership tend to maintain the change longer. They are also more resistant to “snapping back” to the way things were before. Mobilization strategies can get faster change, which may be why they are used instead of or with engagement strategies, but it may not be change that is deep enough to last. If you want something to “stick,” engagement offers greater promise.
Merriam-Webster.com offers definitions of “engage” and “mobilize” which are noteworthy. “Engage” – “to hold the attention of” and “to deal with especially at length.” “Mobilize” – “to bring people together for action.”
This brings me to this final distinction between community engagement and community mobilization.
- Slow Food v. Fast Food: Community engagement is like eating and sharing food cooked with friends, made with fresh ingredients, and enjoyed together. It often results in a meal that is satisfying and an experience that lasts in the collective memory of the group. Community mobilization is like fast food. You can get it by yourself through the drive-up window, you can get a lot of it, it feeds your hunger, and yet it is not particularly memorable nor long-lasting. In fact, you may be back at the fast food window in just a couple of hours to get another dose.
My bias toward community engagement is pretty clear in this blog, and many others I have written. Community mobilization does have its place. Sometimes mobilization has to be the choice because that is what the funder, the timeline or the circumstances support. Also, there are some mobilization strategies that do support quality community engagement.
Nonetheless, whenever you have the choice, choose engagement. The dividends are higher. Even when you must choose mobilization, look for ways to infuse it with engagement.
Enjoy your Leap Day!