How to Succeed in Community Engagement Without Really Trying

Approximate Read Time: 7 minutes

For the past four weeks, we’ve explored the role of the US Culture Wars in community engagement and whether we can find common ground in the current social and political climate.

Today we are going to explore how we can succeed at community engagement despite deep cultural divisions, using the marketing concept called Diffusion of Innovation (which we also featured in Creating a Change Movement: Getting Started with the Tenacious Change Approach).

What is diffusion of innovation?

The idea of Diffusion of Innovation is straightforward. Marketers argue that innovation, and thus products, spread through communities in a way similar to how viruses and contagions spread. They spread through person-to-person contact and communication. To be clear it’s not salesperson to person, but friend-to-friend and colleague-to-colleague. Through this diffusion process, products gradually become more popular and more widely accepted until, eventually, they reach a tipping point in which their adoption is all-pervasive.

For example, 30 to 40 years ago, the idea of carrying around a mobile phone (which was the size of a brick) and on which anyone could reach you at any time was seen by many as a nuisance. Cell phones are now so widely accepted that they have replaced landline phones in homes. And good luck finding a pay phone anywhere.

Twenty years ago, the idea that we would be posting our most personal information for anyone to read and comment on, and then share that information with people we don’t know may have sounded ridiculous. And yet social media is now a widely accepted form of communication, a news source for many, and a community building tool.

I could list several other innovations that have spread throughout society in the last 30 years.

Regardless of beliefs or attitudes or sharp cultural divides, social and technological innovations continue to be widely, and rapidly, adopted.

In my work I have found that Diffusion of Innovation can be very helpful in community engagement. The best part is that when you do it right, people may not be sure that you did anything at all!

in solidarity!?

I have long believed in the power of labor unions to address systemic social issues, so when I was presented with the opportunity to become a Union Representative for my employee union, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), I jumped at the chance.

But there was a catch…my turf (the geographic area I would represent) was one of the most rural, anti-union parts of Maryland. Ironically, a couple of decades ago it was a traditional union strong hold. But the local economy changed, factories closed, the union ranks were decimated, and so was the reputation of labor unions.

I would frequently make the two-hour trip into the “Maryland Highlands,” sticking out like a sore thumb with my practical city car, obviously a “Down Stater.” After several months of phone banking, house calls, worksite visits, and attempting to organize a group of skeptical employees, I was unable to convince them that this “Down Stater” could be trusted.

I tried something different.

I threw out the 7-step organizing conversation I had learned. I stopped trying to “rub raw the sores of discontent,” to quote Saul Alinksy. For the most part, I stopped asking people to join the union.

Instead, I spent a lot of time talking with our local affiliate officers, shop stewards, and union activists. In the Diffusion of Innovation model, these would be called the “Innovators” and “Early Adopters.”

I talked with them about how to have conversations with new employees and non-members (“Early Majority” and “Late Majority”). One of the main objectives of this engagement campaign was for the “Innovators” and “Early Adopters” to reach out directly to co-workers and tell them about the good things their union was doing for the employees. We had weekly assignments of who to talk to and what to talk to them about.

But it was also very important that the “Innovators” and “Early Adopters” did not press anyone to join the union. Instead, they would build rapport with their colleagues and make themselves available for any questions people may have. Then, a few weeks later, I would follow up with the employees they had engaged with more information and to see if the employees had any interest in joining the union.

This did not have an immediate positive impact on my ability to build the union. There were many weeks where I fell short of my weekly membership quota.

But it had a very positive long-term effect on community engagement and union building. Because after three to six months of casual community-member to community-member engagement, 90% of every employee I followed up with joined the union. Even the employees who previously told me where I could put my “liberal agenda” joined! Most importantly my “anti-union” turf became one of the few regions where we were gaining more members than we were losing.

Those weeks of missing my quota would be eventually offset by a single week when I would bring in an entire month’s worth of new members. That is how community engagement or union building or marketing & sales work. It takes a consistent message, effort, and time for an innovation to diffuse through social systems and become widely accepted.

Jakob Klaus for Tenacious Change

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