Getting Prepared: Seven Key Lessons from Remote Community Visits

Getting Prepared: Seven Key Lessons from Remote Community Visits

Community Works and Ninti One visit Ngukurr to document key achievements of the Stronger Communities for Children program in Ngukurr. Pictured left to right: Ian Gumbula, Daphne Daniels, Kirsty McKellar.

Despite their remoteness, communities in hard-to-reach locations across the Northern Territory are receiving outside visitors as often as every week.

When I visited Ngukurr in Arnhem Land earlier this year, I was surprised to hear about the frequency with which consultants were visiting the community. Once a week or more, government staff, independent consultants and employees from private firms were flying in and out of Ngukurr, often staying for days at a time.

These visitors come to oversee projects their departments are funding, to monitor and evaluate progress and achievements, and to complete independent research or studies, and more. Many come to measure their deliverables, outputs, outcomes and impacts … however we know from our work in the sector that not all spend time considering how to engage with the community in a meaningful, respectful manner.

What struck me in Ngukurr was how appreciative people were around how we conducted our work, leading me to start asking questions about what other people were doing that was so different to our own practice. Below are seven lessons I drew from these conversations.

Check rules of entry

Check rules of entry for whether you need a visitor permit or pass to visit the community. You can find this information online through council or state and territory websites. Some of these communities have strict rules that you must follow. For instance, some remote Indigenous communities are dry communities where alcohol is prohibited.

Complete desktop research

Complete desktop research on demographics; know the Traditional Custodians and/or clan groups, what languages are spoken, the population and any other information that can better prepare you. Many of these details might look different upon arrival, but at least you’ll enter with some sense of the community make-up. You can find some of this information on the AITSIS website, the Australia Bureau of Statistics data website, and regional and local council websites.

Contact appropriate community members

Contact appropriate community members well in advance of the dates you’d like to visit. In some instances, this means connecting with Traditional Custodians, and in others, it could mean finding and speaking with key community leaders. Even better, plan your visit with a local consultant who knows the community and who the community knows and trusts.

Decide together on a suitable date

Decide together on a suitable date for the consultation to take place. Like anywhere, people appreciate being consulted on when they can meet and have time to be fully engaged in the conversation. I have seen situations where dates have been set by consultants, only to be completely rejected by a community because they were not discussed prior. People lead busy lives, and it’s unreasonable to expect communities or local organisations to give up their time at the drop of a hat. Find a time that works for the community. 

Come with an offering

Come with an offering, especially for group meetings such as Focus Group Discussions. An offering like lunch, snacks or tea and biscuits is usually appreciated and demonstrates you value and are thankful for the participants’ time and contribution.


Remain flexible

Remain flexible throughout the duration of your stay. Remember, people lead busy lives, and a consultation may not be at the top of their priority list. People have paid work, domestic labour and other work obligations, sorry business and other community commitments too. Be open to meeting with people at a later time than planned or on a different day.


Ask yourself: is my visit necessary?

Ask yourself: is my visit necessary? In many instances, you are likely to get richer, more in-depth and accurate information by speaking with communities in person. The community may also prefer you meet them in-person, rather than correspond online. However, if you feel your work may not require a community visit, you should be weighing up whether you think the benefits elicited through your visit outweigh the disruption to community your stay might bring.

Taking the time to plan out your visit is pivotal to meaningful community engagement built on mutual respect. Working with community stakeholders throughout the process will ensure there are no unpleasant surprises for the community during your visit, and will lead to a better experience for both yourself and the community.

Making MEL easier

Making MEL easier

Monitoring Evaluation and Learning, often called MEL for short, is the practice of collecting and analysing data on a project or program. MEL enables project progress, impacts and performance to be measured and lessons to be generated for improvement of future work.

So many organisations with which we collaborate or provide support in Community Works struggle to achieve an effective approach to MEL. It is either something they feel ill-equipped to do, a reporting burden or a reluctant add-on to projects that are already underway. Many teams rarely appear that they are comfortably and competently managing MEL as a key part of their work.

For MEL to be truly integrated to project work, this situation needs to change. Part of the problem is that MEL is a professional discipline all of its own and one that is akin to research. But most program staff do not have a research background. When educators or health workers or community development practitioners take up a position with an organisation, they are often not acquainted with MEL because it has not been part of their formal training or even their previous experience. Faced with the complex task of defining indicators to measure, collecting data relevant to each and then analysing the data, it is not surprising that they appear overwhelmed. This is especially true where organisations do not already have their own data collection processes and systems.

So, what can be done? Here are suggestions that draw on our experience at Community Works:

Bring in community voices

Most staff working in community or non-government organisations, or for directly for government agencies, are accustomed to speaking regularly with the users of services or with participants in projects. Part of their job is to build trust and rapport with people in the community.

To make MEL easier, these strengths ought to be harnessed. In other words, some of the data collected should bring the perspectives of the community into the data by asking community members what their experiences have been since the project started. A small number of well-designed interviews and focus groups can provide high-quality data and rich insights into projects and programs.


Choose indicators with care

Some changes are complex to measure and may require extensive work to develop indicators and then work out how to collect meaningful data. Examples are community resilience or effective governance.

Rather than trying to design a framework for MEL that encompasses the full complexity of a subject, it may be valid to choose aspects that are more measureable and to focus on those. In the case of resilience, a measureable component is the level of confidence that people in the community feel about the steps they will take when a future emergency occurs. For governance, a key element could be the development of the skills of the chair and other members of a community board.

Use Theories of Change

A Theory of Change (or ToC) describes the key cause-effect relationships that underlie a development intervention. The discipline of focussing on the basic rationale for a project or program can help us decide with greater clarity exactly which data we need to collect.

Working with project teams, I have frequently concluded that more time devoted to discussing a ToC and less time spent on brainstorming indicators will lead to a better plan for MEL. Developing a ToC may be yet another discipline for an overstretched project worker to learn, but the benefits justify the effort. The discipline of developing a ToC can be valuable for anything from a single project activity, like a women’s  group or a learning activity at a drop-in centre, to a major program scheduled over several years.

Less can be more

A few times recently I have been asked to review logical frameworks that represent the designs of projects or programs. Sometimes the column that includes indicators is very long. In other words, there are too many indicators. The impression is that the project team has thought of every single measure that could be applied but nobody has then culled the list to one that is manageable. One to three indicators per activity is usually enough for a logical framework. For a project or program as a whole, then between four and eight indicators ought to suffice.

 We must always keep in mind that practising MEL costs time and money. Focussing on a smaller number of indicators is more efficient and less overwhelming for a team to manage than trying to apply a comprehensive set of measures that cover every aspect of the project. There is little to be gained from adding more indicators if the existing ones already enable effective MEL.

Direction of travel

For positive changes that can take years to realise, such as changes in attitudes and beliefs, it is unrealistic to expect a project of one, three or five years in duration to achieve those changes. In these situations, MEL should therefore concentrate on indicators that represent positive steps towards those longer-term goals. We call this the direction of travel. For example, for an individual or a group of people to show greater awareness of the health effects of smoking is an important step towards a change of attitude towards smoking.

Coupled with use of a Theory of Change, being clear about the direction of travel is valuable in reducing unrealistic ambitions of MEL, making it less daunting and more effective for even small organisations with limited resources to use effectively.

Rather than MEL being a burden for many teams and therefore done either poorly or not at all, it can be made easier. As a result, the value of doing it becomes apparent again. With data on the difference that projects and programs make, we are in a better position to know whether they are actually working. And we also learn why that might be the case and how to improve our work in the future.

Getting it right in the design of community processes

Getting it right in the design of community processes

A regular part of our activities at Community Works is the design of processes that enable communities and organisations to achieve their aims around planning, training, exploring new directions or bringing different people together to discuss a complex issue. Recent examples include:

  • Short online sessions for NGOs in Chile and Ecuador to discuss organisational development and community engagement strategies
  • Developing theory of change statements with organisations in India and Australia
  • Planning for a training workshop on community development for a disability services provider in Sydney
  • >Forest management planning workshops in three rural communities in Australia
  • Designing capacity-building sessions on mental health for support workers in communities affected by floods in Pakistan.

In every case, there are judgements to be made at the outset and during the work itself about the way the process runs (its tone, pace and level of interaction) and the content to be included. The more we are involved in this work, the more I have understood that the value to the participants depends enormously on these judgement calls. This article offers reflections on the subject taken from our own practice.

The most important starting point for optimal decisions on the process is to appreciate and empathise with the participants who have been invited. The answers to simple questions have great value, such as who the participants are, what kind of work they do and what their expectations are likely to be? A level of accuracy around the replies to these questions is very helpful in designing the process, especially if there is no time to meet or to survey them in advance.

Let’s consider an example to illustrate the point. We are often asked to run short training workshops on, for example, monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) or community engagement for teams delivering health-related services. The individuals have probably been recruited because of their skills and background in a specific health field, like working with people vulnerable to addiction or supporting young mothers. While the training might be critically important to them, the participants may not have had any exposure to the subject before. In fact, they could be anxious that the training will be very technical and not easy to understand.

In a situation like this, we spend a lot of time working out the best way to build people’s confidence around a subject. In the case of MEL, with its language of indicators, data collection and analysis, participants might feel that they are being asked to become researchers, but without any prior experience in that subject. The pace of the workshop and the choice of content is therefore vital if they are to feel they have achieved progress through a short training workshop.

Another situation common to our work is the design of community consultation processes. Let’s say a large organisation, such as a government department, is developing a plan for the management of natural resources in a region and they wish to consult with local people. For this to be a meaningful process, the key judgements to be made are around the level of openness and inclusivity that is desirable within the constraints of time and other resources. Who will be invited to participate? How much of the consultation will be conducted through surveys and how much will be in-person? How many locations will be the site of a consultation workshop, especially if travel distances are large?

In a recent example of this kind of process, the key judgement call was that work in small groups would be an effective way to make sure everyone had a chance to talk about the key issues. It also provided an opportunity for everyone present in the workshops could hear everything that had been said by everyone else. In other words, we prioritised openness as a principle instead of using the time available to analyse what the groups had discussed. Everyone’s voice was heard because their comments were written on cards and read out to the entire participant group. The analytical work was deferred to the next part of the process. The result was that the workshop generated content for later analysis and feedback was that this was most valuable to the participants because they felt that their work had been taken seriously.

Turning to another scenario that is common to Community Works, we are often asked at the outset of a process about the degree of interactivity that will be involved. By this, I mean how much of the process will be characterised by presentations followed by questions and answers as opposed to a more interactive approach using group and individual exercises that emphasise everyone being active in the process.

It might be the case that some staff of organisations actually resent being required to attend workshops and that some community members are tired of meetings. For that reason, it might be assumed that those people come along intending to sit back in their chairs and listen, but not necessarily to participate actively. Our experience is that we have never received feedback that there was too much interactivity in a workshop. My starting point in planning a process is therefore to aim to get people active and engaged from the start, but in a way that takes into account who the participants are, how reserved they might be, their comfort in the main language of the workshop and their physical ability to move around if we are proposing exercises that require people to be up on their feet. In other words, the judgement to be made on interactivity ought to be influenced by our empathy for the people who are going to be there.

The best recent example of a decision we made to be highly interactive was in a training workshop conducted by Javeriana University, Community Works and Kindred for a group of mental health professionals in Colombia. Participants ranged from senior academics and experienced physicians to early-career practitioners and students. They responded to the group and individual exercises put to them by energetically drawing visual models, responding to questions we posed and taking part in role-playing scenarios. This approach may not have been effective with a less open group of people, but here it maximised the value of the workshop for everyone.

These reflections point us in a similar direction. The design of professional and community workshops and related processes must start with an appreciation of the people who will be participating. Investing time in finding out who is coming, the relevant aspects of their backgrounds and their likely expectations is fundamental to achieving the best results for everyone. At the same time, the information needs to be used for careful judgments on the design of every aspect of the process.

Framing matters in community engagement

Framing matters in community engagement

A common scenario in development work is that outsiders wish to talk with a community. The purpose could be to consult with them about a particular subject, gauge their interest in a new program or seek their views on how a problem might best be tackled. Commonly, the outsiders are from a government agency, an NGO or a consulting company. The community people could be staff of local organisations, members of the local council, selected population groups (such as parents of young children) or people invited at random to meet the visitors.

In recent months I have worked on several projects for different clients that have involved exactly these kinds of processes. Subjects of discussion have included eye health, new child care services, parenting skills, education initiatives, collective impact and mental health. In development practice, the over-arching term for this work is community engagement.

Community engagement refers to the process of building working relationships between external professionals and local people and groups. While good practice in community engagement can be achieved through applying certain principles and strategies, what has struck me about the work we have been doing recently is that the way the questions are framed has been critically important.

Let me explain.

When an outsider asks questions of somebody from a community, they are almost always being intrusive. This can happen even if the subject matter seems innocuous. For example, if I ask someone to tell me about the condition of housing in the community because the organisation I represent is interested in helping to improve it, this might appear to be a reasonable question about materials and maintenance. But it can mean more than that to the people being asked the question.

Years ago, I worked as a surveyor for the National Housing Survey in the United Kingdom and noticed how anxious people became when telling me their bathroom was mouldy or their roof leaked. Asking questions about these subjects invites the participant to point out where something has gone wrong in the design, construction or maintenance of the place where they live. Maybe they feel responsible or negligent. Perhaps they are nervous about pointing out shortcomings in the work of other people or organisations.

An important principle is to recognise that many subjects are sensitive and community consultation can be intrusive. If the condition of housing is a sensitive subject, so will be topics around education, health, water use, parenting, enterprise and almost any other subject. The way questions are framed is therefore important if outsiders are to encourage people to participate in the conversation in a way that suits them best. By framing I refer to the way we say something, how we say it, what we include or leave out and what we emphasise. There may be several ways of asking a question and each one can lead to a different level of comfort and engagement by the person to which it is asked.

Here are some insights on ways we have framed questions to encourage people to respond without feeling pressured, disempowered or even offended:

Questions should be asked in a respectful way, as part of a conversation. To achieve this aim, the outsider should use a set of topics for discussion instead of a list of rigid questions that they must complete. People should not feel that they are under pressure to respond.


Have you any thoughts about safety in the community? Is there anything you have seen or heard that might help improve safety?

At the same time, it is important to avoid words than may be common in a professional work setting but are rarely heard in the community, especially where people are using English as a second or third language. For example, if I ask someone ‘what aspects of the youth program did you like the best?’, the word aspects might be entirely new and not clear to them. A better way to ask the question could be ‘what did you like about the youth program?’.

Similarly, some words may be used differently in the community to the way they are used in a professional workplace. For example, if I ask ‘what conditions need to be in place for the program to be successful?’, people may interpret conditions as being about the state of something, like the condition of a car. Removing the word from the question makes it easier to understand, like this ‘what needs to be in place for the program to be successful?’.

Referring to one of the questions above, ‘Can you tell me how using the sports facilities has been for you?’, it would be easy to say ‘Can you tell me how the experience of using the sports facilities has been for you?’’ but the word experience might confuse people and so it is best left out. In trying to use plain English, I make mistakes all the time. Getting better is an ongoing challenge.

To conclude, the discipline required in thinking through the way in which questions are framed and the words that are used is a healthy one. There is an important ethical dimension to the subject due to the potential for causing harm to relationships in the community or intruding on delicate matters through insensitive questions.

Practising community-led development

Practising community-led development

Practising community-led development

Steve Fisher

On the face of it, community-led development ought to be straight forward. A group of people with common interests decide on a goal they wish to achieve or a problem they want to tackle. They enlist external support, usually meaning technical knowledge, materials and funds. Then they develop a plan for something that is probably called a project. They go ahead and implement it.

In the process of developing a new course on practising community-led development, I have been thinking about what makes the subject more complicated in practice than it might seem from the outside. A starting point is to set out the parameters. Examples of community-led projects fall into four categories:

  1. Local infrastructure improvements, such as roads, water supplies or better housing
  2. New or improved enterprises or services to address gaps in, for example, childcare or education
  3. Initiatives designed to tackle problems that the community might be experiencing, such as conflict or homelessness
  4. Projects to build local skills and capacity for specific purposes, such as youth leadership or community governance.

The basis for successful projects are the methods and techniques, skills and aptitudes that define community-led development practice. Applied with skill and care, they enable the objectives of a project to be achieved. But communities are complex, so nothing is easy.

At the centre of most projects are a set of relationships between the community, an implementing organisation, some specialised contractors and a government agency or a private funder (or both). The decision-making processes, the power and the authority that are exercised through those relationships have a profound influence on the eventual outcomes. This means that the agreements between parties and the way they are applied are fundamental.

The question of which people from the community participate in the project and how they participate has long exercised anyone who has worked in this field. Strategies that consider the priorities of different population groups within the community, as well as those from outside the project who may be affected by it, are central to effective practice. The roles of women, men, young people, people with disabilities and minority groups within the community need to be defined, especially when key decisions are being made. 

All projects need to be designed. In other words, they require the parts to be brought together in a way that enables them to be implemented. These components include clear objectives, a team, resources and knowledge and a set of defined and scheduled activities (the actual work to be done).

Similarly, all projects must be managed in an accountable way to enable the design to be implemented. The role of data is central to effective project management, whether to gauge progress, to obtain the right measure of needs and priorities of the community or in the monitoring and evaluation of the work.  Processes for learning and improving through the data collected are also part of the overall picture.

Given that community-led projects are concerned with improving the health, welfare, safety, prosperity and happiness of people, then considerations of ethics and equity are central to practising community-led development.

As we develop the course, I will provide further updates through the Community Works blog.

The nuts and bolts of strengthening community organisations

The nuts and bolts of strengthening community organisations

The nuts and bolts

of strengthening community organisations

Steve Fisher

Many years ago I had the opportunity to work with communities of Quechua-speaking people in the high Andes of the north of Peru. In one instance I was part of a team conducting a needs assessment to work out what programs or services a local NGO might be able to offer.

In one of the first communities we visited, we stopped in the street to talk with one of the senior men. It was cold and misty. He was wearing a big hat and a thick poncho. He looked weathered by the climate. We asked him what programs already existed in the community, especially supported or managed by government agencies. His reply was ‘el estado no llega aquí or ‘the state doesn’t reach here’. He seemed surprised we didn’t know that.

This experience, and many others since, have often led me to think about ways in which social development needs are best met if the government doesn’t arrive, which is the situation for most needs in most communities in many countries. The other options are the private sector, non-government or civil society organisations or the community itself.

Of course, the state might not be the best option anyway. During a recent project, I learned that a single department of the Government of Victoria (a state in Australia) has contracts with over a thousand NGOs, funding them to provide access to social services. Of course, this arrangement depends on the government having the resources, the mandate and the responsibility to support services in this way. Without budgets, then NGOs are not in a position to sustain services. And if service users are not able to pay the full cost, then the private sector cannot sustain a viable service either.

And so we arrive at local or community-based organisations. There are many very effective examples which are unknown beyond their own location. Two years ago in rural Colombia, my colleague Carolina and I visited an organisation that provides education and support services for children with disabilities. Their work is largely sustained through volunteers and contributions from local people and businesses. While we were working there a store owner delivered a donation of food and our accommodation was provided free of charge by a nearby hotel.

The Community Works team often discusses with community organisations how they can strengthen their work. We have been volunteers ourselves and so we have insights too. Faced with the day-to-day challenges of supporting their participants, few organisations have the time to reflect. Sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know. But given space to think about ways to strengthen their work, we commonly hear the same questions, which I share below with comments on approaches that have previously been effective in my experience.

How can we build our technical capacity?

If we take the example of community mental health and its myriad sub-divisions like suicide prevention and support for people who are lonely and isolated, organisations can often feel lacking in clinical skills if there is no trained mental health specialist on the staff. The same applies to a number of fields that benefit from or require specialist technical knowledge, which in the social sector include aged care, disability services, early childhood development and many others.

Without suggesting there are easy answers to any of these challenges, in a situation where technical capacity is lacking a sector development strategy can be a worthwhile option. This means that organisations work together as a group and seek external advisors to support the sector as a whole. The economies of scale can make specialist technical support more affordable and the prospect is more attractive to specialists because they have the opportunity to support a wider range of situations. I have seen versions of this approach work well in India and Sri Lanka, for example.


How can we innovate?

Organisations often have many ideas but few tools to develop what has inspired them into a project with objectives, a plan, milestones, resources and a means to sustain itself. Introducing methods like a theory of change, logic models, conceptual frameworks and a structured way of preparing a design document can be an empowering, even liberating experience, because it helps organisations crystallise what they might have been talking about for a long time.

A facilitated workshop can be a very effective way of supporting the process of turning an idea into a project, as I have seen on multiple occasions. Our publication The Facilitation Mosaic, available on the Community Works website, provides guidance on making workshops work.


How can we strengthen our management and governance processes?

The ways in which decisions are made and leadership and management works are often greatly influenced by the skills of people with often diverse backgrounds. Many local people who volunteer for organisations or are members of their board often have strong skills and experience, but from sectors unrelated to that of the organisation that are supporting. A foster care organisation may have a local estate agent and a solicitor as board members, for example. This is helpful, but they may lack social or development sector knowledge and will not necessarily know what good practice is, outside the professional disciplines that they come from. For that reason, organisations sometimes worry about whether they are governing and managing in a way that follows what might be called good development or social sector practice.

Again, there are tools, methods and best practice principles that can help. For example, collecting data on participation and impact for the work of the organisation is essential in any effort to build support and funding. Ensuring that strategies exist for community engagement and protocols for cultural safety are other important steps. Grounding the work of the organisation in published research and knowledge of a field of work is essential. All these elements of strengthening management and governance can be achieved by seeking external support or networking with others working in the field. A good example in Australia is SNAICC, the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, and the National Rural Health Alliance, both of which hold national conferences that are milestone events for many organisations and their staff.

How can we attract funding?

Many community organisations are not compliant with conditions that apply to philanthropic funding. They might lack a board, a strategy, proper registration or a constitution. And even if they do comply, the skills to prepare a compelling application for funding might not be available to them. We have also seen situations in which organisations struggle to find time to reply to enquiries from interested funders, such are the constraints to their management capacity.

It is too easy to suggest here that training is the answer, but training plus a period of support and coaching for a few months or more can make a huge difference to the ability of an organisation to tell the story of its work in a way that is competitive when it comes to applying for funding. Again, we have seen it for ourselves.

To conclude, this article comes from a belief in the value and the positive impact of community-led initiatives in social development. While their achievements are immeasurable, there is no doubt that so much more can be done when organisations are able to grow and become stronger. How to develop better strategies to strengthen community organisations is a subject worthy of much more attention.