Strategic Planning as a Community Engagement Tool

By Sarah Keister Armstrong

It’s a foundational value for libraries to be welcoming and inclusive. However, we must remind ourselves not to view these terms simply as passive adjectives, but rather as active verbs that are a part of our work within our communities. One way to actively welcome and include our community members is through strategic planning processes that are designed to actively engage all segments of our communities.

While we likely are aware of many existing barriers to library usage, what may be less easy to comprehend are the barriers to engaging in a participatory process. A strategic planning process is an ideal time to identify some of these barriers and begin working to alleviate them.

1. Use the opportunity of your strategic planning process to connect with members of your community that are not routine users of the library.

The question of how to reach non-users has been a common one in library strategic planning during the past few years. Philosophies differ regarding how much time and effort should be spent to try to reach segments of the population who do not currently engage with the library or its services. Some processes make this aim a focal point and devote significant resources to seeking out and engaging non-users. Others move forward in the belief that the best way to expand the library’s user base is to maximize the quality of its services and offerings for all. Regardless, there is definite value in thinking about who the people are who don’t use your library.

RAILS recently published a post on attracting new customers to the library on its new My Library Is… blog, and its advice to build relationships outside the library’s walls is spot-on. Community organizations have a unique capacity to reach audiences that are unfamiliar with the library. They also have established trust with the community members they serve that is needed to communicate information about the library in a dependable way. For example, groups that serve veterans and military families, organizations that serve immigrants and refugees, and faith-based organizations are increasingly engaging with libraries, particularly as the library community continues to emphasize that it is a place for everyone.

Your library’s connections with other community organizations may be helpful in discovering and understanding segments of the community that could be better served through increased library usage.

Examples include:

  • Those who are minimally aware of the library
  • Those who might have a family member or neighbor that regularly uses the library; and
  • Those who visit the library every couple of years to vote or to access a notary public, but don’t see how they fit into what they perceive are the library’s offerings.

2. When your strategic plan is completed, capitalize on the opportunity to communicate back to the public about the goals you have set and the impact members of the public have had on the decision making process.

When people fill out a survey, provide written suggestions on a comment card, or send a quick email with an idea, they want to see follow up. They want to know that they were heard, and more so, that their input was seriously considered.

That’s why strategic planning has such natural connections with community engagement campaigns. When a library invests time and resources into seeking input from the community during the strategic planning process, it is important to communicate the results of that phase of the project back to the public. Increasingly, strategic plans consist of a public-facing document that both demonstrates the overarching goals and strategies crafted in response to community input and functions as a communication piece to engage the public.

So who should you tell about your new strategic plan? Everyone! Reference it in your marketing and communications with the residents of the community you serve. Share it with the municipal governments, community-based organizations, and social service agencies that your library works with (or that you would like to work with). Emphasize that you appreciate the feedback your public has provided and that your library is making discernable actions as a result.

3. Be conscious about the voices that are invited and able to participate in any community feedback gathering stage.

It’s easy for us to engage with those already inside our social and professional bubbles. Inherently, community engagement efforts require us to reach beyond those bubbles. During a strategic planning process, or anytime your organization is seeking external input, it is essential for your library to be aware of the voices that are at the table. It also is important to recognize the professional expertise of individuals working in libraries, and balance that with the feedback received from those we serve, which can sometimes conflict with what we consider to be best practices.

Even at times when we are not directly soliciting feedback from those already engaged with the library, we still need to remain cognizant of the bias we may have toward the needs of our most loyal users and supporters.

There’s a natural tendency to approach strategic planning with a mindset that assumes we already know what the library’s strengths and weaknesses are, and that there is no community feedback that would surprise us. Of course, there are countless ways libraries have been surprised by unexpected tidbits within their community feedback.

But even if the data you collect through a survey or series of listening sessions or casual conversations simply reaffirms what you already know, there is value in reaching out to the community you serve. This is especially true when we can lengthen our tables and invite new voices to be heard.


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