3.3 Community partners

Working with community partners is a key part of successful public engagement. Community partners are usually organisations or individuals who are neither affiliated to your university nor members of your academic research community.

Examples of possible community partners might be:

  • charities
  • community groups or voluntary organisations
  • creative practitioners
  • arts or heritage organisations
  • libraries, archives, and museums
  • businesses
  • schools

A group of adults and children hold up a giant puppet made of card and fabric. The puppet has a long snake-like body and a large head with snakes for hair. Two signs are visible in the picture. One reads 'Little Angel Theatre'; the other reads 'Being Human: festival of the humanities'.

In some cases community partners may be local organisations which have connections with a regional audience or interest group; sometimes they may be wider-reaching national or even international institutions.

Earlier in this course we noted the importance of mutual benefit for effective public engagement. Any relationship between a researcher and a community partner should be mutually beneficial. The benefits which each party gains will most likely be different. For a community partner, one obvious benefit might be that they learn from your research expertise (for example, you may be able to help interpret the contents of a local archive, or to share insights into source material with a theatre company in order to produce a new version of a play). Other potential benefits for a community partner might also be that by working in collaboration they gain access to a new source of funding, or are able to build capacity and skills within their own organisation, or perhaps augment their programme of events or increase footfall at their venue because of the time you spend on a project with them.

Outline image showing a group of people in silhouette seated around a table. Above their heads are five 'thought bubbles' in bright colours.Meanwhile there are also significant benefits to you as a researcher. You will almost certainly learn something new by working with a community partner; this might be in the form of new skills, or by gaining fresh perspectives on your research topic. In practical terms too, community partners can be invaluable in helping you to reach your target audience. They may have access to a venue which is already familiar to the people who you wish to engage with, they may be connected to networks where they can advertise your public engagement activities, or they may be able to advise on the best ways of building a relationship with your target audience. In some cases a specific type of community partner will be essential for the kind of work you want to do. For example, if you want to work with primary school children, then you will almost certainly need to have the support of a local school, or of an organisation where parents spend time with their children.

In many cases you will need to factor in to the budget for your public engagement project the money Drawing of a calculatorneeded to pay for services or time contributed by a community partner (for example, the cost of hiring a space, or the hourly/daily rate for work carried out by a creative practitioner). You might also, however, find that some are able to offer support ‘in kind’ in return for the benefits which they derive from the partnership. ‘In kind’ support might be things like help with advertising, or use of a venue for free, or perhaps access to equipment or other resources. It is important to have an open discussion about funds early on so that both you and your community partner have clear expectations about which costs are being covered by each party.

It is always worth investing time and patience in building good working relationships with your community partners; bear in mind, however, that although for you the most important element is likely to be the sharing of your research with a wider audience, they may have different aims and objectives in mind. Again, communication is key to understanding each other’s priorities and to ensuring that all those involved are able to benefit from the relationship.

This toolkit prepared by the Being Human festival team provides some helpful advice on how to find a community partner, along with some tips on how to build an effective relationship with your partners. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement also has a series of guides to working with a variety of different types of community partners; you can find these here.