Trust and empowerment inventory for community groups

By Craig Dalton

Author - Craig Dalton
Craig Dalton (biography)

Community groups are often consulted by researchers, government agencies and industry. The issues may be contentious and the relationship vexed by distrust and poor communication. Could an inventory capture the fundamental sources of community frustration and highlight scope for improvement in respect, transparency, fairness, co-learning, and meeting effectiveness from a community perspective?

The trust and empowerment inventory presented below is based on the main sources of community frustration that I have witnessed over two decades as a public health physician and researcher liaising with communities about environmental health risks and it is likely to have broader relevance. Key issues include not being listened to; not being fully informed; inability to raise important issues; lack of decision making power by the researchers, government or industry representatives present (who have to confer with their superiors after the meeting and before they can make decisions); reneging on commitments; no sense of progress; and poor chairing or facilitation.

The inventory is designed to be completed by community members at regular intervals (for example after each meeting). It is helpful if analogous inventories are completed by the other parties (such as researchers, government representatives, industry representatives) about how they perceive the community involvement. An example of community and ‘other party’ inventories is presented side-by-side below. Of course, the inventories would be administered separately and space should also be provided for comments. Comparisons across the perspectives of the community members and the ‘other parties’ then provide a valuable reality check and learning tool.

Questions for trust and empowerment inventories to be filled out by community groups and those involved in consultations with them (such as researchers, government representatives and industry representatives).  Space should also be provided for comments. Designed by Craig Dalton.

The inventory could be used in a number of ways but I suggest having the community members complete the survey individually, average the scores across the individual community forms, then compare the average to the researcher, government agency or industry representatives’ assessments. Examine whether they are in alignment or if there is a divergence in perceptions and consider what can be learned from the comments.

How often the inventory is completed depends on the frequency of meetings. For example, for a community reference group that meets monthly, I would probably have them complete the inventory after the first 3 meetings and then at least quarterly.

Experience with the use of inter- and intra-organisational inventories such as this suggest that just completing an inventory may not lead to change unless a system of accountability is put in place. It may be helpful for the results of the inventory to be openly published as an appendix to minutes or referred “one level up” in the management hierarchy for those from the other parties attending the meetings.

Would this inventory be suitable for the community groups you work with? I would love to hear any feedback or experience with using this or similar tools.

To find out more:
This inventory is from a draft book: Dalton, C. 2019 How NOT to Piss Off a Community – How to work in low-trust environments with integrity and compassion. It can be downloaded at:

Biography: Craig Dalton is a public health physician with Hunter New England Health in New South Wales, Australia and conjoint associate professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle in Newcastle, Australia. He is interested in empowering community members to collaborate as equal members of research teams investigating environmental health issues such as toxic exposures.

16 thoughts on “Trust and empowerment inventory for community groups”

  1. Thank you for this post and the practical advice. Have you considered the role of conflict in community settings? For example, an entry that might say we recognize and handle conflict openly from a position of understanding, as well as resolution. One I have found of utility is: do we look at issues from the perspectives of the past, present and future.

    • Hi Jim, thanks for your comment. Your comment is so brief that I might have missed the essence. People often say conflict is “natural” or “good” if it is expressed. If I get philosophical I would say it is a natural byproduct of subject-object duality that confuses us all. So agree we should strive to seek to understand and resolve by decreasing the distance between parties in a community dispute through dialogue, perspective taking, interest-based negotiation. I can imagine that the past, present and future approach is a variation on perspective taking, sounds good!

      • Thanks, Craig. The perspective is that conflict is a natural part of organizations and, in some ways, it matters little if it is good, bad, or neutral. Sometimes it is significant and other times of little concern. My experience is that a culture that encourages identification and resolution of conflict finds more space to focus on the mission. Of course, as the table implies, without trust it is hard to operate.

  2. Hi Craig,

    I just came across your post today (thanks for tagging me on Twitter Gabriele!).

    It’s great to see a practical tool for evaluating how community members perceive engagement processes. I’ve seen so many academic articles talk about the need for metrics that gauge the impacts of various programs on social processes, but few details on how to do it.

    I could see this as being useful for climate adaptation planning. As a researcher, my students and I frequently hear communities complain about not feeling listened to and that information is not being openly shared with the community.

    One thing I wondered as I read your article is about the people who aren’t in the room. Often in the climate adaptation space, it is certain types of people with particular interests who attend community engagement workshops. I wonder how we might gauge how the broader community perceives the engagement processes and find out what we could do to bring them in.

    Thanks for sharing!


    • Agree Sonia, the people not in the room are another world away at times. I think there a great range of online tools (of course introducing another bias) that can be used to try to address this.

  3. Craig and I2S Community,

    I too have noticed this trend and agree with your findings. After speaking to numerous community organizations and listening to their comments, I took a different approach. My position at the university is as a Research Coordinator (non-researcher who also lives in the community). I’ve invested time with the community organizations to form a neutral but permanent relationship with them. By investing I mean, attending fundraisers, meeting with them for coffee, and sometimes happy hour.

    Since then a handful of community organizations have asked me to join their board. When researchers are needing to collaborate with community organizations I make the connection and help translate needs vs. expertise between the two. I remain the constant communicator.

    Thanks for writing this article.
    Yvonne Natoli

    • Hi Yvonne, very interesting – you sound like a “researcher to community matchmaker or broker”. Are you employed by the university (which one?) or is this a voluntary position? Wonder if it is a US uni with an extension service component? The US extension service models seem very community oriented. Interested to hear more. regard, Craig.

      • Craig,

        You are correct, I work at a university in the US, Texas State University specifically. My title is Research Coordinator however my position does not require me to develop the relationships with the community. I have lived and worked in my community for over 15 years therefore I took it upon myself to create better relationships between town and gown. I also planned two networking events over the past three years with researchers and community organization to spark community engaged research projects.

        In some ways I think that not having an academic position and doing this on my own is a benefit. I am just someone who sees that there is are needs within the community and experts in these fields at the university. Why not help each other?


        • Very interesting Yvonne, if you were to write up, even dot point, some insights/successes it would be of great interest to many universities – certainly mine. regards, Craig.

  4. Thanks for sharing this tool. I am very interested in exploring ways to use the tool, or versions of it, in community work. Has any psychometric analysis been conducted on the instrument, yielding evidence of validity and reliability? If not, are you interested in that type of investigation?

    • Hi Kirsten,

      It would be great if you wanted to formally investigate the tool. I have not trialled the tool as presented here, I have asked many of the questions informally of participants and it is mostly based upon community feedback and observation of frustrations among community members serving on committees.

      One thing that would be useful in evaluation would be to explore any “surprises” or insights gained by the agency staff using it. Perhaps a Most Significant Change methodology would be useful in looking at the impact of the tool for both community and agency staff? regards, Craig.

  5. Thanks for this post Craig. You raise a very important issue regarding consultation/involvement and how infrequently we assess whether we’re actually achieving what we intend and in a respectful way. We do what we think is right (or are required to do) but we don’t often check if we’re getting it right.

    I like your inventory, although I agree with Linda about some of the language. I am just about to undertake a written evaluation of our long-running mental health research advisory group. I will trial your inventory with them to see how it goes, as it looks like an improvement on what our group used previously. I’m not entirely sure its title will work in the mental health context but we’ll see if anyone comments.

    One thing our group suggested (after their dislike of our previous feedback survey) was to include evaluation/feedback as a standing discussion item on every meeting agenda. This was to make it less formal than a survey or inventory, and encourage discussion of issues as they arise. This has facilitated a culture of openness about what is going right and wrong. As you suggest, we keep a register of feedback against which our actions are recorded. I see regular use of your inventory as a useful addition, provided my group agree.


    • HI Michelle, it would be great to hear how the inventory works with your group. I agree an evaluation in every meeting is worthwhile – below is a reference to this from the book:

      I am on a non-profit board and at the end of each board meeting three questions are at the end of the agenda:
      • Did we talk about the right things?
      • Did we spend the right amount of time on the right things?
      • Did everyone get to contribute to the discussion?
      We try to monitor for this during the meeting too, of course.

  6. Hello Craig and I2S Community,
    Craig, thanks for pursuing this important issue of understanding the perceptions of community members and other stakeholders–very important, but often overlooked.I really like the title of your draft book!

    I think you have included a lot of important markers of trust, respect, communication and empowerment. One suggestion is to have community members and other stakeholders pilot this inventory. It’s likely that they may have good refinements to suggest. For example, the term “reciprocal learning” may be confusing to community members (and perhaps other stakeholders). Likewise, it may not be clear what is meant by “Other parties can commit and commit on behalf of their organization, rather than having to take requests on notice.”

    Having community members and other stakeholders pilot this tool is a powerful example of co-learning.
    Thanks again for this contribution,
    Linda Neuhauser


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