What Is Community Engagement?

A plain language description of community engagement:

Community engagement is an inclusive approach to teaching, research, and scholarship.

By bringing the community and university together to share knowledge, wisdom, and resources, we strengthen how we learn, deepen what we know, and have more impact on issues that matter.

In 2023, our office developed the above “plain language description” for community engagement, based on its scholarly history and informed by the past ten years of extensive consultation with SFU faculty and staff.

Why? Because the words “community” and “engagement” mean many things to many people. And there are times when we need to communicate the essential features of scholarly community engagement clearly, while trying to minimize jargon and confusion. 

SFU’s 2020 ThoughtExchange about community engagement validated the need for this: among the 633 responses, meanings for community engagement arguably included:

  • Working with community partners on issues that matter to them
  • Consulting people in the community for the purposes of gaining permission and/or as data sources
  • Internal communications to students, staff, and faculty (the “SFU community”)
  • SFU students only (also the “SFU community”)
  • Individual campus populations (e.g. Vancouver campus community)
  • Community outreach for the purposes of knowledge mobilization
  • Community outreach for the purposes of recruitment

While the plain language description is useful for clarifying conversations, supporting the advancement of community engagement in the post-secondary environment often requires the adoption of a specific definition to provide clarity for key strategic decision making. A definition used in this way must be clear and focussed, even if that means leaving some of the meanings behind.

Clear definitions of community engagement can:

  • help to guide how a university directs funding to advance scholarship and impact,
  • inform strategic decision-making on institutional initiatives that require strong partnerships,
  • help identify exemplary work so that the people involved can be properly recognized and so that others can learn from how it was done, and
  • advance the evolution of academic policy, e.g., some universities have explored how community engagement can best be recognized and assessed in fulfillment of research and teaching activity quotas in tenure and promotion (see Note 1 for a specific example).

SFU has adopted the Carnegie definition of community engagement.

In 2006, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching piloted its Elective Classification for Community Engagement, the purpose of which is to identify and support campuses in developing robust infrastructure—resources, policies, even buildings—to advance community engagement as a scholarly and democratic practice.

A key feature of the classification is its definition of community engagement. It might not echo everyone's personal meaning for "community engagement", but it  successfully strengthens academic practice by clearly guiding decision making and resource allocation.

The Carnegie Definition of community engagement

Community engagement describes collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.

The purpose of community engagement is the partnership of college and university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching, and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good.

The first paragraph (sometimes known as the “process” portion of the definition) describes the characteristic methodological features of community engagement: a focus on relationships, knowledge sharing, and reciprocity. The second paragraph (the “purpose” portion) describes some of the reasons why students, researchers, and community partners might choose to collaborate.

The purpose portion often captures the attention and aspirations of people who are curious about community engagement; words like “democracy”, “common good”, etc., are great at igniting passion and imagination. But it’s the process portion that really describes the mechanism by which community engagement works: collaboration, "mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge", partnership and reciprocity. 

Traditionally, academics “discover” or “create” the new knowledge and “mobilize” it “to” the community. But with community engagement, knowledge creation and knowledge mobilization are two-way, reciprocal processes. Not only is the community learning from the university, but the university—its researchers, students, staff, and administrators—must be open to receiving knowledge from the community.

Community engagement is shaped by relationships between those in the institution and those outside the institution that are grounded in the qualities of reciprocity, mutual respect, shared authority, and co-creation of goals and outcomes. Such relationships are by their very nature trans-disciplinary (knowledge transcending the disciplines and the college or university) and asset-based (where the strengths, skills, and knowledges of those in the community are validated and legitimized).

 – 2024 First Time Documenation Guide to the Application

In other words, the community is more than just a source of data—there is important knowledge making in the community that should be respected and welcomed into all aspects of a project, whether it’s research, experiential education, or something else. Instead of creating knowledge “about” or “for” the community, the Carnegie definition of community engagement describes a practice where people in the university work with people in the community to create knowledge together.

SFU’s 2013 community engagement strategy (2013) formally adopted the process portion of Carnegie’s definition (p.2). This informed a lot of work, including SFU’s Community Engagement Initiative, the Warren Gill Award for Community Impact, and the wide consultations that led into the development of SFU’s Strategic Community Engagement Plan (2019), which was accepted by SFU’s Board of Governors in October of 2019 and which formally adopted the full Carnegie definition, including the purpose statement (p.7-8).

Community engagement is an established scholarly practice

Many people don’t realize that community engagement, defined this way, enjoys a rich tradition of scholarship that spans decades and includes work by researchers the world over. But it does, and there's good reason for it: community engagement, as it is academically defined, has a remarkable ability to strengthen teaching and research while at the same time result in meaningful and relevant community impact. Cunningham & Smith (2020), referencing Boyer (1996) and the Kellogg Commission (1999), summarize how this realization dawned in US Higher Education:

Higher education was challenged to address communities’ most pressing needs in what Boyer (1996) referred to as a reaffirmation of its “historic commitment” (p. 11). He made a call for engagement, urging higher education institutions to partner with their communities in search of solutions to our most pressing community issues. This challenge was further emphasized when the Kellogg Commission (1999) issued a report calling on higher education to do more and go beyond outreach and service in what the commission referred to as “engagement.” The commission urged that teaching, research, and service be redesigned to better address social concerns. Institutions that rose to this challenge and committed to mutually beneficial partnerships with their communities are known as “engaged institutions” (Kellogg Commission, 1999, p. 1). (Cunningham & Smith, 2020, p.53)

The advent of awareness for the power of community engagement inspired the growth of many networks, communities of practice, academic journals, and certification bodies interested in advancing its scholarly practice. And it has also resulted in very specific scholarly meanings that situate community engagement firmly at the heart of the academic mission; on campuses all over the world, community engagement has been actively defined in strategic documents and in academic policy  to better enable it and unlock its power (see Note 2, below).

Over the next 6-9 months, our office is committed to providing more detail about this history and to collecting and curating more resources for those who are curious to explore this thriving methodology. For now, we've collected links to networks, journals, and other academic resources that SFU is connected to in various ways since the 2013 Community Engagement Strategy. If you know of a resource that should be listed here, please email us: community-engagement@sfu.ca


(1) University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) undertook a wide study into the strategies and perceptions involved when universities attempt to formalize assessment and recognition of community engagement in tenure and promotion. We're grateful they've made access to this work public. Find it listed here under "CCE’s 2021 Tenure and Promotion report".

(2) Two members of SFU's Office of Community Engagement served as Tier 1 reviewers for the 2024 cycle of the Carnegie Elective Classification for Community Engagement. As a part of that process, applicant universities submit examples of how community engagement is defined in strategy, policy, and external communications, among other things. While no specifics may be disclosed, the experience made it clear that universities are ambitiously centring community engagement in their core academic activities.


Boyer, E. L. (1996). The scholarship of engagement. Journal of Public Service and Outreach, (1), 11–20.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (n.d.). The elective classification for community engagementhttps://carnegieclassifications.acenet.edu/elective-classifications/community-engagement/

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (2023). 2024 First Time Documentation Guide to the Application. https://carnegieclassifications.acenet.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/2024-Community-Engagement-First-Time-Classification-Guide-5.10.2022.pdf

Cunningham, H.R. & Smith, P.C. (2020). Community Engagement Plans: A Tool for Institutionalizing Community Engagement. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 24 (2), 53–68. https://openjournals.libs.uga.edu/jheoe/article/view/1696/2570

Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities. (1999). Returning to our roots: The engaged institution. National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Simon Fraser University. (2019). Authenticity and impact: Strengthening community engagement at SFU.

Simon Fraser University. (2013). SFU Community Engagement Strategy.