What Is Community Engagement?

Community engagement is an established scholarly practice.

Community engagement enjoys a rich tradition of scholarship that spans decades and includes work by researchers the world over. There's good reason it has enjoyed so much attention: it has a remarkable ability to strengthen teaching and research while at the same time result in meaningful and relevant community impact.

Even a brief investigation of the literature reveals the benefits of the scholarly practice of community engagement:1

  • It can help research yield more nuanced and context-relevant knowledge.
  • It helps increase access to knowledge and mobilize it in respectful ways.
  • It provides opportunities to deepen reciprocity with communities.
  • It can strengthen educational outcomes, increasing student self-efficacy, civic engagement, and knowledge about diverse populations in the community.
  • Its focus on relationships, reciprocity, and mutual benefit can help advance work to uphold Truth & Reconciliation.
  • Its focus on knowledge equity and epistemic justice can strengthen work to address systemic inequities and advance equity, diversity, and inclusion.2

Cunningham & Smith (2020), referencing Boyer (1996) and the Kellogg Commission (1999), summarize the way US Higher Education came to realize the power of community engagement and the need to approach it with scholarly attention:

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 (please see Next Steps).

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.3

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. Its purpose is to identify and support campuses in developing robust infrastructure—resources, policies, even buildings—to advance community engagement as a scholarly practice (Saltmarsh & Johnson, 2020).

A key feature of the classification is its definition of community engagement:

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.

Learn more

The first paragraph describes the process of community engagement—its characteristic methodological features. The second paragraph elaborates on the purpose of community engagement—the reasons why students, researchers, and community partners might choose to collaborate.

SFU’s 2013 community engagement strategy formally adopted the first paragraph 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, SFU Public Square, and many other successful initiatives. It also helped frame the wide subsequent conversations that led to the development of Authenticity & Impact—SFU’s Strategic Community Engagement Plan in 2019, which additionally incorporated the purpose paragraph (p.9), thus building its recommendations upon Carnegie’s full definition of community engagement.

The benefits of the Carnegie definition

It situates community engagement right at the heart of the academic mission.

The purpose described in the Carnegie definition often captures the attention and imaginations of people who are curious about community engagement. Ideas like “democratic values,” addressing “critical societal issues,” and contributing “to the public good” are great at inspiring passion and igniting a desire to do good in the world.

But it’s the process description that highlights why community engagement works:

  • Collaborative relationships
  • Knowledge exchange
  • Reciprocity (and respect)

The Carnegie definition doesn’t assert that community engagement is anything new—instead, it takes as a given that pursuing the purpose of community engagement has a natural foundation within the academic mission. By explicitly framing community engagement as an “exchange of knowledge,” the definition asserts that the unique value of community engagement arises because it is a scholarly pursuit based in collaboration and reciprocity. Or to put it plainly:

Community engagement is an 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.

The Carnegie definition enables responsible strategic decision making and resource allocation.

The words community and engagement mean many things to many people. Much of the time, these meanings don’t describe anything explicitly scholarly, making it difficult for a post-secondary institution to target and responsibly resource community engagement.

SFU’s 2020 ThoughtExchange asked, “Community engagement at SFU: what’s working well and what isn’t?” Across the 633 responses, general characterizations of community engagement included the following:

  • 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

In a time of economic constraint, it’s especially important for Canadian post-secondary institutions to responsibly allocate resources and administrative supports to scholarly practices that advance the academic mission. But many of the above characterizations are not about research, teaching, or scholarship.

In contrast, the Carnegie definition situates community engagement firmly as a relationally focussed scholarly practice, providing welcome clarity for key strategic considerations:

  • It helps guide defensible funding decisions.
  • It provides a frame for evaluating and stewarding institutional partnerships for their potential to contribute to academic outcomes.
  • It can be used to identify exemplary work so that it can be properly recognized, generalized, and innovated upon.
  • It inspires and serves as an argument for innovations in academic policy.4 

The Carnegie definition balances scholarly process with impact-driven purpose.

In community engagement, knowledge creation and knowledge mobilization are considered 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 Documentation Guide to the Application

Traditionally, academics are credited as having “discovered” or “created” new knowledge, and they then work to “mobilize” it “to” the community. But in community engagement, the community partners are more than just a source of data—they are partners in knowledge-making and agenda-setting and should be respected and welcomed into all aspects of a project, whether it’s research, experiential education, or something else.5

This repositions the role of knowledge and the nature of knowledge-making: instead of positioning academics as creating knowledge “about” the community or impact “for” the community, the Carnegie definition describes a practice where people in the university work with people in the community to create knowledge and impact together.

Next steps: exploring the scholarly world of community engagement

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 has been connected to 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) These bullet points represent the current views of SFU’s Office of Community Engagement, based on our team’s 10+ years’ involvement with community-engaged researchers, teachers, professional associations and networks, including the numerous consultations we’ve done at SFU and the wide range of scholarship we’ve reviewed over that time. Starting in 2024, we will begin building out a collection of specific references to be of help to those who wish to take a deeper dive into the scholarly history and benefits of community engagement.

(2) The term epistemic justice is frequently used to describe the equitable treatment and valuing of knowledge systems and traditions. Epistemic justice appears in community engagement when universities develop practices and policies that deliberately seek out and create dialogue with knowledge systems and knowledge holders not traditionally valued by the dominant system of educational and research institutions. Janke, Quan, Jenkins & Saltmarsh (2023) describe it this way: "Epistemic justice focuses on the ethics of knowledge inclusion and exclusion in interrogating how knowledge is produced and shared. Both democratic civic engagement and epistemic justice suggest avenues of inquiry that are grounded in questions of power, privilege, and positionality, examining not only the scholarship that is produced but who it is producing the scholarship" (p. 55).

(3) 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.

(4) Some institutions have gone beyond simply recognizing community engagement as “service” in tenure and promotion; instead, they’ve explored how to explicitly advocate for and evaluate community engagement as valid research and teaching activity. 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". And for a great introduction to the complexities of defining and valuing community engagement in promotion and tenure policies, check out this May 2024 webinar with Dr. Emily Janke, hosted by our colleagues at UBC.

(5) For a great illustration of how to think about including partners in many facets of an ongoing community-engaged research process, see this recent webinar hosted by Health Research BC, Community-based research and open science: lessons learned. For a great look at the power of including community in data analysis, see Cashman, S.B. et. al., (2008).


American Council on Education. (n.d.) The Elective Classification for Community Engagement. https://carnegieclassifications.acenet.edu/elective-classifications/community-engagement/

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 engagement. https://carnegieclassifications.acenet.edu/elective-classifications/community-engagement/

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (2023). 2024 First Time Documentation Guide to the Application.

Cashman, S. B., Adeky, S., Allen, A. J., 3rd, Corburn, J., Israel, B. A., Montaño, J., Rafelito, A., Rhodes, S. D., Swanston, S., Wallerstein, N., & Eng, E. (2008). The power and the promise: working with communities to analyze data, interpret findings, and get to outcomes. American journal of public health98(8), 1407–1417. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2007.113571

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

Janke, E.M. (2024). Valuable Insights from Defining and Describing Community-Engaged Scholarship for Promotion and Tenure with Dr. Emily Janke [Webinar]. University of British Columbia. https://communityengagement.ubc.ca/partnering-in-research/promotion-and-tenure-takeaways/

Janke, E., Quan, M., Jenkins, I. & Saltmarsh, J. (2023). We’re Talking About Process: The Primacy of Relationship and Epistemology in Defining Community-engaged Scholarship in Promotion and Tenure Policy. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 29(1), 51–74. https://doi.org/10.3998/mjcsl.2734

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.

Saltmarsh, J. & Johnson, M. (2020). Campus Classification, Identity, and Change: The Elective Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 24(3), 105–114.

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

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

Verna, A.R. & Lachowsky, N. (2024). Community-based research and open science: lessons learned [Webinar]. Michael Smith Health Research BC. https://healthresearchbc.ca/webinar/community_based_research_and_open_science_lessons_learned/

Last updated: July 8, 2024