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Safely Using Incentives in Public Engagement Activities

A man is excited to have received a gift card

Over the last few years, many local governments have used community engagement to generate input on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts, as well as community input on how to spend American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to address disproportionate impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic on underserved populations.

At MRSC we’ve received questions from local governments asking about incentives for community engagement activities, be they for long term or temporary projects. Can gift cards be given to community members as an incentive for completing a survey? Can gift cards or stipends be given to volunteers participating in short-term projects? In another example, a local government is looking for participants to commit to a process that may last months or even a couple of years — Can it give participants stipends to acknowledge this commitment of time?

Article 8, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution prohibits gifts of public funds. Do these types of payments and incentives steer clear of gift of public funds issue? This blog will take a closer look at the subject of gifts and incentives for the public.


As stated on MRSC’s Gift of Public Funds page:

In assessing whether a gift has been bestowed to a private entity, the courts have used a two-step process. First, they determine whether the funds are being expended to carry out a fundamental purpose of the government. If so, then no gift of public funds has been made. Otherwise, the court looks to see whether the government entity had a “donative intent,” and whether it received an adequate return for the transfer.

The best way to demonstrate that gift cards or stipends serve a valid municipal purpose when used in a community engagement activity is to have a policy in place before providing such incentives. The policy should articulate the valid municipal purpose for expenditures as well as the expected outcomes of the community engagement activity and what is required of participants to earn the incentive.

In Practice

Let’s take a look at how some local governments have used incentives as part of the community engagement process for a variety of purposes, from planning to DEIB initiatives.

Broadly, gift cards have been used as incentives to encourage participation in surveys for local government planning. For instance, residents who participated in a survey as part of the City of Monroe’s Parks Recreation and Open Space Plan were eligible for a raffle drawing that included a couple of $50 gift certificates as prizes. King County Metro used a similar approach to encourage participants in the Green Lake In Motion Program. Anyone completing a survey as part of this program had the chance to win a $25 gift card, and there were 10 total cards.

Some local governments are re-evaluating their engagement practices in order to reach communities that had been previously excluded from public conversations, either because they lacked access to or experienced barriers to participation. King County’s Office of Equity and Social Justice is working to encourage meaningful community input and participation of residents who have been left out of county activity in prior community project planning. Their Community Compensation Project seeks “to reach and work with those most affected by inequality.” The project held three Community Listening Sessions in the summer of 2022 where individuals were invited to share obstacles and barriers which prevented or made it difficult for them to participate in county projects. Participants were paid $50/session for their time.

Because community boards and advisory groups are an essential and long-term tool for developing local policies, some local governments are reviewing incentives for community participation to help counter barriers some residents may experience when considering whether to serve in an advisory capacity.

In Chapter 2.100 of its municipal code, the City of Olympia lists all of its 10 community member advisory boards, stating the purpose of each board and the duties of its members. The code also sets stipends for board members at $25/meeting or, if members qualify as low-income, $50/meeting. Ordinance 7275 amends Chapter 2.100 and the city has a payment level certification form for advisory board members to complete.

The City of Kirkland has developed a five-year roadmap to identify pro-equity practices as part of their DEIB program. This includes developing a Community Participation Compensation Policy (see Goal Area IV 16.2 of the roadmap) to decrease “unintended barriers to participation [that] exists for some community members based on their social, cultural, ethnic, economic, and/or historical experiences.” Per this policy Kirkland will provide compensation for: members from underrepresented groups who are most likely to not be engaged on a regular and consistent basis in civic life, such as those from lower income communities, people of color, and renters, for providing input from their lived experience.

As previously mentioned in an earlier MRSC blog on equity in environmental planning, the City of Shoreline recruited a panel of advisors from the community when it needed to update their climate action plan. These community advisors provide guidance on engagement and outreach strategies to reach communities that would most likely be negatively impacted by a climate-related emergency. Individuals selected as community advisors receive a stipend of $50/hour with a cap of $1,200 per stipend, per advisor.


In conclusion, if your agency plans to offer incentives to encourage community participation, be sure to have a policy in place before implementing such a program. When your agency formalizes their policy, or if it has already developed a policy, consider submitting it to Gabrielle Nicas for possible inclusion in MRSC’s Sample Document Library.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Eric Lowell

About Eric Lowell

Eric Lowell joined MRSC in December 2020 as a Finance Consultant. He has been involved in local government finance for over 13 years, including working in city government as well as for a special purpose district.

Eric received a B.A. in Secondary Education from Arizona State University and a B.S. in Accounting from Central Washington University.