Too many community builders in one town?

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out
This post is more than 3 years old.

GazeboOne of the recurring themes in my writing in speaking about how to make our communities more self-reliant is that we can't necessarily depend on entities and organizations that aren't locally rooted to address the issues that are of local concern. The natural corollary to this is that, in addition to individual citizens taking action, we should be able to look to locally rooted organizations to be moving the community forward, helping us make it the place we want it to be.

But one only has to look at the long list of community building organizations and entities in Richmond - and the overlap, duplication, and even competition that some of them represent for each other - to wonder if maybe this isn't an area where we're actually holding ourselves back instead of moving ourselves forward.

Consider, in no particular order:

All of these organizations, while having some significantly different areas of focus and programming, are essentially working on the same core issue: how to make Richmond and Wayne County a better place to live, work and play.

They approach that question differently, for sure. Some are funded by taxpayer dollars while others seek membership fees and grants. Some have brick and mortar operations with paid staff while others are made up of a few key people who meet when and where they can. But all of them are trying to build up our community.

I wonder, then, if Richmond and Wayne County is benefiting from the work of these organizations as much as it could or should. If you add up all of the budgets and person-hours and fundraising galas and community events and networking gatherings and the like, are we really seeing the results that we should if those same resources were being put to work by a smaller number of organizations, or even one organization? Or is there some fragmentation, or even severe limitation, that comes from having so many proverbial cooks in the proverbial kitchen?

And the above list is just the organizations working on community building at a fairly broad level - if you start to look at organizations working on specific issues like environmental awareness and sustainability, education, youth programs, housing, or providing social services to those in need, you can make whole separate lists with all new kinds of overlap and duplication of efforts, all right here in one little city that doesn't even have an Indian restaurant!

Basement WorkbenchSometimes the overlap is just logistical or administrative: everyone having their own calendar of events, for example, that the average citizen doesn't have a hope of knowing to check when they want to find out what's happening in town. Sometimes the duplication or perception of duplication is more substantial: every year about this time, small businesses start getting bombarded with letters asking for charitable gifts or membership renewals for the coming year, and they have to decide how best to support their community, hoping their dollars go as far as possible. In turn, the soliciting organizations have to spend their time and resources reiterating the value they bring to the area, just to make sure they aren't lost in the noise.

This doesn't seem like the most effective way to operate.

Let me be clear: I'm not suggesting that the work of any one of these organizations isn't needed or valuable, or that their mission and approach aren't sound. In fact, I support many of them with my time and dollars, and have been fortunate to call many of their leaders and advisers friends over the years. Some of them do collaborate and enjoy strong partnerships, and many of them can point to significant and lasting successes they've had here. Diversity of approach and funding, sometimes with a little duplication, can be essential.

But I also can't help but indulge in some thought exercises:

What if some of these organizations were better at communicating openly and honestly with each other not only about shared values and goals, but about their concerns, egos and territorial sensitivities?

What if some of these organizations could truly collaborate, share resources, or even merge programs?

What if we didn't take the impact and relevance of some of these organizations for granted, grilling some on why they're still a good value, and praising others more for the under-appreciated work they do?

What if we decided that our community needed a new approach?

We are complex enough beings that we can simultaneously understand how our community is hurting in a lot of ways, and also how good we have it and much possibility there is for the future.

Old minds think: "How do we stop these bad things from happening?"

New minds think: "How do we make things the way we want them to be?"

Let's make sure our community building efforts are actually working to make things the way we want them to be.

11 thoughts on “Too many community builders in one town?

  1. I think about this sometimes too. I find myself wondering if a lot of the non-cooperation (whether intentional or simply 'naturally' occurring) is an effect of the Big Fish in a Small Pond syndrome. I mean this as kindly as possible. Richmond is a very small city. It's possible to be noticed doing a project, get your name in the paper more than once or twice, and begin to feel that your contribution is very important. It is, of course, but *you* are not important. That might be the distinction we need. We all are working for the same goals -- make Richmond a good place to live, learn, raise a family (or a nice dog or two), work, etc. That's what this is about. It's *not* about being the hero that makes change happen. It's about being part of a team of committed people who make change happen.

    And, can I add this? We are not, despite what the leadership trainers tell us, we are not "all leaders" in need of "leaderful" training. Good grief. That may be part of the problem. If everyone is a leader, that really really splinters the efforts. The subtext of "everyone being a leader" is that everyone gets to be/craves being in the spotlight. Nope. It's not about the spotlight. It's not about you. It's about doing right work.

    Then how do we make this happen? I don't quite know -- abolish leadership training? Probably not. Bring all the groups together for a summit? Mm, maybe. But there needs to be a really focused agenda, not just more talk. Want to lead that summit, Chris...:-)

    You raise really good questions as usual!

  2. I think it is an outcome of our basic nature. We have the capacity to step back and see the broader scope and implications of our actions, and even envision broader and more effective means of action to bring us to obvious and desirable goals. But even if we get everyone together in the same room and reach this higher consciousness together, as soon as we return to our day-to-day lives, this unified vision becomes fractured and distorted - just like in the old telephone game we played as kids.

    Mass human action in any field is less like the execution of a fully formed plan and more like successive waves forming a shoreline - seemingly chaotic and often counterproductive. Science is a field that has learned to take advantage of this aspect of human endeavor: Each experiment has a clear objective and rigorous parameters. Once the experiment is completed and reported - its value is apparent to those who come afterward. Even if we do not make use of an experiment, once it is done (correctly), we don't have to do it again.

    Other fields do not have the same sense of solid progress. Politics, education, beneficial and social organizations, all the "soft" fields, are in constant phases of decay, death and rebirth. As adults, it is easy to become quite cynical at the announcement of the "newest thing" in these areas.

    However, we also have the unique capacity to provide a narration to the course of events. A good story can give us a feeling that our endeavors have value. This is what leadership is all about - providing context and a sense of sanity to the seeming chaos of life. When Bill Clinton used to speak as the president of the US, it would send some of us into fits of eye rolling, but he did have the knack for providing that sense of sanity to the chaos that is the federal government. George Bush could never get to that level in his talks, leaving us feeling out of control.

    So, while I doubt there is much in the way of new resources to bring to our local community, I think there is a role for community leaders to take existing efforts and reweave them into a more effective and efficient future.

  3. Jean - thanks for your comments.

    I can agree with you about the role that ego plays in some of this. It feels good to be recognized as a successful leader in the community, and so when someone gets a taste of that, it's that much easier to think that they have a unique vision that only they can really see through. In some cases that may actually be true, but as you note, in most cases we'll all benefit more if efforts are "open sourced" so that they can be improved upon, tackled by evolving groups and grassroots movements.

    I can also agree that training everyone to be a leader is not the answer, though I don't think it hurts to continue to offer leadership training to anyone who wants it. Some will thrive in leadership roles, others will thrive in the many other roles there are to play in community building, some of which need no training and have no spotlight. This community tends to value its highly charismatic public leadership figures much more than it does its less visible community builders, so I hope we can balance that out some.

    I don't mind saying that I once held hope that the "Wayne County Vision" effort would be the summit you mentioned. I attended the kickoff breakfast that, while certainly geared to a certain demographic in the community, was one of the more impressive gatherings of community builders in one room that I've seen to date. Good things were accomplished, but in the end I think it's largely transformed into another organization competing for resources and visibility instead of being a unifying force.

    I think we can learn from that and do something different/better the next time around, if we want to (which is what I think Thomas is getting at).

  4. "1 Ring to Rule them all" -- that's how you solve it. You'll just need a couple Hobbits to clean up the aftermath.

    On a serious note -- I have a feeling that given enough time and enough financial / lack of finances pressure, some true leaders will rise to the top and the stagnation will end. If all else is equal, then those with the best ideas should rise to the top, right?

    One thing I always found curious was how Main Street Richmond does an event the same day & time as another event in the Depot district or Fourth Street area (4SF comes to mind) -- are they attempting to augment, compete, or just opportunistically capitalize on people being out and about? Some sort of meta-committee for communication among groups would probably benefit everyone -- centralize the event listings (WayNet's a good place for that) and build some coordination among groups to build synergy. Why *NOT* have days when the entire central portion of Richmond (4th Street, Main Street, Depot, the City etc.) are all having a huge gala simultaneously? Big events are fun, and provide more impetus to people to get out there and have a good time.

    (I do think we need to come up with something better for events than simply local craftspersons and merchants hawking their wares though -- there should be some free group-activities...giant parachute flapping or ad hoc soccer games or something. We shouldn't base our entertainment on consumerism.

  5. I am particularly taken by Thomas's comment about "narration": Yes, how we tell a story or stories about ourselves can be transformative. Clearly, we can't depend upon the local newspaper to do this. First, it's not their job to narrate the story of the city; second, well, never mind the second part. I'll just say this: we need good storytellers for the city of Richmond.

    How about this Chris: we set up a Richmond, Indiana, story telling booth outside Summersault (or inside, it is getting cold!). People volunteer to staff the booth, gather people's stories (tape record, video, write, all three); then the stories go on a cool website designed by Summersault. And periodically there are story-telling celebrations where tellers and gatherers get together and share the stories in person -- at the library, the city building, Richmond Art Works, Summersault, Ghyslain, etc.

    And I'll write a grant that buys us stuff to eat!

  6. I think Jean's idea is great. I am also amazed that I didn't even think of the paper when I wrote my first comment - Of course it is the job of the local media to provide narrative flow across time, but our paper does not give us much. Folks who do that type of work for us - Chuck Avery, Tom Mullen, Curtis Wong, Jean Harper - have appeared in the paper (some not any more), but most "news" coverage in the local media is dominated by younger writers from out of town who are just passing through - not much perspective there.

    Having an alternative repository for community stories would be almost like having a real newspaper . . . .

  7. There's practical reasons too, I think -- it's simply hard to work with other people. Sometimes if you have an idea for something, you just want to do it, and you want to attract other people who want to do it, and if there's overlapping people with some other group, great.

    In my experience it can be a huge demotivater to try to coordinate goals with other people, or find compromises on things you'd rather just get done. Maybe there wouldn't even be a disagreement, but simply finding that out is a burden.

    Volunteer groups like these are primarily constrained by the effort the volunteers can put into it. As such, it's extremely important to make people feel productive, and people feel productive by doing things, not by talking about doing things (at least the people you want in your organization). I think it's important to keep the idea of a "do-ocracy" central: that is, decision are made by the people who do the work. If you don't pay up in terms of work, you don't get a say. Of course, that's not true of government (and government is not a volunteer organization, it has actual intrinsic power), but it's true of a lot of these things.

    So while there's overlap, I think it's incorrect to believe that combining forces means more will get done, or that it will get done better. That doesn't mean there isn't potential, but I think it's better to focus on clear opportunities than to focus on the tension of apparent overlap or waste.

  8. I think what you really need to do is get an Indian restaurant in town and then everything else will fall into place! 🙂

  9. Thanks, Chris. Good stuff.

    I think the issue is not so much one of duplication ... but lack of a shared vision or a "big picture." If we, as a community, were all committed to and working toward the same goal, the question would turn to one of measuring effectiveness, and not "who's overlapping whom."

    The Wayne County Foundation is very interested in facilitating these kinds of community development conversations -- which we trust will lead to some more effective alignments.

    I look forward to having something specific to share soon!

  10. I believe that every county in Indiana has a county/community foundation. I don't see Wayne County Foundation's work as being duplicative of other efforts in the community. We also need to have both county and city government. Could they work together more? Yes, but neither should be eliminated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *