One 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:
- City of Richmond (including the Mayor's office, City Council, various commissions and committees)
- Wayne County Government (commissioners, council, and related entities)
- Richmond-Wayne County Chamber of Commerce
- Main Street Richmond Wayne County
- Richmond/Wayne County Convention and Tourism Bureau
- The Economic Development Corporation
- The Richmond Depot District
- Richmond Art Works
- Wayne County Vision
- Neighborhood Services Clearinghouse
- Institute for Creative Leadership
- Preserve Richmond
- Wayne County Foundation
- United Way of Whitewater Valley
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!
Sometimes 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.