As we all know, there is no “secret sauce” in the world of community improvement. There isn’t a common recipe for great communities. But there are often common ingredients, and civic capacity is clearly one of them.
Two years ago, I wrote a piece for the Market Street Report about civic capacity; specifically, what I had witnessed in my time working with residents of Watertown, South Dakota. That blog was written just a few weeks after the completion of the H20-20 visioning process for the community. It was already clear at that time, as noted in the entry, that “The citizens of Watertown have demonstrated an interest and willingness in not only defining their vision but also participating in the implementation of their vision on a scale that every community, regardless of size or location, should envy.” It concluded by noting that “…Watertown, South Dakota is a reminder that – while dollars are always critical – there is no substitute for civic capacity and we should never underestimate its value or importance in building the successful communities we desire.”
Here we are roughly two years later in Watertown. What the community has accomplished in this relatively short period of time is nothing short of remarkable. In a matter of 24 months they have accomplished more than many communities do in decades.
The City has started construction on a new $24 million multi-purpose facility.
The school system launched a Parent University to help promote parental engagement inside and outside the classroom.
A middle college was established at Watertown High School.
The City launched a portal allowing residents to report concerns that need City attention.
The community has come together to launch new events such as the Family Zoofari at Bramble Park Zoo, a Homecoming 5K, and the Rumble on the Ranch “mud run.”
An angel fund initially capitalized at $750,000 was developed to support local startups.
The Watertown Development Corporation helped advance the shovel-ready certification of two industrial parks.
Plans have been developed to improve alleyways in Uptown Watertown and expand recreational facilities for youth and adults including new softball fields, sheets of ice, and improved bike trails.
Volunteers launched Watertown Clean & Green and Litter Bit Better, community beautification projects that engage hundreds of volunteers on a regular basis in litter prevention and removal efforts, while promoting recycling awareness and utilization.
Volunteers launched other community beautification initiatives, including regular flower plantings and monthly contests that promote resident upkeep of private properties.
New signage has been developed and installed along with new landscaping to improve the appearance of the community at its main entry points and gateways.
Local artists have been engaged to create a series of public art works throughout town.
And the Watertown Community Foundation has helped coordinate it all, lending administrative and staff support when necessary, and providing the right balance of structure and freedom to help volunteers maximize their impact.
This just scratches the surface of what Watertown has accomplished through implementation of its vision plan. And remember, all of this has come to fruition in just two years. The list above illustrates the collaborative nature of the community’s approach to realizing its collective vision. The school system, the City, the Community Foundation, the Development Company, volunteers of all ages, and even the local zoo are all among the many participants that have embraced the community’s collective vision, taken ownership for achieving it, and become active participants in making it a reality. The commitment of this collaborative team that involved hundreds of community leaders and passionate volunteers has reaffirmed that Watertown’s civic capacity is, more than ever, truly enviable.
So what can other communities learn from Watertown? Well, again, there is no secret sauce; what has worked for Watertown in its implementation efforts may not be viable, appropriate, or successful in other communities. Its recipe will not be your community’s recipe. Nonetheless, there are certain ingredients that good communities should seek to include in their recipes – common ingredients that are found in the “sauces” of many great communities. Yes, I can tell that my inner chef is getting carried away with this analogy. On to the lessons, of which these are just a few:
1. Ask your residents’ opinions. This is obvious. A vision must be rooted in what residents want from their community. Some communities are scared by the accountability that comes from asking thousands of residents what they want and need. Embrace this accountability. Give every resident the opportunity to share their opinion. Watertown did so, promoting the online survey and community forums using a variety of non-traditional tactics from digital billboard advertisements to paper flyers at grocery check-out lanes.
2. Don’t just ask them their opinions. Provide them with ways to get involved. Give them opportunities to get their hands dirty. Committees are a logical place to start, but at the end of the day, those committees need to take action. They need a vision plan that gives them the chance to personally impact the community. Plant some trees. Organize an event. Coordinate a meeting. Adopt a classroom. Pick up litter. More than 600 residents (from a town of just 22,000) attended the public rollout of the vision plan, and all were encouraged to sign up as volunteers to support the portion of the plan that interested them most.
3. There is no substitute for passion. You can’t force residents to care about their community or commit volunteer hours to a project for which they have little concern. But it is far too easy to allow those at the opposite end of the spectrum – those that are passionate, ready, willing, and able – to go unnoticed and unutilized. You can’t manufacture passion in people, but you can accidentally suppress it. Try to find the passion. Look beyond the “usual suspects.” While many of the “usual suspects” – the community’s most active citizens and community leaders – were engaged in the H20-20 planning process and remain involved in its implementation, the community found that hundreds of other residents were passionate about various components of the plan. And the community was smart enough to leverage that. And that’s how you get 350 volunteers to show up in 45 degree weather to pick up trash.
4. Don’t be naïve – volunteers can’t do it all. There is an important role for paid staff and I’m not talking about the chamber of commerce executive, the United Way president, or the city manager. Successful communities recognize that, at the most basic level, volunteers will need paid staff support to help them coordinate their efforts, achieve their objectives, and communicate effectively with each other and the community. This often comes in the form of a volunteer coordinator or a “community vision coordinator.” The Watertown Community Foundation has provided this support when needed, but Watertown is often fortunate to have many volunteer leaders that have devoted significant time to coordinating meetings, communicating with other volunteers, and planning certain initiatives. Most communities do not have this level of engagement, and most volunteers cannot be expected to provide more than a few hours of their time each month.
5. Don’t worry about who gets credit. As Mac Holladay always says “It’s a team sport!” This is selfless work. “We” means the community, not your organization, your board of directors, or your staff. Successful communities are characterized by collaboration and cooperation to degrees that these words are the norm and not something to be achieved. There was a never question of what “we” meant in Watertown.
6. Stay positive and celebrate your accomplishments. Give each other a pat on the back. Have a party. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are making a difference. Those who benefit from your endeavors rarely know who to thank. Community leaders and active volunteers deserve positive reinforcement. What you are doing matters. Building a better community is a noble endeavor. There is no failure. There are accomplishments and things yet to be accomplished. This is the mindset that I observed in Watertown.
7. Talk to the media. We have witnessed some hostile and downright strange relationships between well-intentioned client organizations and media outlets in some communities. If this sounds like you, you might be thinking “I’ve tried. It’s hopeless.” Try to start from a point of common-ground: we are both here, in this community, doing what we do, because we care about it. Good media partners should help you communicate with your community while also maintaining their impartiality. You shouldn’t expect them to give you a pulpit. But, know that they are in the business of telling their community’s story. And you are in the business of actively shaping that story. Watertown and the volunteers leading the H20-20 implementation effort have excellent media partners in the Watertown Public Opinion, KELO TV, and a local radio station, KXLG. Guest editorials in the newspaper and regular segments on the radio station provide a direct means of communicating with residents, giving them continuous updates on progress and informing them about ways to get involved (see number 2).
Watertown is a place that many of our clients, large and small, can learn from as they begin implementing their own vision plans. I’m curious what other lessons have been learned by community leaders out there. How have you tapped into your community’s civic capacity? Tell me.