Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A New Year to Volunteer and Spur Community Change

By Ryan Regan, Project Associate

It is easy to put the ‘season of giving’ mentality commonly associated with December’s holiday season in the rearview mirror as we embrace a new year, but the month of January provides as good an opportunity as any to remember that a giving attitude should be adopted all year long. It is in this month that we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. via a federal holiday on January 18 that is now used as an opportunity to promote community service in places across the country.

Dr. King led a life of service and community activism that few before or after him will ever duplicate. The fact that we use his birthday to encourage volunteering in one’s community is most appropriate, since few other Americans can claim such a legacy rooted in philanthropy as his. Volunteering in one’s community and other forms of civic engagement are also vital for both the planning and implementation of the community and economic development strategies we here at Market Street Services help develop.

Civic engagement and community collaboration are at the core of the work that we do on behalf of our clients. We always emphasize to our clients that we are mere facilitators in the strategic planning process. The strategic plans born out of the processes we facilitate are ultimately owned by the community and implemented via an implementation framework that is rooted in civic engagement. All of our processes are led by a diverse steering committee of community leaders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors who volunteer their time to be champions for community change. It is not unusual to have CEOs of multi-million dollar corporations, elected officials, non-profit CEOs, and other accomplished professionals serving on these steering committees. Their commitment to the process and the expertise these community leaders bring to the table help to transform communities in ways that no single person or entity could accomplish on their own. This “giveback” attitude is what makes civic engagement so powerful, and when this mindset is adopted by the broader community, the sky becomes the limit.

Over the years, Market Street has had the pleasure to work in communities that have excelled at harnessing the power of civic engagement and volunteer leadership to fuel the momentum needed to achieve strategic goals. In Watertown, SD – a town of roughly 22,000 people – Market Street facilitated a community visioning process alongside a volunteer-driven steering committee that was committed to an inclusive process that welcomed the thoughts of all members of the community. Their efforts led to an astounding 2,200 resident responses to an online survey that helped to inform the vision planning process. As a share of the total population, the Watertown response rate easily eclipsed all other online survey response rates in other communities where Market Street has worked. The ability of the volunteer-led steering committee to engage the community in such an unprecedented manner and the willingness of so many community members to participate in the visioning process speak volumes about the civic capacity of this small rural town.

A similar story emerged in Des Moines, IA where Market Street worked with the Greater Des Moines Partnership in 2011 on a five-year vision plan for Central Iowa dubbed, “Capital Crossroads.” The region’s support for the strategy was tremendous and widespread. Key community institutions like the United Way of Central Iowa, Iowa State University, and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines were just a few of the initial sponsors of the Capital Crossroads movement. The support of a broad array of regional institutions and the leadership provided by over 50 business and regional leaders who volunteered their time on a steering committee generated a great deal of energy for the process, from kickoff to implementation. A total of almost 4,300 members of the region provided input during the process via two online surveys. The total number of responses is a record for any community where Market Street has worked. In total, some 5,000 members of the region engaged themselves in the planning process by providing input through online surveys, one-on-one interviews, and focus group discussions. The region’s engagement in the process didn’t just stop there. The Capital Crossroads strategy’s implementation was launched in the fall of 2011 and organized around 11 strategic “capitals” – or goal areas – that include within them the strategy’s specific implementation activities. These 11 strategic capitals have been guided by their own committee of volunteers who have devoted countless hours to leading the implementation of Capital Crossroads, all in the name of being passionate civic leaders. Since implementation, some 500 members of the community have volunteered to serve on one of the strategic capital committees.

Some of what I just described can be summed up by what is referred to as “collective impact,” a term first mentioned in a 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article that continues to gain steam in public policy circles. Collective impact can be loosely defined as the process that results when a collection of organizations coordinate together to address complex large-scale social issues and opportunities in a manner that no one organization could have otherwise pursued on their own. It is a process that is engrained in collaboration, community engagement, and goal setting. In other words, it defines much of the community and economic development work that we do at Market Street. Community institutions that pursue their work in independent silos are only handcuffing themselves in an age where social connectivity and globalization reign supreme. The volunteer-driven community outreach efforts and results witnessed in Watertown, Des Moines, and many of our other client communities offer validation to the collective impact model and case study examples for how many of our national and global challenges ought to be tackled.

Despite the success stories we have witnessed over the years of passionate volunteers and communities that place a premium on community engagement, volunteer rates on a national level are lower than they have been in over a decade. According to a report released earlier this year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 25.3 percent of Americans volunteered in the 12-month span from September 2013 to September 2014. The BLS defines a volunteer as any person who performed unpaid work through or for an organization in the past 12 months. Clearly, this trend is worrisome for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that it may indicate that people are becoming less engaged in their communities, and by extension, less invested in their community’s future.

With a new year upon us, we at Market Street would like to thank those volunteer steering committee members and implementation partners who make our work so rewarding. Their commitment to the process and to their community is an admirable reflection on them as individuals and on their communities as places. And as we start brainstorming about our New Year’s resolutions, maybe we can all set aside some time to volunteer more in our community in 2016, in whatever capacity we can. As Dr. King put it, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”