GREAT COMMUNITIES ARE POSSIBLE WHEN PEOPLE COMMUNICATE. And great communication happens when people from diverse backgrounds, with varied experiences, join together to renew their commitment to the places where they live, work and play.
Sharing a vision
When people pause to think about what makes their neighborhood, their town, and their community, a special place, they reveal to themselves and others the basic values that they esteem.
We all know that no two people hold exactly the same set of values, so establishing a shared vision for a community can sometimes be an elusive goal. But I believe that when a group of people from diversebackgrounds meet and talk, they can develop common goals, and they can find common values, and through this commonality they can establish a shared vision for their community.
As a first-hand example of this, I established—during my tenure at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation—the Stakeholder Council for the Laguna watershed. In the process of organizing and running the council, I repeatedly witnessed the serendipity of two people meeting for one purpose, but discovering for themselves a wholly different purpose for working together. These new connections, when weaved together, form a tightly knit community. In essence, the community that emerged was derived in equal parts from the direct effort of the council, and from the strength of these tangential connections.
The process of getting people together is powerful. If done well, it can become the catalyst for significant change. More and more, communities are embracing this concept: advocacy groups meet to define their message and to deliver it to government; government reaches out to citizens to ask how to better manage public resources; and businesses engage in locally based initiatives.
Just as we all have different styles of learning, we all use different pathways to communicate. And lately the number of pathways for communication has proliferated, giving community organizers more options than ever to engage people who are busy with work, and family, and life. Here are some of the pathways that I've found to be effective:
Reaching a large audience
- Group meetings. Nothing is more powerful—for communicating with a large group—than just getting together and talking. Of course, running great meetings doesn't happen automatically; but when planned with care, the power of assembly can be more effective than any other form of group communication.
- Seminars and lectures. When the purpose of the communication is to disseminate information with the highest level of retention to the greatest percentage of participants, seminars and lectures are the best choice. Seminars and lectures can provide more concentrated knowledge transfer than printed material and more effective knowledge transfer than computer-based material.
- Email blasts. When done sparingly and respectfully a well written email message sent to an already established community can keep people informed of recent achievements and give them advance notice of upcoming events.
- Online surveys. When faced with uncertainty and the need to know how to proceed, an online opinion survey can provide useful data to consider, from the very people who will be most affected.
Reaching select groups
- Committee style meetings. Getting together regularly for a series of task-oriented meetings can be a very effective way to reach a new level of communication. Committee-style meetings should be designed from the outset to follow a productive sequence of three or four gatherings: explore the subject, return with new information, refine the group's message, conclude and disband. Sequential meetings that never end should be avoided, as they often become productivity traps.
- Field trips. Visiting project sites and seeing other groups' work are stimulating ways to inform and engage. Whenever possible I like to make things tangible. Many people learn most effectively by seeing and experiencing first hand.
- Social networking web sites. The new Internet-based software that is popular with the younger generation, is an untapped communication tool for most organizations. I believe that this type of social networking software holds great promise as a supplement to traditional email communications.
- Wiki-style group publishing. When a community is dealing with a complex set of topics and when projects span a long time horizon, it's important to have all of the contextual framework available to the group: wiki-software allows individuals to contribute pieces towards the whole, and can allow a new type of group synthesis to emerge organically.
- Electronic mail. This is today's work-horse communication tool. When opening a dialog with a single single person, I always make sure that person knows I'm addressing them directly. (Keeping the “cc” list to an absolute minimum is part of my own personal style.)
- The softer side. Not everyone embraces technology; and it's important to recognize its limits even with those who consider themselves to be tech-savvy. There's no replacement for coffee-house chats, business lunches, and one-on-one meetings.