Is your community ready for a big idea?
Author: Bjorn Arneson
Content: Scott Chazdon
Is your community ready for a million-dollar idea? Is your town ready to apply for a seven-figure foundation grant? Readiness to work together is a community responsibility—one shared by governments, nonprofits, private companies, and community members. When opportunity knocks, there may not be time to get ready. What characterizes communities that are ready?
In 2008, the Extension Center for Community Vitality took a hard look at community readiness. As the Center worked in communities, our staff observed that some communities were more ready and able to plan and make changes than others. While some seemed to stand still or get stuck in conflict, others had a certain "spark" that led to highly successful initiatives. What gives communities that spark? Researchers Scott Chazdon and Stephanie Lott teamed up to take a look. Their study had two purposes:
- To examine the readiness of rural communities to sustain long-term development initiatives; and
- To develop a protocol for assessing community readiness.
The work of that team is described in a report titled "Ready for engagement: Using key informant interviews to measure community social capacity." Read the entire report online.
A community readiness model emerged from this research. The model helps us understand a community’s ability to engage a broad range of residents. It also helps communities think about their connectedness, their openness to new residents, their willingness to change, and the degree to which they are future-oriented. All are indicators of a community’s ability to engage in long-term, large-scale initiatives.
Investing in readiness
How can leaders help their community build a foundation for readiness? Chazdon and Lott’s research identified four important components to readiness. Think about the places you live, work, and play through the lens of the four readiness components below and jump in where you can make a difference.
Bonding networks are composed of close-knit ties that help people function. These connections are usually with family, friends, and neighbors — people who share similar backgrounds. As outlined in Extension’s Social Capital and Our Community report, strong bonding networks contribute to community readiness because neighbors and friends know each other, share problems and take responsibility for helping each other.
To strengthen bonding networks:
- Create and support helping systems among your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and more. For example:
- Form a tool-lending library.
- Create a neighborhood event to rake or clean yards.
- Start a fix-it group to help people clean, paint and garden.
- Host a neighborhood potluck or progressive dinner.
- Create or join a community choir or softball team.
- Create spaces where people who work together can get to know each other better.
Bridging networks consist of people from different jobs, clubs, or volunteer organizations that would not normally engage with each other. Although they are typically weaker than the close bonds of friends and family, bridging ties can help people get ahead and increase their prospects — when you hear about a job from "a friend of a friend," for example. Strong bridging networks are built on a foundation of trust and contribute to readiness by linking people with different skills, knowledge, and resources that can be mobilized for a common goal.
To strengthen bridging networks:
- Create spaces where unlikely friends can meet each other. For example:
- Encourage restaurants to create tables or events where people can meet.
- Put weatherproof chess/checkers boards in the park.
- Protect or create public spaces where people can gather or talk.
- Study an issue important to your community with a diverse group of members.
- Create a welcome plan for your community that reaches out to new community members.
- Create forums — in a newspaper or a public gathering — where older residents can tell their story or where newcomers can talk about where they came from and why they moved to town.
- Create a mentoring program that connects youth to adults with skills and talents.
Linking networks include ties to organizations and systems (such as local, state and federal governments or philanthropic organizations) and individuals that can help the community create change. Linking networks enable a community to access resources not otherwise at hand—money, political power, expertise, etc. Linking networks contribute to readiness by opening channels with influential groups or individuals willing to share resources or collaborate.
To strengthen linking networks:
- Speak up at school board, city council, and other community meetings—help other leaders make good decisions by making your position known.
- Proactively seek out resources and opportunities on behalf of your community; conduct research online or at a regional library or government office.
- Form a regional network to work on issues that you and others are passionate about.
- Share your community’s creative solutions with neighboring towns and ask that they return the favor.
- Raise funds for a new town clock or library.
Leadership energy is demonstrated when community leaders are open to new ideas, new people, and change. Leadership energy describes the qualities of leaders themselves — especially positional and reputational leaders. Positive leadership energy is an indicator of readiness.
To strengthen leadership energy:
- Proactively engage leaders in discussion about your community’s future.
- Encourage young people or new residents to take on leadership positions.
- Support leaders who want to increase their knowledge and skills through training and education. Learn more about Extension’s U-Lead leadership education programs.
Stories reflect struggle and hope
Chazdon and Lott’s "Ready for Engagement" research included listening to the stories of community leaders. If you read the full report, you will undoubtedly recognize qualities of your own town in the stories of those who were interviewed.
Many interviewees noted the importance of trust and close relationships. Some said their town was divided between newcomers and "old timers." Others mentioned the challenges and opportunities of language, cultural, and religious differences. Many interviewees described their leadership base as being "stuck in the past." Here’s an excerpt:
Different resident factions, whether these were newer residents, long-time residents, Mennonites, or Latinos, created divisions within other communities. This is not the case in [this town] and it may be the impact of the floods that brought this community closer together...this community is unique in that when residents spoke about their town, they did so with a newfound pride associated not with the long ago past of "the golden days," but [with] the hardships endured from more recent years. Referring to the flood, one resident said that "it didn’t matter who you were, if you were the guy in jail or the banker, they were all out there shoveling sand and trying to save what they could, help the people who needed help." Residents themselves seem to be the glue that held their town together…
How can we help you?
Using our community readiness model, Extension educators can help you understand your town’s readiness and shape leadership education programming to shore up weak spots or build on your strengths. To learn more, contact your regional Extension educator.