Community-Driven Institute

Building and Sustaining Strong, Engaged Programs  
Part 2 of a 3-part article 
by Hildy Gottlieb
Copyright ReSolve, Inc. 2008©

In Part 1 of this article we examined why traditional approaches to “sustainability” have failed to sustain organizations, and have also failed to create sweeping improvement to the quality of life in our communities. In that article, we likened building strong efforts to building a strong house, noting that a strong house needs not only a strong foundation, but engaged interaction with people who will keep the house strong.

(If you have not read Part 1, CLICK HERE.)

The following four steps show a path towards creating that strong house. The steps make clear that there are indeed practical tools for simultaneously building community strength and organizational strength for the long haul.

Step 1:

Start Where We All Agree What will our community look like if we are successful?
If we are to build strong efforts to benefit our communities - the reason your organization exists in the first place - it is important to first look beyond our organizations and out towards that community. There are multiple reasons for this, as you will see in the other steps. But the most important reason is that in reality, few people care about your organization nearly as much as they care about their community.

So Step 1 is to identify what the REAL goal is. And that real goal is that your community be better in some way, and hopefully significantly better.

Consider “Community Success” through the eyes of a food bank.

  • Is your definition of success “a community where everyone who needs food has access to the food bank?”
  • Or would success be a community where everyone who needs food has access to food, period?
  • Or might you define even larger success, perhaps a community where everyone has all their basic needs met?

Step 2: Build Strong Infrastructure

What resources can we share?
Just as a strong house needs strong infrastructure, so does a strong program. The strongest infrastructure is one that tightly interweaves resources from all across your community, building engaged strength into the very skeleton of your program.

A single thread, standing on its own, can be blown away by the slightest breeze. But it would take quite a wind to blow away a tightly interwoven blanket of many threads. When we build the infrastructure of our programs by interweaving the resources of others in our communities, we are building a foundation that is resilient, that cannot be easily dismantled when times get tough.

How to do that? First map out your program, starting from the very first step - perhaps the moment someone calls on the phone or the moment someone walks in the door. What happens first? Then what? Then what?

For every one of those functions, ask, “Is someone in town already doing that function? And if so, can we partner with them?”

If one of those functions is the need for transportation to get people to your program, is someone in town already transporting people, and might you partner with them? If you need storage space, does another organization have excess space you might be able to use? If you need bookkeeping, is someone in town already doing bookkeeping, with whom you might be able to partner?

The infrastructure strength that comes from building your programs on a base of shared resources is more than the obvious - that it will likely cost less to build your program. The real strength comes from the strength of that interwoven fabric. By building upon the community’s existing resources, you are building a program that cannot be easily blown away. In addition, every one of those partners will feel ownership of your program in a way that builds engagement directly into the core of your program.

By building programs upon a base of shared resources, we are building strong engaged programs while simultaneously building community strength. We are doing nothing less than building a spirit of cooperation in our communities through the simple act of building a single program.

Step 3: Build Engaged Support

How can we strengthen our efforts by engaging others? From that, who should we engage?
A strong foundation is not enough to keep a house standing tall, year after year. For that house to remain strong, it will need people who care about it, to maintain the house throughout time.

It is important to note that engaging the community in your program is not about fundraising. To build real program strength, engagement is just what it says - a real two-way relationship and commitment. It means talking with people whose lives are touched by your work in any way, asking for their ideas, their wisdom and their experience.

As those who have read and implemented the strategies in FriendRaising know, engagement means making real friends. By friends we don’t mean, “friend-as-euphemism-for-donor.” We mean real engaged friends, like we have in our real lives. Those are friends who will do anything in the world for you, because they are committed to what you care about. (That is why Step 1 is so important - identifying the community vision you are striving to achieve.)

From program development, to increasing your volunteer pool, to advocating to the City Council, to just doing the day-to-day work of your programs, we can change the way we think about those tasks to include engagement as the first action step, rather than an afterthought.

When it comes to increasing our volunteer pool, how could that effort be strengthened by engaging the community in our work? And who should we engage?

When it comes to advocating about an issue before the City Council, how might that effort be strengthened by engaging the community in our work? And who should we engage?

When it comes to developing a new program to meet a community need, how might that effort be strengthened by engaging the community in our work? And who should we engage?

When we build engagement into the core of our organization’s being, we are building more than organizational strength. We are transforming our community into a force for change. And that engaged group will support our work in all ways imaginable.

Step 4: Use Your Assets to Generate Cash Income

What are our existing assets, and how can they help us build the income we need?
If your programs are built on a base of shared resources, your infrastructure will be strong and you will need less money. If you build engaged support among a huge number of community members, your effectiveness will multiply and you will have an unprecedented number of supporters.

At some point, however, you will need cash.

The most logical model for building sustainable, reliable revenue streams is the model upon which wealthy individuals have built financial stability for centuries: generating income from what they have, rather than what they do. Bill Gates does not depend on his 9-5 job for his income. He makes his money off what he already has.

Now before you say, “But we don’t have an endowment,” or “We did that - we built an endowment and the stock market made mincemeat of it!” - there are assets upon which community organizations can build that are not financial assets. Those assets can generate revenue in good times and in bad times. You will find an article describing those assets and how they can help generate revenue here: CLICK.

By building and sustaining your programs using these four steps, you will be building internal program strength, engaging the community in maintaining the program’s strength, and generating cash flow by building upon those strengths - all while simultaneously building Community strength. As a Community Benefit Organization, no one could ask for more!

Part 3 of this article will compare the results of Community-Driven Sustainability vs. traditional fundraising models.
CLICK here to go on to part 3 of this series



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