Want to Grow Your Community?

Ugh. Another meeting focused on one of my least favourite subjects – evaluation.

I’m not sure why my initial reaction is so negative. Is it because there’s so much pressure these days to make things happen that we don’t have the time to pause, never mind look back and reflect? Or is it because evaluation is a word that evokes judgment and a focus on what we may or may not be doing right?

Perhaps in the interest of being open-minded I’ll just substitute the word learning for evaluation. Asking, “What did we learn”, seems much less intimidating.

During the upcoming meeting, we’ll be grappling with how to evaluate change in communities.

So maybe instead of thinking about this as evaluation, we should simply reflect on what we’ve learned about making positive change in a community.

What have I learned about how to grow a community? My top five learnings include the following:


Every community (or organization or business) has early adopters although it may be that they’re not always in the most senior leadership position. They are instead those often described as being “on the leading edge”, “colouring outside the lines” or in some cases a pain in the you-know-what because they’re always challenging the status quo.

Typically though these early adopters are also system or big picture thinkers. You know the ones. Those who see the picture on the top of the puzzle box and not just a few of the pieces? Even though these macro or forest thinkers aren’t as common as the micro thinkers who are in the trees (and sometimes focused more on the leaves on the tree and even the veins on those leaves!), more of them will need to be involved until the vision forward has begun to take shape. The challenge will be to know when to go wider to include the micro thinkers. As a wise friend of mine once said, the best time to go wide is when the cement is dry enough that it has some shape but wet enough so that everyone can write their own name in it.


Growing a community needs to be initiated by something that signifies things are going to change.
Unfortunately change is too often ignited by a crisis. Don’t wait for that to happen. Find another way to bring people together perhaps through an event or rally that focuses on what is already being done well. It’s often best done by bringing in an outsider who can hold up a mirror to the community. Generally that mirror tends to reflect communities doing eighty per cent of the right things. Then it is a matter of placing the focus on the other twenty.


Communities need a short term project or initiative to show what’s possible when everyone comes together for the betterment of the community – some might call it the low hanging fruit. When people join groups the potential for change becomes more real and they become more hopeful. In some critical way working in a group seems to have the potential to teach individuals how to believe.

Secondly a long term, multi sector, and community-driven community-wide strategic plan needs to be in place.

Not everyone will want or need to be involved in both but it does accommodate (a) those who are action oriented and just want to get busy doing something, as well as (b) those who are intuitively wired to be system-thinkers and want to address the community more holistically.

The first focus is a project or initiative(s) that will surface as the result of working together to determine what the community sees as a priority. It might be a playground build, a proposal to develop a trail, an event etc. This will demonstrate to the community the synergy that results when they all work together. It is essential for building trusted relationships and a sense of community and spirit.

The second focus needs to be placed on the development of a longer term, multisectoral community-driven strategic plan. This gap in most communities is what often contributes to silo based thinking and planning and a lack of the coordinated efforts and collaboration necessary to address the entire community and its overall quality of life.

Each of us will likely be drawn by either the project or the longer term solution based plan so it’s important to be cognizant of that pull and accept that both are important.


As one of my colleagues puts it, “The weirder the mix the better the fix”. Everyone in the community needs to be involved. The more diverse the stakeholders, the more innovative and responsive the solutions will be. Different lenses lead to different and more creative and responsive solutions.


There is an old African proverb that says sometimes you need to go slow to go fast. Community growth and development takes time. It isn’t just about money. It’s about people. That means it needs to be about investing time in having meaningful conversations, determining community values and priorities, and ultimately building the trusted relationships needed for change and growth.

It won’t be easy but it will be the most important work we ever do if we’re serious about making our communities places where people will want to live, work, play and visit.


Posted on 10-28-16

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