What’s Good for a Marriage is Good for a Community…

Just as a good marriage needs direct and ongoing communication so too do communities.

This learning was first reinforced for ACE Communities by a woman who had lived in a small Alberta town for some 40 years. During a meeting held to determine community strengths and priorities, she said it was the very first time citizens had ever come together to talk about the kind of town they wanted to be.

The importance of communication was stressed again this week when another town shared a report from a series of community conversations they’ve been hosting. This particular community cafĂ© focused on the topic of recreation and had participants from all sectors answering three questions: (1) What is recreation? (2) What recreation opportunities does our town offer? and (3) What do we lack for recreation? The first two questions helped participants think in a unified way so the third, and most important question, could be pursued and discussed.

The resulting animated conversations that took place at small tables conveyed once again how much wisdom there is within each community. No doubt their grasp of recreation needs would also align with the much more expensive scans and needs assessments that are typically commissioned as communities plan for the future.
For instance, participants identified a need for more culturally diverse programs or events; programs for young adults without children; more programs that stress social recreation or activities that are non-athletic or non-competitive in nature; clubs and events for teens; and park enhancements such as an off leash dog area, neighbourhood green areas, continuous and connected walking trails, and a local splash park. They also wanted to see more low-cost or free programs and social groups for single parents.

But perhaps the most interesting revelation was that, regardless of the need identified, it was almost always already available in one form or another in the community.

Clearly there was a breakdown in communicating to the public the availability of existing programs, services, events, and facilities. And, from what we’re seeing in other communities, they are not alone as it is the rule rather than the exception.

Too often people are simply not aware of what already exists in a community. For example, in this particular case residents weren’t aware that a local Lion’s Club bus was available for all, not just seniors or those with disabilities, that the Town had a program to support neighbourhoods in creating block parties, the recreation guide was available online not just in print, and the high school gym could be booked for use by the public.

It would appear organizations and municipalities need to communicate more effectively.

While there is no one best way to communicate, there are many community options. In the communities where we have been working, efforts are being made to ensure the availability of a website that promotes community programs and events. The best are those that allow organizations and businesses to post their own updates to a community calendar and a database that lists contact information for local clubs, events, programs, services, and facilities.

When websites, databases, and guides already exist, it is often a matter of promoting them more widely.  Social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs also need to be considered as options.

It is especially important to think about the target audience for each program, event, or service. Consider the places they frequent, their daily activities, and their media consumption. In addition to websites and social media, a list of potential outreach options could include print materials (fact sheets, brochures, newsletters); presentations for use at group meetings; posters (placed in settings relevant to the targeted audience such as parks, schools, bus shelters, doctors’ offices, factory lunch rooms, grocery stores, libraries, senior centre, gyms, etc.); ads in newspapers, magazines, or on the radio; an article, editorial, or op-ed in a newspaper or magazine; banners at shopping malls or events; promotional items such as t-shirts or key chains; or a staffed table at a community event or trade show..

Of course we also know that, just as in a marriage, the very best way to ensure strong communication is to make time for those all important one-on-one conversations.

Posted on 02-19-12

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