Underlying every community development effort - whether it's downtown revitalization, citizen engagement, strengthening organizations, or building visions - is a simple and very basic premise: our work involves communicating with each other. It's a statement of the obvious, and hardly on the cutting edge of social science research. If the concept of communication is so basic to everything we do, why do we struggle so much with it?
There are plenty of excuses: not enough time, email and social media overload, challenges in sorting out priorities. But the fact is that community development work requires strong communication. We seek to maximize participation, to foster inclusion, to get more people to the table, to hear from more voices. If we're sincere in this effort, then we must take the time to respond to every participant who contacts us.
For some people, this is their first attempt to get involved. If not encouraged, they may give up their efforts, thinking that no one cares enough to respond to them. At the very least, we need to let each person who contacts us know that we received his input. "Thanks for contacting us. We appreciate your comments." And that response needs to happen fairly quickly. In today's world of instant and constant contact, even a few days can seem like a long time.
But if we wish to keep the person engaged, we need to go farther:
- Start a dialogue with the person who contacted you. Ask for more information, or share information that you have. Explore ideas.
- Offer more opportunities to participate. Is there a social media site, a community meeting or other way to provide additional input?
- Recruit the participant. Are you looking for volunteers? Committee members?
- Give a shout out. "Thanks to the 45 people who've already provided ideas for our next downtown event".
It takes time to communicate with everyone who contacts your organization or community project. Does it need to be you? Perhaps you can designate a volunteer specifically to manage communications. He or she can make an initial response to every contact, and let you know which require additional follow-up. Set aside time in your weekly schedule specifically for communications follow-up. Develop a repertoire of quick but sincere ways to say 'thanks - we heard you'. But by all means, do your part to communicate. It really is very simple, and it will strengthen your efforts more than you can measure.