February 19, 2011

The Ins and Outs of Community

This week I moderated a webinar that Grassroots Grantmakers hosted on the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's fascinating Soul of the Community research, with had the opportunity to talk with Paula Ellis, the Knight Foundation's Vice President for Strategy Initiatives, and Dr. Katherine Loflin, lead consultant on the Soul of the Community project for the Knight Foundation.  If you missed the webinar, you can watch the recording, now posted on Grassroots Grantmakers' website.

I was thinking about our conversation on community attachment and why it matters when I spotted this fascinating interactive map, showing the "ins and outs" of communities in 2008 - and by "ins and outs", I mean people moving in and out.   Physically.  But also emotionally.  As I clicked on my county and saw the arrows in and arrows out, representing people moving in and out in just one year, I was surprised by how much of this was going on in this rural community.  When I checked out other places that I know and love - places I have lived, and cities that I know because of the work I do with Grassroots Grantmakers - the in's and out's were astounding.  Check it out yourself and you'll see what I mean.

It's apparent that thousands and thousands of people are making decisions about their community every day.  Is this the perfect place for me?  Is there where I feel at home?  Is there where I belong?  Is there where there is a future for me?

The Knight Foundation's Soul of the Community research looked at these very questions - what is it that attaches people to their communities?  What contributes to feelings of being attached (or not attached) to a place?

There's a lot that's interesting about that question and what the Knight Foundation, working with the Gallup organization, found from interviews with nearly 43,000 people over 3 years of research in 26 communities is that attachment matters.  Communities where people feel attached are communities where people feel more hopeful. Hope is nice.  But what's really getting attention is another truth about attachment - that attachment also relates to the economic prosperity of the community.  How's that for some rubber hitting the road?

As I clicked through the "in and out" map, I remembered Paula Ellis saying that there's a window of time when attachment happens or doesn't happen - somewhere 5-6 years after arriving - wondering about the "moving away" decisions and the opportunities that "moving in" could bring, and thinking about my own experience.  While most of my moves have been job-related, I've had very different experiences in my new locales - ranging from almost immediately "at home" to never feeling that I belonged.  When I've felt at home, I've extended myself into community - initiating contact with strangers, joining groups, showing up as fully "me", contributing and growing.  When I've remained a stranger, I've created a life in my cocoon, waiting for the time that I could move on.

The implications of this "in and out" map and the Soul of the Community research on attachment are huge for big thinkers about small grants:
  • It's important for us to fully acknowledge the dynamic nature of community, and the consider the implications of this dynamism for our funding, capacity building and leadership development work;
  • In light of this dynamism, we need to think more about the importance of grassroots grantmaking's patient money approach, with resources positioned for the long-haul to invite people into action with a welcoming spirit;
  • We should finally acknowledge what our intuition has been telling us - that there is indeed an important relationship between feelings and community vitality - that people who feel at home, attached, part of the community are more likely to extend themselves and contribute than those who feel like strangers - and consider what this means for the questions that we ask and the decisions we make as funders;
  • We need to think more about this "window of opportunity" information and share this with the groups that we fund, encouraging them to think as critically and creatively as possible about how people are welcomed to and embraced by their community.
  • We need to check ourselves to see if our problem-orientation has run a muck at the expense of the asset-oriented possibility orientation that is associated with hope, optimism and the essential and powerful role that we all can play as active citizens in our community.
What hits you about this map, the Soul of the Community research, and the implications for funders who are big thinkers about small grants?  Weigh in with a comment.

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