Creating a vision through collaboration
Two communities, the Illinois Valley and the Siuslaw region, develop consensus about the future they want to see
Almost 20 years ago, community leaders in the Illinois Valley embarked on a process they hope will never end. It’s the process of community visioning, or developing consensus among residents about the future they want to see, and then deciding what is necessary to carry it out.
It all started in 1994, when the Illinois Valley Community Response Team identified objectives for their region in a variety of areas, including economic development, public facilities and education. Today, the Illinois Valley Community Development Organization builds on that original vision through IVCanDO, while periodically involving the community in identifying new priorities and projects. The latest iteration, the IV 20/20 Community Vision and Strategic Plan, is the product of collaboration by hundreds of Illinois Valley residents over a six-month period in 2016.
Long-term, comprehensive and inclusive community visioning and planning is seen as best practice in the field of community building. It unites all the smaller efforts, synthesizes them into a coherent, compelling and comprehensive whole and builds in processes for successful implementation. It is a process that has been done well in many rural towns in the Pacific Northwest.
We asked community leaders who are deeply involved in the process to share some lessons they have learned.
Take your time
Visioning doesn’t happen overnight. Some communities, like those in the Illinois Valley, have been at it for decades. Other organizations, such as Siuslaw Pathways, count their efforts in years.
Action in the Siuslaw area of Oregon began in 2014, after a Ford Institute Alumni Celebration was held in Florence. “There were many, many enthusiastic people there trying to figure out where to go, since it seemed like no one was pulling in the same direction,” says Mike Webb, who has been involved in the process since that meeting.
In April of 2014, a volunteer group began reaching out to residents through a regionwide survey, focus groups, community forums and ongoing meetings, all designed to help develop a vision of the Siuslaw region in 2025.
After almost two years of collaboration, a strategic plan was developed that includes 15 distinct concentrations, such as establishing a Siuslaw region parks and recreation district, supporting local workforce, developing safe and affordable housing options, and promoting and supporting public art.
Now, those dreams are becoming a reality, thanks to a core volunteer team known as “vision keepers.” They are guided by an advisory team that serves as a champion on the path to realizing this vision.
Build a foundation
Effective community visioning begins with a solid base of grassroots engagement and trained leaders. The Ford Family Foundation began that process with the Ford Institute Leadership Program, which had a 12-year goal of training more than 5,000 rural community residents in 80 hubs in rural Oregon and Northern California. When that phase of leadership development came to an end, the goal had been exceeded, with more than 6,000 people in 88 rural hubs benefitting from the training. The Foundation’s current focus area is on supporting community-based efforts that promote rural community vitality and the well-being of children, youth, adults and families.
“Here in the Florence area, we’re in a good position, having participated in the Leadership Program for the last 10-plus years,” Webb says. “People understood who other leaders were. It was a natural evolution.”
Spread the work around
Both organizations have found success by forming oversight groups that monitor and provide guidance for smaller groups working on specific projects.
IVCanDO is forming 18 “action collaborations” around the issues identified in the strategic plan. “Most of the actual work is driven by those collaborations,” says Kate Dwyer. “Our role is to facilitate that work — to convene larger meetings between colleagues, check in with groups, put their minutes on our site, help groups get over barriers, connect with regional experts and what they need, identify steps toward outcomes, and help celebrate work.”
That strategy of sharing the work also helps prevent volunteer burnout, an important element of any visioning process. “I go to a lot of the smaller action collaboration meetings,” Dwyer says. “I help celebrate the work, give them a quick update on what other groups are doing, make them aware of other challenges. Sharing wins is very energizing to them.”
Keys to successful community visioning
Long-term, comprehensive and inclusive community visioning and planning is seen as best practice in the field of community building. “It unites all the smaller efforts, synthesizes them into a coherent, compelling and comprehensive whole and builds in processes for successful implementation,” says Max Gimbel, associated director of the Ford Institute. “It has been done well in many rural towns in the Pacific Northwest.”
Below are some factors identified by the National Civic League Press in its Community Visioning and Strategic Planning Handbook as being key to successful community visioning efforts.
- People with varied interests and perspectives participated throughout the entire process and contributed to the final outcomes, lending credibility to the results.
- Individuals broke down racial, economic, and sector barriers and developed effective working relationships based on trust, understanding, and respect.
- Individual agendas and baggage were set aside, so the focus remained on common issues and goals.
- The group produced very detailed recommendations that specified responsible parties, timelines and costs.
- Participants took the time to learn from past efforts (both successful and unsuccessful) and applied that learning to subsequent efforts.
Community Visioning and Strategic Planning Handbook, National Civic League Press Denver, Colorado Third Printing © 2000.