The .gov Role: The Hub for Community Development

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The .gov Role: The Hub for Community Development

allabrdAhh… local government. The place where we pay taxes that we complain about the most, the place we pay our parking bills that we complain about the most… actually come to think about it, for many of us City Hall is a big “complaint box” where we all gather (if ever) and complain about stuff.

Local government is WAY more than that, of course. It is truly where public policy affects us the most. From ordinances to tax plans, budget decisions to administration priorities, local government is the place where our community establishes its foundation and framework.

But here’s the thing our local politicians are missing and it’s due to their collective “traditional way” of thinking about the role of government.  They miss the importance of being The Hub.

Um, DK… what’s “The Hub?”

Good question and thanks for asking, Mr. or Ms. Reader.  Let me introduce you to the idea of the Connection Economy and The Hub.

I believe we live in a new era for our economy where the emphasis is placed on connections. That is to say that for a community to thrive in this new economy, the importance is placed on collaboration between organizations and businesses now more than ever. Why? The internet has shortened the line. Worldwide commerce isn’t just for Import/Export companies any longer. I can order meats from Omaha, Nebraska the same as I can order meats from Osaka, Japan. Both while sitting at my laptop in Anywhere, USA. Because of this, local businesses need to not only provide great product and service.. they must also entice connection. The scale also pushes the need to work together to form a cluster of stores and businesses that can benefit from each other’s impressions (i.e. store visits) from customers and guests.

Another reason for the need to work the Connection Economy? The era of the big box store is coming to an end. Small, unique store with niche marketing is the lifeblood of so many cities in the midst of revitalization. And it makes perfect sense why. Cost and Risk. The big department stores are dying off anyway, but with this reduction, they also hedge their bets when it comes to plopping down a store anywhere. They are WAY more selective (if they are expanding at all) and usually emerging markets or communities on the rebound just aren’t good enough of a risk to take with their limited money. They would rather double down in the suburbs than risk a neighborhood they “think” might come back from the brink in a city center.  Small Mom & Pop stores, stores started by a couple of friends and a dream… this is what is moving the revitalization needle in many mid-size and small cities, and it is this kind of small business owner who has the right mix of risk and capital to buy into a small shop in an area that is not booming.. but could boom.

This is ready made for The Hub.

Governments at a local level should think of themselves like Incubators. Their role is to protect and nurture. Too often we are wrapped up in the political and not the policy when it comes to our local governments.  Like former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill used to say, “All politics is local” – I tend to think what is truly should be is “All policy is local” because at the end of the day, how we execute on political stances and public policy comes down to ourselves and our local governments.

But coming back to the incubator and Hub. In the most traditional sense of government operations, decision are based often by two factors: budget and staffing.

Do we have the budget?

Do we have the staff?

Honestly, both of these presumptions speak to how I believe the role of government needs to be looked at through a new, innovative lens.

It isn’t the role of government to always take the lead in money and manpower to design or manage an innovation or to implement a public policy.  There are others ready, willing, and able to carry a good portion of the load for these.. and they will do it willingly and with passion…

I’m talking about the nonprofit sector.

Nonprofiteers are built with public policy in mind. Whether it is healthcare, environment, arts/culture, education, human development (places of worship, support services, etc.) and all things in-between, the nonprofit sector is designed with impact in mind…and people at the ready. And this is the big miss made by so many local municipalities. Local governments look at the nonprofit sector as, at best, a support service along the sidelines; and at worst, a nuisance of organizations that hurt the overall community’s outlook or financial pocketbook.   Why do I say this? What are some of the issues being talked about today?

With budget cuts happening at the local (and state) levels, governments feel like nonprofits only TAKE from the treasury of cities. Wanted money is the main reason, they see, that nonprofit talk to city council or mayors. Take. Take. Take.

Similarly, local governments feel that with the rise of so many nonprofit-owned buildings and facilities in a town, nonprofits are simply BURDENS on the local economy. “They” don’t pay taxes on property, so it lowers the amount into the treasury but “they” still are given the services of a city to their facilities (this is the always-used “if a fire breaks out at your building, we as a city are still obligated to provide assets and resources even though “you” don’t contribute to the taxes paying for them” argument).  **SPOILER ALERT: Nonprofits are job creators, pay payroll tax and inject people (and their $) into communities (including out-of-state dollars via grants and foundations that would never arrive in a community).**

It’s the perception that leads to the lack of strong usage of the sector in public policy. Too much to spent on these old positions of “charity” and “funding” and “PILOTs” (Payment in lieu of Taxes) and less on the actually work that could be done if local government and nonprofits/social enterprisers got together smartly.

This is the HUB.

2-union-stationAt a train station, there are tracks leading in all sorts of directions.  Each track is filled with trains of various sizes, shapes, amounts of cars, etc. Each train car is filled with people, things, commodities, ideas, thoughts, feelings, the works.  How does all of this work? The train station. The HUB that moves the trains, the people, the tracks, the maintenance, the announcements….. the HUB is what makes it all happen. Now ask yourself,

“How are the trains running in your town?”

Nonprofit organization compete over the same grant money from that ONE BIG DONOR, every corner of the city has a neighborhood group tackling homelessness in their own way, crime is discussed in a town hall in City Section 1 while a lack of educational opportunities lead to crime realities in City Section 2. Silos develop. Funding, marketing support, advocacy are all dispersed, and then diluted due to its disconnection to one another.  Businesses, large and small, are asked to support worthy causes; but seem to feel like the impact isn’t being made enough or fast enough to show movement.  Everyone is asked to do more with less. Turnover occurs. Bureaucracy bogs down innovation. Stagnation leads to less and less “new blood” coursing through business and nonprofit veins. Apathy and, worse off, neutrality, sets in. And our communities just hobble along, hoping for change “next budget cycle” or “when the economy picks up.”

Local government can drastically assist in all of this simply by redefining its role. Be that HUB. Be the part of the equation that is the unified entity seeing how this all shapes the community. Here’s a basic example of The HUB in practice and see where your community follows this path, and where it fall off the mark:

During the “State of the City” Address, Mayor Smith announces her goal to reduce homelessness in City X by 10% over the course of this next year. “We cannot, and will not, allow our fellow citizens to not have a safe place to live and a place to begin to reshape their path to success in their lives,” she states as the applause reaches a fever pitch.

Immediately following the address, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff briefs the Deputy Mayor on Community Impact (the nonprofit liaison to the nonprofit community) on the charge and sets a series of update check in points over the course of the calendar year (tabbing this along with major community events and showcase events happening in the city, including its signature event that raises funds for the city’s General Fund).

city_hall_boardroomDeputy Mayor, along with the Marketing Director and Community Outreach Manager research in the city’s database of nonprofit organizations, and cross references the “homeless” action-ing nonprofits in the City and sends a group invite to City Hall to meet in one of its Conference Room – a War Room on the Initiative to Tackle Homelessness.

Members of the nonprofit community – all with specific missions on fighting and reducing homelessness – attend these coordinating meetings, suggest other group who need to be in on this action (example, the mentoring program at the local high school that is addressing homeless youth and how to work with them in their education and life skill training) and set waterfalls (deadline markers to show progress, update city council and administration).

Grants are researched and EACH AND EVERY ONE is sent out with a full-throated endorsement/support letter from the Mayor encouraging fiscal support of this multi-organizational, multi-level strategy to reduce homelessness by 10% in this year.  Media is made aware of this initiative and periodic visits to tv stations always includes members of the administration AND a member of the nonprofit “citizen staffing” team. Social media is coordinated to make large impress effect, corporate sponsorships and other fiscal support is “trafficked” by the citizen staffing team to best (strategically) deploy assets into the participating organizations for maximum impact, and coming with strong support from the city’s political leaders.  Events to co-branded and shared. Volunteer groups are called and unified for support. Etc. Etc. Etc.

See what’s happening? Nonprofits are doing their mission work, businesses are impacting with support to make them proud and “feel” their contribution grow, local government is there to shepherd, defend, support, endorse, and watch the big picture… and most importantly, impact is seen, felt, and succeeding at a higher level.

Is it this easy? Of course not. But again… what is? (and more to the point, is the alternative of “everyone for themselves” working any better?)

This is a case of wanting political leadership to recognize an adage that is said here at Connect The Dots Movement which is:  “Innovation Begins By Kicking The Ass of Intimidation.”  It will take political leaders to see the value in opening their doors of City Hall and little bit wider, viewing their staff as being not just those who roam the halls with city ID badges, but also includes strong nonprofit organization who are in the business of GOING OUT OF BUSINESS TO TACKLE THEIR MISSION’S CAUSE (ask a person who runs a homeless shelter: wouldn’t it be nice to have NO ONE need a bed for the night in your town?).

It take leadership. Real, true leadership to bring together sectors of the city – crossing political, socioeconomic, influencer, racial, denominational, and economic barriers – to create a legion of “Citizen Staffers” to cause massive impact on a community and its challenges. All these pieces are in town. It take someone – some entity – to be the Hub that keeps the trains running on time and in good order throughout the system. And that can, and should, be the role of local government.


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tune up those community fibers

Community is what defines us, in so many ways. We are shaped, inspired, challenged, and even celebrated through out connection to community. But too often this shaping requires a little adjustment, some “re-shaping.”  Like Herman Melville explained, “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.”  I believe it is time of a little fiber-tuning.

What makes our community thrive? There are as many answers to this, but for me they come down to a few buckets: Education, the Arts, Spiritualism, Environment, and Innovation. And for my duckets, the nonprofit sector is where these buckets are filled with ideas, impact, and inspiration.

Yet at the same time, most nonprofits are regulated to the sidelines when it comes to shaping policies of a community – the actual laws and governance that makes up the system of a community’s thriving or growth. This, therefore to me, means that what defines US??? Well it isn’t made up completely of the right fibers. Namely those fibers that bring a community’s IMPACT to light. Nonprofits.

I feel it is time for nonprofits to stand together and build their collective voice as this Keeper of the Community.

WHIG_bannerThis isn’t a progressive thing or a conservative thing. This is “hippie talk” or social engineering. This is what we all know, truthfully, in our hearts. Forget “It Takes a Village” and think more about you. Your own life. Family, friends, institutions… all brought you influence, assets, challenges, and support. Now take them away. You – as well as I – would be very different people.  It isn’t a political thing. It’s a HUMAN thing. We are shaped by our community, and we need to get these fibers a-tunin’ again.

And what is especially nutty about this is that we KNOW this to be true. There really isn’t dispute over it. Political conversations have turned into Monday Night Football as Democrats taking on the Republicans, when what we should be seeing isn’t the “battle” on the field… but the make up and conversations in the STANDS. That’s where the oohy-gooey good stuff happens. THAT is where you find community.

So if we recognize that a community is based upon the work of those who protect and foster our buckets of definitions of strong community; while at the same time we see that the current political landscape keeps us collectively misdirected in the “game” versus what is need to bring policies to bear on a community’s growth. Then why don’t we reset this!?

Simply put: fear and leadership.

The nonprofit sector, of which I proudly count myself, is at a moment needing clarity and bold action. Too long is was felt like the adults needed to handle policy, and the nonprofits should be satisfied being sat at the kid’s table. We are good to be “charity” but not welcome to be considered “policy assets” or “influential idea-makers” – that was the realm of the elected politician.

But who is THAT?

Our elections – and especially our crazy Electoral College system – stymies true democracy or event representational democracy (to which we actually are)… the game is rigged on so many levels based upon wealth and political “influence”… but if you really think about it….

Pair_TensWho has more influence than those who shape the community’s fibers? Who cherishes innovation, inspired creativity, support direct services, enriches community? Nonprofits do. And not at the expense of  big business or other industry… but as a COLLABORATOR with those other sectors.  We’re the guy at the table who’s holding a two Tens,  but is thinking of splitting them instead of holding with Twenty.  it’s not an automatic win, but it’s a great hand.. we just don’t know it, or have been told it is a great hand.

It’s time to double down on our sector. Here’s how:

1. Get involved in local politics. Who’s running for office? What is their feelings on nonprofits and connecting policy to nonprofit work in a community? Can’t find an answer? ASK. Don’t get an answer? ASK AGAIN.  Statistics tell us that nonprofits make up 10% of the American Economy and over 10% of the private employment in the country.  A smart politicians or strategist will see the value in getting support from his./her local nonprofit community, and believe me, the rhetoric will changed amazingly once that math is revealed.

Cocktail_Weenies2. Forget Marching ON City Hall, March INTO City Hall.  My rule is: If you are marching to city hall to fight for cuts to a budget or law/ordinance passed, then you have missed the meal already and as battling for those little cocktail wieners and a half-empty punch bowl with the fruit ring still in it. The nonprofit strength should not be in getting back to zero (if you started with X in the budget; it is cut to Y; you rally to City Hall and then do to “public influence” it is brought back to X… well you see what you “achieved” right? Not much.) We need to be at the party while it’s happening. Avail yourself and your leadership as just that… leaders. Leaders to the issues you are passionate about, what you are mission-driven by. Politicals look to value-added guests as much as deep pocket ones… get in with your brain, not your ability to raise pitchforks and matching “save our budget” t-shirts.

3. Make Policy Check in as Normal as “Staff Meeting.” It doesn’t mean you turn into a policy advocacy organization, but information is key. Too late and it is too late to do anything. You need to stay on what is happening as if it was a program of your organization. Schoolhouse Rock was right, “Knowledge is Power.

I look at this like a musician would a piece of music being written. I like the melody, but I think it’s just in the wrong key. Let’s move it up or down the scale into we find a please sound.  Sooner, more than later, our nonprofit sector will find that right key, tune up those fibers… and get a rockin’ on rebuilding our community with impact and A Whole Lotta Love.