Radio Dial

On the Radio

A song is playing on the radio, not coming in crystal clear and there’s a good bit of annoying crackles. You have two choices with two dials: Turn up the volume if you think louder makes the song clearer, or adjust the channel to find a better frequency. It’s no surprise that you choose the channel tuner dial. We know that louder does not make the song any clearer. Yet it is all too common to choose the volume dial when we want a response or action from someone.

Whether I was working in a communication role at a global technology company, or a small community benefit organization, the hair-on-fire requests sounded like this: We need to send an email blast, or print more brochures and flyers and paper the town. The urgency of these requests was rooted in the fact that there weren’t enough employees signed up for the wellness program, or community members signed up for the financial literacy program, or ____________________________. Fill in the blank with one of many different programs, services or resources that largely measure success by headcount.

What will it make possible if we keep doing more of the same with more frequency? If we are trying to get community members to come to our program, or use our services, how about we talk with them?
The “Feedback Movement,” featured in the The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s February 12 edition , focuses on the shift some community benefit organizations are making to solicit and receive feedback from the community members they serve.

Fresh fruits and vegetables were always available at the hundreds of food pantries that supplier Mid-Ohio Food Bank provided. Yet they were rarely taken. This went on for years until the Food Bank decided to figure out why. That meant talking with the community members they served. That meant tabling the assumptions they had about the community members they served. Assumptions direct the actions we take and the results of those actions. Whatever the assumption may be, it is not fact.

Whatever the assumption may be, consider asking:
• Is that really true?
• How do we know?
• What if that is not true?

It wasn’t that people didn’t like fruits and vegetables, or didn’t have time or knowledge about how to cook them. Community members were not taking these healthy options because the system was broken. The pantries only allowed one visit per month due to high demand. With that system in place, community members were not taking any item that would go bad quickly. Community members had to plan for a month of nourishment, and that meant processed and preservative filled food items.

People create systems. That means people can change systems. The pantries went to weekly visits, and saw their healthy choices of fruit, vegetables, milk and bread fly out the door.

The “Feedback Movement” has unleashed an assortment of technology tools to make the gathering of feedback easier. The tools are the what and how, but what if we change the questions we ask and embed them in our culture of why? Going beyond feedback mechanisms, what could be possible if community engagement is a part of our planning and doing processes all the time?

One community I am working with has come together to aim for creating a healthy, thriving and resilient community for everyone. I first blogged about this project at Creating the Future’s August 2014 e-journal, and have so much more to honor and share out about what has been going on over the past nine months. It’s a movement that is accomplishing community change by changing the questions we ask, including those linked to preschool.

It’s a sad fact that Idaho is one of 11 states without state-funded preschool. More than 70% of this community’s kindergarteners arrive on their first day of school lacking the basic reading and numeracy skills expected for their grade level.

With a generous sliding scale, no child is turned away from attending two preschool programs that are funded through a combination of private donors, foundations, and a small portion from tuition. The only enrollment requirement is that the child lives within the school district boundaries. Yet over the past few years, every seat was not filled. More brochures and flyers were created and distributed, and other very good-intentioned efforts to encourage parents and caregivers to give their children this incredible learning opportunity.

There’s been a shift in the approach to engage the community that moves from the volume dial to the tuner dial on the radio. Community members are sharing what they want, and what success will look like for their children and themselves. A half-day preschool does not work for many people. Transportation challenges are very real. Unless we are connecting directly with community members, we cannot assume to know what they want and what it will take to make that possible.

The good news is we can change the systems. Humans created them, humans can build new ones. We can build systems that are continuously engaging community members. Everything starts with relationships. Create and hold the spaces that honor the power of getting to know each other better.

We are building that in to our preschool possibilities conversations as we continue to ask:
What will awesome look like? What will it take to get there?
Every child will have access to a high-quality preschool education that best fits the individual child and his/her support network.
Who else cares about this?
We don’t assume who is in or out of this conversation. It’s the unusual suspects in the community who are connected in so many ways.
What resources already exist? What people with their wisdom, skills, experiences and passions, programs, services and other community STUFF can come along on this journey together?

The group is seeing how resource rich the community already is. Partnerships have formed between organizations that may have been labeled as competitors in the old model; existing spaces are being accessed to co-locate programs; current transportation routes are put to the side as we look to create new systems based on what community members are tell us, not on what we think they need, nor fixing what we assume isn’t working.

Louder isn’t better. Louder becomes more noise and clutter that gets lost in the shuffle of life. Consider listening to a whole new song.

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