My experience working on community and economic development issues in mid-sized metropolitan areas around the country has taught me a couple of key lessons. It’s difficult to get traditional players to truly think outside of the proverbial box. Some places are insular and hesitant to look externally for ideas and learning. Local folks with new ideas and energy are turned off by the same-old, same-old or just aren’t welcomed into the conversation.
Here’s a great story about how one community transcends these dynamics. I talked with Brady Groves, President, Richland County Foundation, on how philanthropy took a leadership role in shaping a new approach, generating new ideas and bringing new voices into the work.
Q: The Foundation was looking for new ideas to stimulate economic and community development in Mansfield, Ohio. How did you end up supporting a group of local folks to travel to SXSW in Austin?
A: We had seen a variety of architectural proposals from groups seeking funding for development of our downtown. While all the plans were impressive, they lacked that emotional connection we were seeking. During this time, we were approached by our Chamber of Commerce and local on-line news source to provide a grant that would send a couple of community members to the South by Southwest conference as a way to invigorate creative thinking in our business sector. It was at this point, the community foundation decided, why not send a group to the conference with the express purpose of bringing back ideas to create an investment strategy for downtown Mansfield. In order to create the emotional connection we were seeking, we selected 15 individuals that skewed very diverse and young, but all had a personal connection to the central business district.
Q: Sometimes communities are inward-focused and are reluctant to look outside their borders. How did you bring people along with this thought of learning from the outside?
A: As a visual representation, we collected all the community development reports for Mansfield that have been produced in the last 30 years. They were stacked from the floor beyond the table; truly an indication to try something different. Part of the requirement of being selected to attend SXSW was the responsibility of providing daily blogs which were published by the local on-line news source. The blogs allowed the community to get a glimpse of the things the group was seeing and hearing during the conference. The views and time spent on those pages were enormous – over 18,000 people read the blogs and the #SXSW419 had an additional one million views. We quickly realized people were interested in what was going on.
Q: What have been some of the most important moments for you in this venture?
A: Watching non-traditional leaders, with little “street-cred” in the power circles of Mansfield, present ideas to 28 mentor leaders, with an established history of community leadership, in creating an 86- page investment strategy which highlighted 39 different projects. This community collaboration turned the trip from just sending a bunch of previously unconnected people to a music/geek-fest conference, to a community experience that everyone could share and become involved.
Q: What advice would you share with other foundations involved in similar community building endeavors?
A: Look at our plan. The first 18 pages of the Mansfield Rising plan talk about how this started and how people were chosen to participate. The goal was to be transparent and intentional in our communication to the public. Investing in local leaders was the first key to our success and attending SXSW was second. Without these two factors, we would not have gained the wide community interest nor allowed to think broader than our own borders.