ByAmy Whitehead, Josh Markham
In the field of community development, there are alternative approaches to traditional strategic planning that embrace an asset-based, action-oriented approach to the community visioning and planning process. Several communities in Arkansas are seeing early signs of success in their community development efforts by using action-based planning models.
Strategic planning for communities is often approached as if communities are organizations; however, they are not. Communities are comprised of people loosely connected by their relationships, interests and geographic proximity. Organizations are regularly run through a top-down hierarchal approach, which is not always best suited to communities trying to organize a community-based plan. While traditional strategic planning can be effective for certain communities, this type of planning is frequently consultant-driven and expensive and, in the end, communities are not always prepared to implement the plan.
Under-resourced and rural communities may struggle to afford an expensive consultant, but they do have engaged local participants. By focusing on planning and doing simultaneously, communities can actively involve their members throughout the process. Taking an approach that leads to quick wins has the added advantage of building trust and fostering the development of the social capital needed to implement long-term development. Communities should not delay in taking action on key priorities because they feel compelled to follow a traditional linear planning process. There are effective methods for low-cost community-based planning that encourage short-term wins and support long-term development efforts, while also emphasizing the development of social capital.
One alternative approach to traditional strategic planning is Strategic Doing, which requires communities and community development professionals to think differently about planning strategies. Traditional strategic plans are a method of getting from A to B. This linear mode of thinking asks communities to imagine a distant future goal and take incremental steps to achieve that goal.
Strategic Doing is an effective visioning process because it emphasizes collaboration and action on short-term goals that build a foundation for long-term development. Traditional methods can be an excellent way for communities to acquire a big-picture view of long-term macroeconomic issues; however, this can also lead to communities failing to implement changes as they lose momentum, getting lost in details and competing interests. Strategic Doing focuses a community’s attention toward implementation from the beginning of the planning process by utilizing an asset-based approach and action-oriented collaborations.1
When considering long-range planning, a community should weigh the merits of traditional versus Strategic Doing approaches. Consultant-driven strategic planning can cost tens of thousands of dollars. For under-resourced and rural communities, this cost can be insurmountable. Strategic Doing presents a lower-cost alternative by utilizing community members throughout the planning process, keeping costs to a minimum. Strategic Doing does have some real expenses (e.g., costs associated with organizing community forums, marketing the plan and implementing short-term development efforts), but this approach is typically more affordable than consultant fees.
The Breakthrough Solutions model is another alternative to traditional strategic planning that incorporates elements of Strategic Doing, appreciative inquiry and asset-based community development. “Breakthrough Solutions is based on the premise that incremental improvements are often not sufficient in times of rapid change,” said Mark Peterson, professor of community and economic development with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “It takes breakthrough solutions that leverage local assets to really move a community forward. Breakthrough solutions are asset-based, community-driven, technology-enabled and results-oriented.”
Two Arkansas communities have utilized the Breakthrough Solutions model to realize short-term and long-term gains in their strategic efforts. Through a unique partnership between the extension service and the University of Central Arkansas, the communities have seen the benefits of a nontraditional planning process.
The program that connects these two universities with Arkansas communities is the University of Central Arkansas’ Community Development Institute (CDI). CDI provides practical, applied training to community and economic development professionals from Arkansas and the Midsouth. Graduates of the program are eligible to participate in an advanced year class, working directly with one community during an intensive week of assessment and community listening activities. Class participants and the CDI team work collaboratively with the community to develop a plan using the Breakthrough Solutions action process, based on the premise that citizens and local leaders can make a difference in their communities, but they must often see their region in new ways through the context of a global economy. The process also holds that the communities that survive and prosper are those that can come together to take action. This model has proven successful in two Arkansas cities: Heber Springs and Paris.
Planning in Heber Springs has been underway since August 2015 toward a five-year action plan. Because the community is taking an action-oriented approach, they have not waited to begin implementing key community priorities identified through collaboration with the CDI advanced year class.
“This planning process has been a true turning point for Heber Springs. Our community was poised for growth but without a specific objective or direction. The CDI team provided that direction for us. Now we have both short-term and long-term goals in six different areas of growth that we, as a community, are striving to achieve in solidarity,” said Julie Murray, executive director of the Heber Springs Chamber of Commerce.
Early successes since the planning process include:
Since 2014, the CDI team utilized the same process in Paris, Ark. When the community’s five-year action plan was unveiled in May 2015, the community had already garnered several short-term wins, including:
Once the initial planning was completed, the community continued to implement parts of its plan by securing funds for construction of the workforce career center and enrolling their first classes at a temporary site. “UCA’s Community Development Institute and U of A Cooperative Extension’s Breakthrough Solutions program provided their expertise, experience and contacts to facilitate turning our dreams, hopes and ambitions for Paris into plans, organizations and projects with the confidence to continue to improve the lives and opportunities of the citizens of Paris,” said Lee Lane, chair of the Paris planning team.
While some of these community success stories may have been set in motion before the planning process began, implementing them as part of the process helped build momentum and community capacity.
In addition to realizing short-term wins, action-oriented planning can also increase a community’s social capital. A simple definition of social capital or capacity is “the extent to which members of a community can work together effectively to develop and sustain strong relationships; solve problems and make group decisions; and collaborate effectively to plan, set goals and get things done.”2 Because communities are essentially a collection of loosely connected networks, developing trust and relationships is essential to successful community-based planning. Trust becomes the foundation for strong social networks and capacity within these networks.
Strategic Doing and other models such as Breakthrough Solutions are uniquely suited to meet this need because they rely on building social capital through the interaction of diverse groups of volunteers throughout the planning process. Community members often know each other but may not have worked together. These approaches seek to build social capital by asking community members to work together to achieve an outcome they are personally invested in.
There is no need to wait to take action for eight to nine months during planning. From the beginning, a community should identify its assets and short-term actions that can help reach long-term goals. These short-term actions and projects build community muscle. Over time, with each successful short-term project, communities become stronger and more prepared to work together on larger projects. Quick wins help build momentum and contribute to community capacity building.
The early stages of any community-based development effort are often the most difficult. Organizing volunteers, gathering community input and providing an inclusive environment for dialogue are just some of the early steps. As a result, it is easy for community leaders to feel overwhelmed. Sometimes an outside facilitator can be helpful, as in the case of Heber Springs and Paris, Ark. Whether working with an institution of higher education or using a purely local approach, a model of community planning that focuses on strategic action and short-term wins can result in increased community capacity and long-term success.
To learn more about the CDI, visit uca.edu/cdi. To learn more about the Breakthrough Solutions program and partners, visit www.uaex.edu/business-communities/strategic-planning/breakthrough-solutions.aspx.