Let’s Talk About Community Heart & Soul

ARTICLE | Dec 14, 2016

What are the strengths of your community? What gives it distinctive character? What is the heart and soul?

Having seen his town of Weston, Vermont, nearly torn apart over the approval and bust of a new amusement park, Lyman Orton of the Orton Family Foundation set out to find a better way to involve residents in community planning processes to help answer the questions above. His experience led him to develop Community Heart & Soul: Guided by What Matters Most, a process designed to help small cities and towns succeed by identifying and strengthening those characteristics that matter most to the people who live there.

Success Story

Going the Extra Mile - Involving Everyone Reaps Big Rewards

In Cortez, Colorado, the Ute Mountain Ute, a nearby Native American tribe, were typically underrepresented at public meetings. Determined to hear from everyone in the community, the Cortez Heart & Soul Team met with tribal members and learned that going door-to-door, sending letters of invitation, and using the tribe's radio station were the best ways to reach people.

After overcoming fears and assumptions about their neighbors, and learning the best ways to seek participation, Heart & Soul volunteers hosted meetings with tribal members, strengthening relationships, and sowing the seeds for trust. When it came time for a downtown Cortez beautification project, the trust-building paid off; Ute Mountain Ute members gave direct input on the plans and partnered with the city to incorporate aspects of tribal culture and history into the project.

Community Heart & Soul Begins with A Partnership Between Local Government and Residents

Effective engagement involves working to identify and articulate what matters most – emotionally – to residents. It’s about asking your residents questions like: What do you treasure in this town? What places do you go to that nurture your need for nature? What public buildings are you most proud of? Do you feel good about your elected officials? Do they listen to you?

Simply put, it’s about building these emotional connections and engaging with everybody. And rather than focusing on issues that divide residents, a town or a city can come together to discover its common Heart & Soul and use that as a foundation – a communal touchstone – on which to make decisions about the future.

If creating a powerful connection with your community through emotion sounds exciting, download the Orton Family Foundation’s Field Guide, a step-by-step process and a kit of resources to equip you, your staff, and volunteers with everything you need to design and deliver the Heart & Soul method in your community.

The field guide explains how you can work with residents to understand a community’s Heart & Soul, make decisions about how to strengthen it, and in the process create a more resilient community.  

Going Beyond a "Check the Box" Approach to Engagement

To learn how local leaders like Jim Bennett, city manager, Biddeford, Maine, and past ICMA president; Mike Bestor, former city manager, Golden, Colorado, and ICMA member; and Kirsten Sackett, community development director, Ellensburg, Washington; put Heart & Soul into action in their communities, attend the free conference call: Heart & Soul Talks: Strengthen Your Community through Engagement, on Thursday, January 26, 2017, 3-4 p.m., ET, hosted by ICMA Partner, the Orton Family Foundation. You’ll hear how each local leader went beyond a "check the box" approach to engagement, working with residents to create ambitious plans that have led to dramatic and lasting results in their towns.

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