11 Ways to Engage Your Community by Gardening in the Front Yard

In last week’s post, I likened Community Engagement to growing my vegetable garden in the front yard of my house.

Instead of showing the community only your organization’s well-manicured fait accompli, Community Engagement invites members of your community to become an integral part of the work itself, engaging their hearts, their minds, and their hands in your mission.

And so, as promised, here are 11 ways you can start creating that deep, honest spirit of engagement.

1 – Brainstorm:
Gardening in the front yard exudes a sense of openness and transparency. What functions do you normally do in private, only with members of your own organization? Those might include planning or board training; they might include “marketing planning” or developing a whole new program.

List all those “private” functions, and consider how you might share those processes with other organizations. (It is not impossible – we have seen it work really well! And wait – here’s another example!)

2 – T-shirts and Questions:
Nothing can engage your community’s minds and hearts like fact-based questions. A fact engaged as a question helps people find their own wisdom, rather than insisting they respect your wisdom!

By printing T-shirts that engage those fact-based questions (with your organization’s phone number underneath), you can do your gardening wherever you go!

For example, the T-shirts for the staff at a botanical garden might ask, “Which of these plants attracts butterflies? (with pictures)” or “Which of these plants is poisonous?”

Regardless of your mission, you can find a fact-based question that can work. (And if you have trouble thinking of a question, click the Comment button below and tell us your mission – let’s see what the readers here at Creating the Future come up with!)

3 – Yard Signs and Questions:
Yard signs promoting political candidates or fundraising events have their place. But what if yard signs didn’t just “tell and hope” – announcing your event and hoping people will come – but really engaged people in dialogue? Talk about gardening in the front yard – this literally IS your front yard!

A yard sign in front of your organization can ask a different fact-based question every month (or if you are ambitious, you might rotate through a series every day for two weeks).

Imagine kids being driven to school, seeing each week’s new question, and raising those questions with their parents in the car. Imagine a carpool doing the same. Imagine creating engaged dialogue you may not even know about!

4 – Pop Quiz:
Put a quiz in your newsletter. Every month, ask fact-based questions that will engage people’s hearts and minds, eliciting the response, “I never thought of that!”

The quiz for a poverty organization might include, , “How much is the average monthly social security benefit for seniors? And how many seniors live solely on that amount?” or “If a family of 4 in the U.S., with two working parents, nets $1,450 per month after taxes, are they eligible for government healthcare or food stamps?”

And don’t forget to give folks the answers!

5 – Why Are Things the Way They Are?
As you try to address the bigger picture of changing conditions in your community, ask the biggest question of all – Why? – everywhere you go for a month, and see what happens.

When friends and family ask, “What’s new?” or when introducing yourself at a networking function, skip the standard responses (“I’m Susan. I’m with the Humane Society.”). Instead, ask about the very heart of your organization’s mission:

“I’m Susan. I’m with the Humane Society. And I am trying to figure out why people act inhumanely, both to animals and to each other. Anyone got any ideas?”

“I’m trying to figure out why we think it’s ok to raze our community’s historic buildings.” “I’m trying to figure out why such a wealthy nation does not take care of those who are struggling.”

Bonus Tip:
If you want to brainstorm some possibilities with those of us here at Creating the Future, click the Comment button and enter your mission statement. Let’s see what folks come up with!

6 – Public Service Announcements:
Use the same fact-based question approach to creating a PSA campaign for local TV and radio stations.

7 – Create a Blog and Ask for Wisdom:
Get folks thinking, and perhaps even contributing and talking, by starting a blog. Use the blog to share information you have found useful, and to share questions you can’t dig your way out of.

Bonus Tip:
Don’t just stop at the blog post. Once you have posted a thought-provoking question, send an email to everyone on your organization’s email list. You will NOT be announcing, “Hey, come visit the blog!” You will instead be letting folks know, “We have posted a question on our blog that has been concerning us. Because you have supported our work in the past, we are hoping you will help us by sharing your wisdom about this issue. Would you take a moment and see if you have any ideas?”

Even if they do not respond at the blog, you will be getting folks thinking about the issues you care about!

8 – Write an Editorial:
Write a guest editorial for your local newspaper. Do NOT ask for support of an issue. Instead, encourage dialogue, asking the same sorts of fact-based questions noted above. “If these are the facts, why is this so? What is at the heart of this? Here is what I think, but we want to know what you think.” Then give people a place to continue the conversation – either at a blog site, or at a real event, intended to build real engaged dialogue.

Bonus Tip:
If you choose to create an “asking” campaign, combining some of the activities in this list, get media attention for that campaign, increasing the list of folks being engaged in those questions!

9 – Engage Your SMALLEST Donors:
Contact your BOTTOM 25% of donors – your $25 and $50 donors – the ones you probably ignore unless you are just asking them to give again. Invite them, in small groups, to focus group discussions around the mission-focused, community issues your organization is having trouble getting its arms around.

If we are going to garden in the front yard, sometimes the neighbors will know we don’t know everything. They will watch us experiment. And if we give them the opportunity, they will share invaluable advice and wisdom about the particular variety of tomato we are trying to grow.

Do the same with your LOW dollar donors. Stop ignoring the people who think your garden is terrific, just because they didn’t go out and buy you a whole landscape firm to help make it gorgeous!

Bonus Tip:
Strategy #24 in FriendRaising can show you a step-by-step way to do this.

10 – Have a Barn Raiser:
A “barn-raiser” takes gardening in the front yard to a whole new level, as it goes beyond engaging people’s hearts and minds, engaging their hands as well.

In days of old in the American West, if a family needed a barn built, it might take a month or more to build it themselves. If the whole community pitched in, however, the barn could be built in a day.

The same can be done with any large task your organization needs to have done. Instead of bringing in a crew of anonymous volunteers, invite members of your community (and especially your existing donors and supporters) to help get that job done – and engage them in your mission (and in each other!) while you are working side by side.

11 – Work WITH, Not FOR:
Gardening in the front yard has been great fun for me, as I get to learn from what my neighbors know about growing things. Sadly, our organizations often ignore the opportunity to learn from a group of people who likely know more about our programs than anyone else – the folks who will participate in and benefit from those programs.

If you are in the initial program development stages (or if you want to make your existing programs more effective), engage the people who will use those programs. Imagine how much more relevant and effective your programs will be when you create them by gardening side by side together WITH the folks who will use them, rather than simply creating them on your own, FOR them!

No one likes to always be on the receiving end; giving is empowering, as it suggests we have enough to share. (See Robert Thurman’s work for more about that.)

So have the people who will benefit from your organization’s “garden” do the work alongside you. You will be engaging their hearts and minds and hands all at once, while engaging your own hearts and minds and hands alongside them. Because you will have created those efforts together, you will all enjoy the fruits of the harvest more. And from that effort, your organization, your clients, and you will all grow at the same time.

12 – Bonus: What Has Worked For You?
Please share how your organization has gardened in the front yard, and how that has worked for you. The more we all garden together the more we will learn together!

The Community Engagement Action Kit is a step-by-step guide to creating a Community Engagement Plan. If you don’t already have the kit, get it here.

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