My black Lab, Hallie, owned our back yard. She would dig. She would run deep grooves into the grass. Garden after garden fell to Hallie’s exploits.
Finally, I dug up a plot next to the driveway. And I planted my vegetables in the front yard.
That was twenty years ago – two houses ago, a marriage and another dog ago. And still, my garden is in the front yard.
Tomatoes and okra and basil and zucchini in the summer; lettuce and carrots and peas and broccoli in the desert winter. All in the front yard.
Why the front yard? Because my garden makes friends.
Since moving into my current home, my front yard garden has introduced me to neighbors from many blocks away. Some ask gardening questions. Some put my house on their morning walk route, to see what’s new. And some bring gifts.
That’s how I met Earl. My doorbell rang one morning, and there stood a sweet, elderly man holding a plastic baggie filled with sunflower seeds. “My wife used to love driving by your house. She always wanted to see what was new. I lost her last month.” He handed me the bag of seeds. “These are from her sunflowers.”
And every year, from then on, I have planted a wall of sunflowers, swirling along the front sidewalk, in honor of Earl’s love for his wife. And of course those giant flowers bring more new friends.
So why am I telling you this?
Because planting your garden in the front yard is precisely what Community Engagement is all about.
Community Engagement forms real, honest, engaged relationships between members of the community and your organization’s mission and vision.
Community Engagement is not marketing or fundraising or volunteer recruitment, but it will certainly accomplish those things. It will also help you build the most effective programs possible. It will help you further every single one of your goals. And it will help you with the biggest goal of all – building an engaged community (the same goal as my front yard garden).
But here’s the real secret – and it is what separates Community Engagement from Marketing and all those other “just for show” efforts: For engagement to work, it has to be honest; it has to be real.
If my front yard were merely a well-manicured, just-for-show row of hedges, no one would stop. No one would introduce themselves. No one would make my house a special part of their day.
My neighbors stroll by because my garden is honest, authentic. In the morning, they find me working. At dinner time, they find us harvesting. There are butterflies and ladybugs, and finches all over the sunflowers. My neighbors don’t just see the final product; they also see the sweat, the compost, the pruning, the digging. I do not have to tell my neighbors I want to engage them; my garden shows them.
And when they walk by with a friend, pointing out this or that, they do so with pride, as if some part of my garden is also theirs. Because, in part, it is.
So how about your organization? Are you gardening in the front yard? Are you sharing the inner workings of what it takes to do your work, so the world can become engaged with that work? Are you being as open and inviting as you can be? Can your community connect so deeply and easily with your work, that they feel as if it is their work, too?
Or do you feel those inner workings are meant for the back yard, only showing the world a perfectly manicured lawn and hedge? The difference is more than just metaphor. The difference is the degree to which the community feels a part of everything your organization does.
The more your community feels they are a part of your work – the more they can point with pride, as if your work is their own as well – the more effective your mission will be, in every single way.
To learn the “how to’s” of community engagement, follow the link to 11 Ways to Engage Your Community by Gardening in the Front Yard
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.
(Photo credit: My garden’s abundance, and Earl’s Sunflowers)