Sunday, October 12, 2008

Do Cookies Make Ideas Better?

Lately I've been spending time facilitating strategic planning with a number of small organizations. I'm just wrapping up my process with the Historical Society of Woodstock and on my beautiful drives down and back through the Catskills I reflected on what made this project such a pleasure. Woodstock is a unique place--where else does local history include knowing where Bob Dylan composed? It combines a long Catskill agricultural and industrial history with a twentieth century history that intertwines the local community, visual and performing artists, and popular culture. But it is not, as the town spends a good deal of time explaining, the place where the Festival took place.

The society was founded in the 1930s--and when I first met with the board last December, they had just come out of a very difficult time. The society had been run as a closed organization for decades and as a result, had no meaning for Woodstock's residents or visitors. On relatively short notice, they had had to move the entire collection to another building so improvements could be made on their own structure (owned by the town). It was a small board and I sensed some anxiety about the process moving forward.

Over the past months, that small group has really developed. At last week's meeting, announced one board member, "now we're a team!" They brought several important qualities to the planning process that, from my perspective, helped create an energetic and meaningful plan.

1. Openness and Creativity
They were open to all sorts of things: to advice from me, to what community focus groups had to say, to advice from other consultants and to new ideas from everywhere. It was a group of creative thinkers who felt free to share ideas with each other.

2. Not too Big, Not too Small
Many organizations dream big--but lack the resources to complete those dreams (see recent press about the Mark Twain House and the Mount for just two examples). The Historical Society of Woodstock's new plan is both ambitious, and I think, achievable, by a targeted use of volunteer and other resources.

3. Make it Fun!
I didn't go to any meeting where they didn't seem happy to see each other; to report back good buzz about the historical society in the community, a new object acquired, and to share a meal, or at the very least, home-baked ginger cookies and lemonade. That feeling of a welcoming place is beginning to spread to the community.

4. Listen to the Community
We held two community conversations about the future of the organization. One was parents and the other was long-time (ie twenty years or more) community members. Poets, musicians, highway workers, farmers, retirees and more. It's clear that a passion for this particular place and the values it represents motivates both new and long-time residents. History plays an integral role in that, as one focus group participant said, "Even the kid from Minnesota playing guitar on the green; he comes for the history of the place." All agreed that the mountains made the place special, they create, as one person remarked, “one big hug.”

The historical society's new plan focuses around the idea of conversations--in part, because, in listening to those focus groups, that's something that matters deeply to this community and that the historical society can do well for many different audiences.

Sometimes focus groups feel tacked on, not substantially a part of a planning process. Here, our sessions about vision, mission and goals really were strongly influenced by those lively community conversations, with lemonade and cookies, on sunny summer evenings in those beautiful mountains.

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