Rally Community Support for Civic Assets With an American Tradition

Construction WorkersFaced with shrinking budgets, many local and state governments have been forced to reduce or eliminate grant support for programs in the arts, recreation, and education. How are communities responding? They are bringing together citizens, civic organizations, nonprofits, foundations, businesses, and unions to make up for the funding shortfalls. To be successful in the long run, says Gareth Potts, who studies urban and regional policy in the United Kingdom and the United States, these coalitions need to build community awareness of the benefits of these civic resources, establish stable funding sources for programs and overhead, and rally a corps of dedicated volunteers.

Potts has found a model for such civic coalitions in the all-American tradition of the barn raising, in which neighbors living in frontier communities gathered together to help farmers build new barns. Barn raisings were — and in Amish and Mennonite communities, still are — as much social affairs as they were construction projects. And because the buildings themselves often served communal functions, it was in everyone’s best interest to help build them.

“Like the communal barns of the frontier United States, our libraries, parks, recreation centers, and art museums serve as key anchors to communal, social, and cultural life,” Potts writes in The New Barn-Raising: a Toolkit for Citizens, Politicians, and Businesses Looking to Sustain Community and Civic Assets (available as a free download at www.thenewbarnraising.com). “In the new economic frontier of public spending cuts, government has a much less dominant role in overseeing the funding, managing, and delivery of community and civic assets. Instead, citizens, foundations, non-profits, and businesses are asked to pull together to do more.”

Potts, the former director of research and policy at the British Urban Regeneration Association, traveled across the United States in the summer and fall of 2012 as an Urban and Regional Policy Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (www.gmfus.org). He interviewed people from local nonprofits and foundations, government agencies, and academic institutions in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit, and Baltimore in an effort to find out what made those cities’ innovative projects and policies for sustaining civic assets successful.

Potts identifies three strategies for sustaining community assets:

  1. Raising awareness by making convincing cases to stakeholders and forming alliances;
  2. Raising money by identifying and cultivating local and regional funding sources; and
  3. Raising help by growing a base of volunteers who can bring their unique knowledge and resources to bear.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Potts explains by telephone from Detroit, where he now lives with his wife. “It’s really about people pulling together and recognizing the parts that each partner can play.”

Potts has designed The New Barn-Raising to be a comprehensive toolkit, with detailed case studies and examples as well as abundant anecdotal and statistical evidence, all of which local alliances can apply to achieve successes like those in the three cities profiled in the book. Potts supplements this resource by hosting webinars, free article downloads, and other resources on the book’s website. It’s all part of his effort to build an international grassroots community of practice around the barn-raising philosophy.

Potts says that the response to The New Barn-Raising has been positive and is growing slowly but steadily as word spreads. “I’ll keep doing this as long as there are good ideas to talk about,” he explains.

This post was adapted from “The Domino Effect: How Community Foundations are Teaming Up With One Another and With Local Nonprofits Businesses, and Government to Innovate Solutions in Their Communities,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Fall 2015 (reprinted with permission) You can read the whole article here.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.