How To Start a Community Project

It’s time to start a project in the community. Where to start? Let’s begin with a definition: A project is an activity that (1) has a specific objective, (2) has a start and end date, (3) may have funding limits and (3) uses resources such as money, people or equipment.[1]  The important thing—and the definition makes this clear—is that projects are specific and limited. Being clear about what you want to accomplish (your specific objective), your time limit (your start and end date) and what sort of resources you will need (money, people and equipment) can be make the task easier. Getting to your goal may be enormously complicated, but if it’s a project then by definition it will be time-limited. Whether it’s a community garden, a food program, or arranging for children to visit their mothers in prison, it will start and end. It’s important to keep that in mind at the outset.

How do you get started? The following seven steps may (let us hope) clear away enough of the confusion to get you into the action. Following the exact order of steps may be less important than get a sense of the basic pieces. When in doubt, start somewhere and then do something after that.[2]

Step 1.  Have a Clear Goal

It helps to start this community project with a clear goal. (See Chapter One, Determine the problem to be solved). What do you want to accomplish?  What results do you want?  What in the community needs to change? The mistake many people or groups make is to engage in a series of activities with no clear sense of what results they want.   Whenever possible, it’s good to identify the root causes of the problem.  There’s hunger in the neighborhood, despite the fact that most families are working. Why?  What’s the underlying problem.  This could be compared to a doctor treating the symptom without diagnosing the underlying cause.[3]

Step 2.  Do Research

For some people, the word research brings to mind a lonely, isolated process of bringing together dry facts about the situation.  Yet the most effective research is relational.  A few suggestions would be to meet one-to-one with community leaders, build deeper relationships with a few community leaders (perhaps on a regular basis, monthly or quarterly), attend community events or community groups that convene regularly, volunteer in the community, take a walk around the neighborhood, or go door to door in the community, assuming this is safe and that people would respond well to this approach).[4]

Step 3.  Communicate

Now it is time to make a case for the project and recruit volunteers to help you with it. Best practices include developing a purpose statement for the project, creating a recognizable logo to remind people of your project, and coming up with “sound bite” to sum up the spirit of what you’re doing.

Step 4. Put Together A Team

In one way of looking at it, effective projects always start in the mind of an individual. A thought, a dream, a snatch of conversation might be just the spark that gets the fire going, but the fire rarely burns long or well without the help of others. Normally, it takes a team provide the structure and the fuel to that initial spark. Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith define a team as “a small group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they are mutually accountable.”[5] As the definition suggests, the group needs to be small enough to effectively make decisions together, yet diverse enough (“complementary skills”) that their strengths build on each other’s, and working together with a “common purpose” and “mutually accountable” for what they do. Regarding diversity, try searching for these four types:

  1. Investor:  Provides resources such as time, talent or money to the project.
  2. Intermediary:  “Acts as a bridge between an investor and the program implementers.”
  3. Implementer:  Does the hands-on work.
  4. Innovator:  “Dream[s] up new ways to solve problems.”[6]

Of course, you may already serve on a mission and outreach or social ministry committee.   Even so, you might still consider expanding the group by inviting newer members of the congregation or those who are not yet actively involved. Consider also your own circle of friends outside the church.  As I consult with churches on their community engagement, I am struck often at home many active volunteers in these programs are not necessarily active in worship or even church members, yet seem called to this one special task. Try to keep an open mind about who will eventually be involved. Consider using email or social media to get the word out, though for some people, old-fashioned, word of mouth still works best.

Step 5. Take Action

At some point you need to make the leap.  For some reason, this can be more difficult for groups than individuals.  Linda Marie Delloff relates that congregations, especially, can find it difficult to be bold.  The successful faith groups are able to “recognize, then overcome their fears, or at least they are willing to take risks despite their fears.  Fears include failure, rejection by targeted public, physical or emotional discomfort, even physical danger.  Also fear of “the other,” that is, people who are different than oneself.  She writes, “such congregations are willing, even eager, to accept these risks because they know that by always being “safe” they will never change anything.”[7]

Step 6. Find Ways To Expand On Your Action

A project usually starts with a single action—such as collecting food for the hungry—but over time you may want to expand on it by finding additional ways to achieve the same end.   In the food collection example, have you thought of adding fresh food by asking donations from local gardens?  Have you thought of teaching nutrition or cooking?  Have you thought of asking food recipients to volunteer for you?  Have you thought of holding a community discussion on what causes hunger and how to change policy?  These are variations on a theme.  Everything relates to hunger, but new actions may help the project expand.

Step 7.  Use Sustainability Strategies To Keep It Going

Often people burn out because they have not thought about sustainability strategies.  This may include sharing a special meal together to celebrate accomplishments & people, using small group Bible study as a place to reflect on your action, inviting the people you serve to pray with you, or developing a Sunday worship service centered on a social issue. Sustainability can be as much about mental and spiritual capacity as about finances or volunteer hours.  Studying, sharing meals, celebrating—these are sustainability strategies.  Do them, or something like them, and you will never burn out.

Framing your community project as a series of steps can sharpen your focus. When done effectively, such projects can make a big difference by addressing directly the problems you and your neighbors face day by day.

[1] R.E. Quinn, Becoming a Master Manager, Wiley & Sons, 2003, 139.

[2] Adapted from Benjamin Shepard, Community Projects As Social Activism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2015, 3.

[3] Sandra S. Swan, The New Outreach (New York:  Church Publishing, 2010, 2-14.

[4] Joy F. Skjegstad, 7 Models for Community Ministry (Judson Press, 2013), 17-26.

[5] Jon R. Katzenbach, The Wisdom of Teams, San Francisco: HarperBusiness, 1994), 12.

[6] Swan, The New Outreach, 61-63.

[7] Linda-Marie Delloff, Public Offerings: Stories From the Front Lines of Community Ministry.  Bethesda, Md:  Alban Institute, 2002, 14.

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