Whether it’s a community garden, a food program or a street protest— community projects are rarely the result of solo effort. Typically, social change happens when DIY efforts successfully expand into broader group involvement. What’s more, projects—the term implies a definite beginning and end—are often less daunting to contemplate than ongoing campaigns or programs.
If you the idea that you want to start a community project, here are seven steps making it a reality.
STEP 1. Have a Clear Goal
It helps to start this community project with a clear goal. 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.
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:
- 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
- Walk around the community
- Go door to door in the community (assuming this is safe and that people would respond well to this approach).
Now it is time to make a case for the project and recruit volunteers to help you with it. (Remember: you can’t do this by yourself.) Best practices:
- Develop a purpose statement for the project
- Create a recognizable logo to remind people of your project
- Create a “sound bite” to sum up the spirit of what you’re doing.
STEP 4. PUT TOGETHER A TEAM
Definition: A team is a group of people
- with complimentary and diverse skills, gifts and strengths who are committed. . .
- to a common purpose
- to working with each other to achieve the team’s purpose, and
- to holding each other fully and jointly accountable for the team’s results.
To put together a team, you might start with your network of friends. Consider using email or social media to get the word out, though for some people, old-fashioned, word of mouth networking still works best. If you are not the gregarious type, you may want to tap someone in your network who seems to know everyone and ask for help. If recruiting within your congregation, consider inviting newer members or persons on the edge of your community. Without doubt, those on the edge are untapped resources, and you may be surprised by enthusiastically they respond.
As you look for recruits, consider four different roles your supporters might play:
- Investor: Provides resources such as time, talent or money to the project.
- Intermediary: “Acts as a bridge between an investor and the program implementers.”
- Implementer: Does the hands-on work.
- Innovator: “Dream[s] up new ways to solve problems.”
STEP 5: TAKE ACTION
At some point you need to make the leap. For some reason, this can be more difficult for groups than invidiuals. 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.”
Are You A Risk Taker?
1. I work best in an orderly and predictable environment.
2. I like to wait until I have all the facts before making a decision.
3. I will stay in a bad situation rather than make an uncertain change.
4. I like experimenting with new ways to do my work.
5. I enjoy bringing up new ideas at meetings.
6. I like to go to new places for no other reason than to see what’s there.
STEP 6: FIND WAYS TO EXPAND UPON 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.
7. USE SUSTAINABILITY STRATEGIES TO KEEP IT GOING
Often people burn out because they have not thought about sustainability strategies. This may include:
- A special meal together to celebrate accomplishments & people
- Small group Bible study as a place to reflect on your action
- Prayer with the people you serve
- Sunday worship centered on a social issue
Sustainability is 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.
 Adapted from Benjamin Shepard, Community Projects As Social Activism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2015.)
 Sandra S. Swan, The New Outreach (New York: Church Publishing, 2010, 2-14.
 Joy F. Skjegstad, 7 Models for Community Ministry (Judson Press, 2013), 17-26.
 Jon R. Katzenbach, The Wisdom of Teams, San Francisco: HarperBusiness, 1994), 12.
 Swan, 61-63.
 Linda-Marie Delloff, Public Offerings: Stories From the Front Lines of Community Ministry. Bethesda, Md: Alban Institute, 2002, 14.
 Assessments A to Z/© 2000 Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
Photo: Sharyn Morrow. Taken Feb. 19, 2005. Flickr Creative Commons.