Come Together: Being strategic

This is part of Come Together, a series about defining, building, growing, and sustaining our dance communities.

When I talk to others about building their local communities, it strikes me that different leaders have different goals. Some are focused on building a student base, some on throwing a good party for guests, and others on just getting more bodies in the door. The goals are up to the community leaders and their particular vision for the community.

When I make plans, I’m a geek for being strategic. To me, being strategic means acting with the end in mind – defining your goals first and then determining what strategies to use, and then what tactics to use. Goals are the high-level aims we set out to achieve; they are the North Star towards which every step is directed. The strategies themselves are the approaches we take to achieve our goals. And tactics are the tasks or actions we execute to move towards our goals.

By defining our goals first, we can ensure that everything we do leads us towards our desired outcome, thus improving both efficiency and effectiveness. When we focus on tactics without first defining our goals and strategies, we may end up spending a lot of time and energy (and money) doing things that won’t directly help us achieve our goals. People who lose sight of the bigger goal can get lost in the details, fixated on small details that have little or no bearing on the final desired outcome. The idea of being strategic means we keep our eye on the North Star as we take action, ensuring that each step in our journey will help us get closer to our destination. In this way, we are more focused and purposeful in everything we do.

My day job for the last few years has been as a strategic consultant to nonprofit organizations, helping them with their strategy, communications, and fundraising. In the world of nonprofit fundraising, there’s a strategic framework that helps organizations to raise money and build support for their causes. This framework has three strategic goals:

  • Attract new donors. Get people to make a first-time donation to your cause.
  • Retain existing donors. Get people who have made a donation to make another.
  • Advanced existing donors. Get your donors to increase their donation or become a recurring, monthly donor.

For each goal, it is important to develop relationships with supporters through regular, consistent action that engages them, builds trust with them, and makes them feel a sense of commitment to your cause.

When I started Mission City Swing in San Francisco, I thought this framework was an excellent way to think about how to build a dance community. I adapted these goals for my own – and I continue to think in terms of this framework as the community grows:

  • Attract: Get new people to come to your community. When we’re talking about growing a community, this would mean getting lots of people to come learn how to dance, but it also means getting experienced dancers to come out to your venue.
  • Retain: Get people who have come to your community to come back. This applies to new dancers and experienced dancers alike. We want new students to come back to class, and we want the experienced dancers to keep coming back to dance.
  • Advance: Get people in your community to improve their dancing and deepen their involvement. We want people to improve their skill level over time and we want members of the community to help support the community as it grows.

I think a lot of people think about the first two goals – attracting people and retaining them – but I haven’t seen many think about the third one. This often leads to the “quantity versus quality” issue that many local dances face: lots of people to dance with, but they aren’t very good. This in turn deters better dancers from coming out regularly, and sometimes even means losing newer dancers who then don’t get to see dancing that inspires them or who don’t feel a sense of progress after a certain point. Keeping people learning and growing can help to keep them coming back.

Also, without thinking about how to deepen relationships with your members, a community may experience a lack of engagement or commitment. If people don’t feel connected to your community, you may have a high rate of turnover, or you may have trouble finding volunteers. And as the community grows, it takes more work to manage it, and it will be important to recruit people to help out.

In order to get others to help out, community leaders need to deepen their relationship with members and offer them opportunities to volunteer and take on meaningful roles in the community. The benefits of these kinds of opportunities extend well beyond having some helping hands. When members get more involved in supporting the community, they feel a greater sense of purpose and belonging. They strengthen their commitment to the community and develop a shared sense of ownership that can help sustain the community in the long-run.

Of course, each community will have its own goals, depending on its unique context and vision. Communities in the early stages of growth will likely focus on attracting and retaining dancers. Those that are more established may focus more on retention and advancement. And older communities that are shrinking may have to shift focus back to attraction and retention.

So how can a community leader be more strategic?

First, start with defining your goals. Think about whether you want to focus on attracting new people, retaining your existing people, or advancing your existing people in terms of their competency and their relationship to the community. Make your goals specific by defining who specifically you want to target. Do you want to attract new dancers? What geographical area are you targeting? What age group or other demographics? The more specific your goals, the easier it will be to define appropriate strategies and focus your efforts.

Once you have a clear, specific, and limited set of goals (no more than 3-5), then you should identify the appropriate strategies you want to use. Strategies are buckets of similar or related activities, such as using social media to attract a target audience, or developing educational programming that develops your existing student base. When developing strategies, consider your community’s value and purpose, the broader context in which your community exists, and the resources you have at your disposal. The more focused your strategies, the more feasible they will be to implement.

Finally, once your have your goals (desired outcomes) and your strategies (approaches), then you should sit down and think about how to make this happen in concrete ways. What are the tasks you need to do and in what order? What activities will be one-time and which will be periodic or ongoing? Who will be responsible for execution of those tasks? What resources will be allocated for each activity? How will you measure progress and success and how will you overcome potential challenges? Determine what tactics to use that align with your strategies and that will, step-by-step, get you to your goals.

For example, if your goal is to attract new dancers to your community, you need to define who those potential new dancers are. Are we focused on 20-somethings in the city or retirees in the neighboring suburbs? Be as specific as you can. Then, you may focus on paid advertising in local media as a strategy, or perhaps you will focus on financial incentives to entice and reward newcomers. You could try a strategy focused on promoting to other dance communities, or you could utilize a social media strategy to spread the word. Then, depending on your strategy, your tactics would involve things like buying paid advertising on Facebook, visiting other dance communities and providing postcards, getting people online to like and share the Facebook page for your dance, or any other number of tactics.

If your goal is to improve your students’ skill level (note: you should be more specific about which students you’re targeting and what it means to improve), you could think of a number of strategies. One possible strategy is offering more learning opportunities, with tactics such as creating another class, offering additional workshops on another day of the week, or setting up more private lessons. Another strategy might be to offer more specialized or in-depth learning opportunities, using such tactics as setting up workshops focused on particular topics or bringing in guest instructors. If your strategy is to get your students to practice more, you might choose tactics like arranging practice sessions or helping students find practice partners.

The possibilities are endless, but the idea is the same: be strategic about how you approach your community. Define your goals in a concrete, specific way first, and then work backwards to identify your strategies and tactics. Community leaders should consider the purpose of their community, the conditions and context for their community, the resources they have available, and what would help improve community members’ dance experience and their relationships to others. With a more thoughtful approach to your community, you can take action with greater focus and purpose.

But what do you think? Have you thought about a strategy for your community? Do you know what the goals are and how you’ll achieve them? Do others share the same goals? Is the framework above helpful for focusing your efforts, or do you have another way of thinking about building community? What is one thing you can do today to be more strategic in your efforts to build community?

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