Community engagement in Utah — how we can have better success and a bigger impact

October 16, 2016
Author: Bill Hulterstrom

One of the unique things about our community is the passion that our workforce has about making a difference in the world. I’m continually inspired by their enthusiasm for finding the best ways to support our community. Last week, I was again reminded of this passion as I had the opportunity to attend the launch event for this year’s Startup Santa project.

This project, which was started last year by Beehive Startups, is a statewide book drive and fundraiser to support literacy. During the launch event, community leaders including Clint Betts, CEO of Beehive Startups; Carine Clark, President and CEO of MaritzCX; Alex Boye; and my colleague Bill Crim, President and CEO of United Way of Salt Lake spoke about why corporate involvement in the community is so crucial.

During each of these presentations, I observed how these passionate community leaders exemplified three principles of community engagement that allow them to have better success and bigger impact. By keeping these principles in mind as we donate, advocate, and volunteer, we can ensure that our efforts are really making a difference in our community.

1. Do your homework

The first principle of community engagement is to do your homework. Discover where the needs are in our community. Find out how to make a difference in the right way. Make sure that your efforts are going to support the areas that need change the most. Nothing breaks my heart more than when groups of volunteers or donors focus on helping needs that are already being met while other urgent needs are overlooked.

Last year, the Startup Santa project was created when Beehive Startups’ Clint Betts came to United Way to discuss ways that the Beehive Startups network could get involved during the holidays. During our discussion, we discovered that there was a greater need to support literacy — and that Beehive Startups had a greater capacity to fill that need — than they originally thought.

Thanks to that discussion about where the greatest needs are in our community, Beehive Startups was able to design a volunteer project that not only met the needs of their corporate partners, but that also addressed a significant need in our community. As a result of their efforts, we were able to raise over $68,000 in financial and in-kind donations to make sure that kids have access to books and literacy support at home.

2. Work within existing support networks

The second principle of community engagement is to work within the existing networks in your community. No one wants to recreate the wheel, but sometimes we inadvertently try to solve problems without including organizations or programs that have expertise with those particular issues. Sometimes we also forget to include other groups that have the resources to support our work. When that happens, it dilutes the impact of our involvement.

One reason why the Startup Santa project has been so successful is that Beehive Startups worked within their existing support network to recruit partners that had the resources to support literacy. Last year, 44 different startup and tech companies in Utah participated in the book drive. Companies were located everywhere from Ogden to Provo. This year, companies across the state have the chance to participate by donating online or by dropping off books at any one of the five United Way offices in Utah.

That kind of collaborative effort demonstrates the power that comes from utilizing our existing networks. By combining all of our resources together, we can exponentially increase the impact of our time or donation.

3. Invite others to join you

The third principle of community engagement is similar to the second: invite others to join with you as you get involved. Together, we can all achieve more than we can individually. This is true not only with financial donations, but also with volunteer time.

As part of the Startup Santa event, participating companies have the opportunity to go into our schools and read with our students. By adding that volunteer time to their donation of funds or books, they demonstrate a commitment to literacy that is crucial to education in our community. And by volunteering alongside their co-workers, these employees are sharing experiences that you don’t get to have in a regular work environment.

By inviting others to join, you aren’t just expanding your impact in the community. You are also building relationships with other volunteers. You are expanding your own individual community.

Startup Santa isn’t the only project that illustrates these three principles of community engagement. We have many corporate partners who understand the significance of being involved in our neighborhoods, schools, and agencies.

As Carine Clark explained at the launch event, “Doing things like this is the very thing ‘community’ means. I’m a believer that if you can do something, you should do something.”

Together, we can all do something. Utah County is the No. 1 community for volunteerism in the nation; there are thousands in our community that are working hard to make a difference. In order to make sure that we aren’t duplicating our efforts, we need to coordinate.

By making sure that we do our homework, work with existing networks, and invite others to join us, we can ensure that all of our efforts are really making a difference. We can coordinate our time, donations and talents to create opportunities for everyone in our neighborhoods. That’s really what it means to Live United.