Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Building Community by Sharing Achievement

One of the best ways to build a sense of community around the causes we care about or represent is to share the achievements of one with the many who helped make them possible. Let me illustrate what I mean.

Let's say you work for an educational institution and one of your students wins a prestigious award. Rather than merely announcing that achievement, go to the student who has won it and ask him or her if there were others who helped contribute to their success. That student might cite a faculty member, adviser, member of the clergy, scout leader, parent, friend, sibling, or loved one. Take that list of names and ask the president of your institution to write a letter something like this:

"Dear Professor Smith,

Susan Jones, a former student of yours, has recently been selected to receive one of the most prized and prestigious awards for scholastic and athletic achievement, the Rhodes Scholarship. When asked who had helped her toward this remarkable achievement, she cited you.

Thank you for giving of yourself to make such a significant difference in the life of this talented and dedicated student. While we are very proud of Susan's singular achievements, we believe it is also important to celebrate her success with all those who helped make it possible.

Yours Truly,

Eminence Gris
Alma Mater University"

Imagine how you might feel if you were, say, an advanced placement high school English teacher who might be feeling somewhat unappreciated and underpaid when, out of the clear blue, a letter like this lands on your desk. Wouldn't you be deeply affected? Wouldn't you feel great gratitude toward Susan and the university president who took the time to write you (and, perhaps, copied your principal)? You might want to frame the letter and display it in a prominent place. You might find yourself thinking about the university that sent it in a far more appreciative way. You might be inclined to tell other promising young people that they should consider going there.

And, if you are at Alma Mater U, you may want to invite those cited by the student winners to the campus event where the award is formally announced. Over time, you may want to cross-reference the attribution lists of all student award winners to see if certain names come up over and over. If so, you may want to explore ways of singling out those influential mentors for awards that speak to the impact they have had on many students. You may want to put those mentors on your VIP invitation list so that they feel that they are valued members of your community.

Can you use this approach at other organizations? Well, what about a medical center? What if you asked doctors to nominate patients who had demonstrated remarkable bravery and fortitude on the path to recovery? You could then approach these current or former patients to let them know that your medical center would like to hold them up as an example to others who may be struggling to overcome disease or injury. You could ask these heroic patients to list those who had been particularly helpful on their road to recovery. They might list doctors, nurses, spouses, members of the clergy, loved ones or others. You could then have your CEO write a letter with the similar theme to the one above to the supporters of the heroic patients. You could stage wonderful events where both the patients and their inner circle of support were celebrated. In so doing, you could highlight the human side of your medical center and discover over time the "difference makers" within and without.

Can you see how this approach can make a significant difference? For the cost of a few letters you give something of great meaning and make people feel more a part of the larger purposes of your organization.

If we are an organization that seeks the benevolence of others, should we not manifest what we seek? Is it not true -- from an ethical or practical perspective -- that the more we give, the more we will receive?

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