You need a bond issue passed-is your community ready to vote for it?

Ruth W. Edwards, Ph.D., Director, Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research, Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, Colorado

John R. Briggs, P.E., Project Manager, Department of Public Works, Greeley, Colorado

The Community Readiness Model can help you "do your homework"—assessing readiness of the community to back your issue and guiding efforts to raise readiness and develop community-wide support. The model is a simple, intuitive model used by individuals and groups across the country to assess their community's readiness to support a wide range of community issues. These issues have included prevention of drug use among youth, increasing support for open space, getting support for animal control ordinances, etc. Understanding the concept of community readiness and how to utilize knowledge of readiness to garner support within the community can significantly increase the potential for success of your issue. More importantly, when most voters are at lower stages of readiness, starting with trying to sell a bond issue may raise more resistance than support. In these difficult economic times, voters are generally not anxious to increase public debt unless they see a clear benefit that has relevance to them.

The Community Readiness Model identifies different stages of readiness using six dimensions: a) existing community efforts; b) the community's knowledge about these efforts; c) leadership; d) the overall community climate; e) knowledge/awareness of the issue within the community; and f) resources (people, time, space, etc.) available to address the issue. The model then gives suggestions for strategies that are appropriate to reach the voting public based on readiness stage. Each of the six dimensions will have a level of readiness associated with it, and identifying the dimensions where readiness is lower than the others can help you target your efforts to move things along more quickly.

Being involved in the day-to-day realities of dealing with a problem in your community like inadequate budgets for street improvements, need for renovation of older areas, bursting-at-the-seams cultural centers, etc., you may believe a bond issue is the only way to solve the problem. It's obvious to you, your staff, and maybe a number of others in various departments, but that's because it is your job to pay attention to it. How do you get the voters on the same page with you in understanding the need for funding and raise support for the bond issue?

1. Don't assume the majority of voters in your community even know about the problem you want to address with funding from a bond issue.
How do you gauge the community's "readiness" to support your bond issue? Use this simple model to do an assessment of where the community as a whole (and also different subgroups within the community) is with respect to the issue. Is it even on their radar? Do they have accurate information about it? What other community issues are competing with it in the minds of the voters? Are key leaders supportive?

2. Make sure your efforts for promoting your bond issue are appropriate for the community's stage of readiness.
After you have assessed the level of readiness of the whole community and different constituencies within it—use this information! Choosing strategies appropriate to the voting public's stage of readiness will get you the most "bang for the buck." For example, if most voters are in the early stages of readiness to address this issue, don't hold a town meeting—no one will come! This isn't an issue the community at large knows enough or cares enough about to come to a meeting. There are, however, many things you can do that will generate public interest and get the voters ready to support a bond issue.

Although there are nine stages addressed in the full model, the first four are most relevant for developing community support for a bond issue. Groups in communities all across the country have identified strategies for each stage that work to move their communities along in readiness to reach the desired goal.

No Awareness Stage - the vast majority of the community simply does not see the problem you want to address is a problem.

Goal: Raise awareness of the issue you want to address with funds from the bond issue (don't start campaigning for a bond issue yet).

Strategies:

  • One-on-one visits with community members and leaders.
  • Visit existing and established small groups to give them information and answer questions about the problem.
  • Make one-on-one phone calls to friends and potential supporters.

Denial/Resistance Stage - at least some of the public recognize the issue as a problem generically, but don't think it needs to be addressed locally or there may actually be some active resistance to doing anything about it.

Goal: To raise awareness that this is a local issue and that it needs to be addressed.

Strategies:

  • Continue one-on-one visits and encourage those you've visited to also make calls and visits.
  • Highlight descriptive local examples of the issue—for example, if what you need is money to improve streets, show comparisons of how the quality of streets has deteriorated over time—and be as neighborhood-specific as you can be. Make this an issue relevant to each voter as much as possible.
  • Enlist the help of your local newspaper to print articles that describe local circumstances relevant to the issue, like deterioration of streets, safety problems, etc.
  • Prepare and submit short articles for existing newsletters, etc., showing how the issue impacts that particular group or its constituency. For example, if your need is street funding, in a school newsletter you might address pedestrian safety issues for kids; for a senior citizens group newsletter you might address visibility and safety issues for driving, safer sidewalks, handicapped accessibility of curbs, etc.
  • Make short presentations to local community clubs and groups and show the relevancy of the issue to their members with examples like those noted above for newsletters.

Vague Awareness Stage - most people recognize there is a local problem, but there is no immediate motivation to do anything about it.

Goal: Raise awareness that the community can do something about the problem.

Strategies:

  • Present information at local community events and to local community groups about what needs to be done to address the problem.
  • Use low-key media like flyers, posters, etc. that have messages that address the goal of helping people understand something can be done about the problem.
  • Begin to initiate your own events to present information on the issue—small neighborhood get-togethers in people's homes or a meeting before, during or after existing gatherings like town picnics, etc.
  • Conduct informal local surveys and interviews with community people by phone or door-to-door to see how they view the issue. Use this information to guide your messages.
  • Prepare guest editorials for the newspaper about the problem and what needs to be done to solve it.
Preplanning Stage - there is a clear recognition that something must be done and there may even be a small group of people (other than your staff) meeting to discuss it, but efforts are not focused or detailed.

Goal: Raise awareness with concrete ideas on how to do something.

Strategies:

  • Visit and try to invest community leaders (both formal and informal) in supporting a bond issue.
  • Review existing efforts in the community (small groups that are trying to upgrade their neighborhoods, citizen groups that are addressing related issues, etc.) to coordinate efforts and be mutually supportive.
  • Conduct local focus groups to discuss the need for a bond issue and generate ideas on how to get support of different community constituencies.
  • Increase media exposure through radio and television public service announcements, interviews, etc.

The strategies recommended for these early stages of readiness don't cost a lot—they do require energy and personal investment of a few key people. Paying for a big newspaper ad when the bulk of the community is at these early stages of readiness is generally a waste of resources—most people will glance right over it because you've not made the issue relevant to them yet. Knowing how ready your audience is to address a community issue is very powerful information. A brief article or presentation that is appropriate for the audience's stage of readiness can move them from the Denial/Resistance Stage to Vague Awareness almost immediately. If you can convince voters it is an important local issue, they will undoubtedly start asking what can be done about the situation—and then you can start sharing your vision and plans for what needs to be done.

The most important point is to recognize the community's readiness level and use a step-by-step approach to move the public from where they are beyond at least the first three stages before asking them to vote to increase community debt. It is critical to success not to try to do too much too quickly. Of course, your issue must be defensible. The Community Readiness Model can't help you sell a bad idea. It can facilitate educating community voters to recognize a need that is real and that a bond issue will address the problem and is worthy of their support.

Ruth W. Edwards can be reached at (970) 491-6827 or at Ruth.Edwards@ColoState.edu; John R. Briggs can be reached at (970) 350-9794 or at briggsj@ci.greeley.co.us.

For more information on the Community Readiness Model, go to www.TriEthnicCenter.ColoState.edu and click on Community Readiness. A free, electronic copy of a manual, "Community Readiness - The Key to Successful Change" can be requested and articles about development and application of the model are free and can be downloaded. The manual includes the questions to ask in doing an assessment, how to score replies to the questions to arrive at a readiness score, and how to utilize the model to guide program and/or campaign development efforts.