om Sansone, the chair of the Community Compass Steering Committee, is a key leader at United Way of Greater New Haven. He is a member of the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee and is co-chair of the Community Impact Cabinet. In his spare time, he is an Administrative Partner at the Carmody and Torrance law firm. He was recruited by United Way's President Hart Caparulo to chair the Community Compass project not only because of his commitment to building a stronger New Haven region through volunteerism but also because of his outstanding communication and leadership skills. Recently, Tom sat down to chat about some of his expectations for the project and why he thinks it is such a uniquely effective collaboration.
Robert McGuire: What is Community Compass?
Tom Sansone: It's a mechanism designed by United Way of America to match up the needs of the community with its assets to address those needs in a systematic way that encourages civic engagement, participation across many constituencies and the ultimate goal of community building.
R.M.: What is that mechanism?
T.S.: It consists of a variety of components. One component is collecting data from surveys, focus groups, interviews with community leaders and existing studies. Next is evaluating the data and identifying a few key areas that are particularly pressing. That's the "needs" side. Simultaneously there is also a comprehensive inventory of community assets. Assets may be human, they may be financial, they may be health and human service agencies, block watch groups, civic organizations, fraternal organizations, faith-based organizations, employers that support volunteerism. All of those assets and their capabilities are identified, so that we can design a plan of action to address the needs by deploying the assets.
R.M.: What are some of the core activities of the project?
T.S.: The first activity was assembling the partnership that will function as a steering committee. United Way of Greater New Haven is the managing partner of this group but we're not so much the CEO as we are a servant leader. We are really the facilitators. We solicited members of the academic community, the corporate community, labor leaders, members of civic organizations, and we assembled a fairly diverse group of individuals numbering about twenty-five to begin the hard work that we have to do. Then we identified the various sub-committees of the process including data collection, communication, survey groups and town meetings. These sub-committees manage a series of projects that will feed one into another. The yeoman's work is the data collection.
R.M.: What difference has this project made in some of the cities where local United Way organizations have already done this?
"The spirit of volunteerism in this country has not waned. People have different priorities, but that doesn't mean they care any less about their community or are inspired any less to engage in volunteerism and philanthropic efforts. We just have to be more creative to let those opportunities to come to the fore."
T.S.: One example was Atlanta. There the process identified only a single priority need, which was the crime rate. Not that there weren't other pressing matters in the greater Atlanta area, but the need to have a safer community was the primary goal. However, that is such a broad goal that it can encompass many different things. One of those was reducing the rate of truancy, because there was a correlation between truancy and juvenile crime. So funding sources were identified to create daycare and after-school care centers, parenting seminars were sponsored throughout the region to help parents become more involved in that lives of their children, and what we see is that the truancy rate has in fact decreased, which was one mechanism identified as a means of creating a safer Atlanta. Another mechanism was through increasing home ownership. The higher the percentage of owner occupancy, the lower the crime rate. The goal in that regard was to create funding mechanisms to allow people to realize the dream of home ownership--financial workshops, help saving for down payments, matching funds from corporations. And that helped decrease the crime rate.
R.M.: Let me be a little bit skeptical here. We already know that more safety and home ownership and youth development programs will help improve this community. Why do we need draw in twenty-five partners and so many other volunteers for an eighteen-month project? Why can't we just go ahead and start working on these things?
T.S.: Well, United Way and a lot of other organizations are working on those things. But Community Compass is a collaborative effort that can create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. If you have a lot of volunteers or a lot of health and human service organizations working independently of one another, the prospects of success are vastly reduced. This involves volunteers who go across all strata, who can work in tandem with a lot of existing agencies and draw in untapped assets. The critical distinction is between trying to address things the same old way and trying to address them more strategically and using these untapped resources.
R.M.: It sounds like by inventorying assets, we do more than just rededicate ourselves to fixing a problem. We generate new ideas based on maximizing those assets.
T.S.: Right. That's why it's so critically important as part of this process to make the data and the study analysis available on our website and through other media. That permits people to access it, comment on it, become inspired by it, determine where the needs are that interest them and figure out ways to volunteer their efforts to help meet those needs. This project nicely complements the Volunteer Link that United Way is pioneering in this area. Perhaps I've got my rose colored glasses on, but I think the spirit of volunteerism in this country has not waned. We are going through a dilemma about how to do volunteerism in a modern era where people are busy and where both members of a couple may work outside the home. People have different priorities, but that doesn't mean they care any less about their community or are inspired any less to engage in volunteerism and philanthropic efforts. We just have to be more creative to let those opportunities come to the fore. And this is one way that we'll do it.
R.M.: There have been lots of needs assessments done in this community in the past. Can you clarify the distinction between all of that and what's happening with Community Compass?
T.S.: Just what you were saying before--that so much is added by the assets inventory. A needs assessment is by definition a very negative thing. You're identifying deficiencies--gaps in the human continuum that need to be addressed. Community Compass puts a positive face on this, because in identifying assets, you're identifying opportunities to form partnerships and knit the community together so it can address those needs. That's something that's never been done. Also the composition of the Compass partnership has a lot of community leaders. You have the people who are in a position to be listened to and make a difference. This is both a grass roots process and a grass tops process.
R.M.: Sometimes in the past community studies like this have resulted in reports that only gather dust on shelves all over town. How are the twenty-five partners involved here working from the beginning to make sure Community Compass is effective in the end?
| || |
"If you are just the one voice crying out in the wilderness, it's easy for people to turn you off. But it's hard to ignore 30 very powerful voices who feel they have ownership. These are people from powerful institutions in this town sitting around the table saying out loud to one another, 'Yes, we have the power to make this happen.'"
T.S.: Well, part of it is the fact that there are twenty-five different partners involved. It will be a challenge for so many partners to come up with a good action plan, but when we do it will have it will have greater prospects for success, because everyone wants to advance the cause. If you are just the one voice crying out in the wilderness, it's easy for people to turn you off. But it's hard to ignore twenty-five very powerful voices who feel they have ownership. These are people from significant institutions in this town sitting around the table saying out loud to one another, "Yes, we have the power to make this happen." By the end of the first meeting, they had bought into the idea that they could do this, that, though it was going to be a lot of work, this was a good system, it's worked before and it's going to better the quality of life for the greater New Haven community.
R.M.: Tell me more about that outcome. How will the New Haven region look different two years from now or five years from now?
T.S.: Well, it's difficult to say, because we haven't completed the process of identifying what the key priorities are. I don't want to say what I think the priorities are, because that could influence the outcome. We'll let the data lead us where it will, then we'll put our thinking caps on and figure out how to address it. I'd like to think that the quality of life will improve because crime will be reduced, because children will be better educated, because there will be a higher living wage. But that may not be where Compass takes us. The most important thing--and I think the Atlanta example is living proof of this--is that if you implement certain measures to meet a specific goal, inevitably there are side benefits that are realized as a result of that.
R.M.: If people hear about this and are interested in it, how can they get involved?
T.S.: There will be many opportunities for individuals and organizations to get involved. The steering committee itself is not the only part of this undertaking. We need a lot of helping hands--with the analytical process, with evaluating the data once it's collected, with doing the critical thinking of how to deploy the various assets in a way that will meet the various goals. All of that requires a lot of thought work and also a lot of leg work. There's a lot of room at this table. If you feel your organization can do something, then you should contact United Way, specifically Sarah McNeely, who is the Project Manager. She can be reached at 772-2010, extension 225, and she will be able to provide plenty of ideas to you of how you can be a part of this very important work.