The church where I worship runs a neighborhood-based nonprofit. We recently hired a consultant to help with some strategic planning. The first thing she asked us to do is spend the summer talking to community members. We’re asking business owners, local residents, other service agencies, and the guys who spend time in the vacant lot down the street what they actually need.
The consultant said that very often, agencies assume they know what their clients need. When they actually talk to people and get them involved in decision-making, very different results can happen. For example, one organization wanted to set up a food shelf. After talking to potential clients, it turned out that there were already enough pantries in the neighborhood. What was missing was a source for perishable items, especially milk. Turning the project from creating another food pantry into a reliable source where families could get milk made a huge difference.
We in higher education are prone to the same mistake. We can assume we know what our “customers” need – whether it’s students, coworkers, peer institutions, or the whole system. By taking time to talk to each other and build real relationships we’re in a better position to create strategies and processes that address the real needs.
Dee Anne Bonebright