Measuring what matters could level-up community development in West Virginia

BY STEPHANIE TYREE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE HUB

In 2019, The Hub interviewed and surveyed hundreds of stakeholders working in the community economic development field in West Virginia. We were seeking to understand what successes had occurred in the past decade to advance rural community development.

Through these surveys, interviews, and community focus groups we were able to identify six shared strategies for successful rural community development. Communities that were seeing visible and sustained progress seemed to have most if not all of the strategies underway.

The “best practices” for successful rural community development are:

  1. Maintaining and growing volunteerism and civic engagement;
  2. Developing diverse local leadership;
  3. Building a common vision and executing a shared plan;
  4. Centering inclusivity, collaboration and communication to sustain engagement and transparency;
  5. Actively engaging and using the support systems available to help with local community development;
  6. Leveraging diverse funding opportunities.

Download our Preliminary Report on the State of Community Development in West Virginia to learn more about the 6 best practices »

These six best practices were the guiding light we received from experts in community building in rural places facing high rates of poverty and economic decline. While they show ways of working together to improve communities, there remains a central question within the field about how do you know when success has been achieved.

Is success the successful redevelopment of a local building, or of a certain number of buildings? Is it the start or growth of a certain number of businesses? A certain percentage reduction in downtown vacancy rates or of crime rates? Is it a certain number of volunteers working actively to improve their community? Is it all of these things and more?

How exactly are we measuring the success of what we are all doing, together, to advance community development in West Virginia?

One of the key findings from our analysis of the past ten years of the state’s community development field is that while significant work happened across the state from 2010-2020, that work was often poorly documented and inconsistently measured. Practitioners and community volunteers were often so focused on just doing the work that they failed to document the short and long-term impacts of their activities, successes and failures.

This might seem fairly theoretical, but we found that the failure to adequately document the impacts of the work was a significant deficiency in the state’s community development field and is a likely contributor to our persistent challenge of attracting resources, engaging more volunteers and local leaders, and promoting the value of investment in our region and state.

In short, measuring impacts matters. And we have a long way to go in getting real measurements of impacts for the community development field as a whole in West Virginia.

When we are able to better document the thousands of volunteers around the state that are putting time, talent and donations into local projects to improve their communities, and we can tie all of that work to increased business activity, increased property values, tourism, recreation, local income, tax revenue and, (the holy grail) increased population – then we will be able to make a remarkable case for the value of the work we are all doing to make our communities more thriving, vibrant places.   

We see this as the next step for our work collectively as a community development field in the state. Identifying shared metrics that we track to demonstrate short and long-term impact will catalyze increased engagement, increased investment, and improved communities.

We’ve proposed some potential short and long-term indicators of success in our Preliminary Report on the State of Community Development in West Virginia, but that’s just a start.

We’re excited to work with our partners at West Virginia University in the coming year to map these shared metrics and begin to build a collective approach to measuring these across the diverse types of community development work that are happening throughout the state across many sectors, by many partners and throughout many communities. A team from the university is hosting a collaborative virtual convening between faculty and community development practitioners on Oct. 29th to learn more about which indicators are currently being collected, and explore how faculty outreach and community efforts can better align data collection and reporting efforts.

Community developers across the state are encouraged to reach out to Dr. Margaret Stout (Margaret.Stout@mail.wvu.edu) to get involved in this exciting and potentially transformative project.

So, join us in October, or go online and let us know what you think of those initial ideas in our feedback form. And let us know if this is an issue that gets you excited! We’re always looking for data geeks to help us improve our work and grow our expertise.

Stephanie Tyree is the Executive Director of the WV Community Development Hub.

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