Field Notes: Developing a Community Vision

written by Kim Walker
October 23, 2013

The Alliance will soon be releasing a paper and a toolkit on performance measurement and improvement. As part of the process of developing these materials, we had to ask ourselves – what are the key things a community needs to attain high performance?

The first thing that communities need to develop to ensure good performance – and this may surprise you – is a unified community vision. Without that, how do you know what the end goal of your community’s homeless assistance work is, or why you are measuring performance on certain outcomes but not others? How do you know that everyone is working toward the same goal? A vision answers these questions by setting the parameters for what good performance should accomplish – what all of those good outcomes add up to. It provides the big picture of what all the number crunching in HMIS should produce. A vision itself may be very brief – it may just take a few sentences to express a desire to end homelessness and what that looks like – but it can be very powerful.

How do you produce a vision? Well, we can offer some insight into that. Our Capacity Building Team has been doing work in Charlotte, N.C. As part of our work in helping them develop a coordinated assessment process, we worked with them to develop a vision for their system and figure out how their coordinated assessment process should contribute to the achievement of that vision. To generate content for Charlotte’s vision statement, we asked our community partners to gather a wide range of stakeholders (homeless assistance providers, foundations, law enforcement, etc.). We assigned our group of around 50 with a seemingly simple task: to write 2 sentences. We gave the group a list of topics, pre-selected by Alliance staff:

  • The HEARTH Act and Federal Efforts
  • Community Challenges
  • Mainstream Agency Partnerships
  • Provider Collaboration
  • Governance
  • Crisis Response Resource (Emergency Shelter, Outreach, Coordinated Assessment)
  • Interim Housing Resources
  • Permanent Housing
  • Data and Performance Measurement

People divided into groups around each topic based on interest and worked for around half on hour on finding two sentences to sum up what the ideal homeless assistance system would look like as it related to their topic. For example, for the governance group, we asked them to describe the ideal oversight and management structure for the system. After that, groups spent another 20 minutes trying to pick out how they would know their part of the vision was accomplished (what outcomes or changes they could expect to see in their system when the vision had been realized).

Once each group had finished their work, there were report backs where each group read out their sentences and received feedback. The larger group made edits or suggestions and pointed out and removed content that was covered under previous topics. At the end of the report backs, we asked about which topics were missing, or hadn’t been covered adequately in our discussion. By the end of that conversation, we had a draft vision statement for the community’s homeless assistance work. We will combine the content from this statement with information we gathered from some focus groups with people experiencing homelessness to develop a vision statement that describes Charlotte’s ideal homeless assistance system.

Whether you use this exercise or one of the other ones out there, we hope you will take the work of developing a shared vision seriously. A vision will not have a lot of power if it is solely a one-day affair, but it will certainly have an impact if coupled with a strategic plan that details how the vision will be achieved, a clear performance measurement system, and the input and buy-in of funders and providers (more on these elements later). In the meantime, happy visioning!