Let’s paint the picnic tables and see where it leads ?

This is an Idea Friendly story. 

In Centerville, South Dakota, a small group of people decided it was time to repaint the picnic tables in the city-owned park. They approached the city council to ask just for the cost of the paint. The volunteer crowd would do all the work. The council declined, but the people didn’t let that stop them. They bought the paint themselves and gathered up a group to do the painting. Then they built on their momentum, buying new nets for the volleyball court and hanging them up. They put new sand in the sand play area and added new bark for the cushioning under the swings and other toys. Then they went back to the city council to ask to be reimbursed just for the paint. The council relented and paid them back.

This story illustrates the Idea Friendly method in action:

  • The people staked a claim on being the kind of town that has a fun public park, ready for kids and families to play in. They used that goal to Gather Their Crowd, drawing in people who were also motivated to have a safe and fun park.
  • Then they Built Connections, asking the city to participate with funding, finding alternatives when that didn’t work, finding people who had supplies and spreading the word to more people who could help paint.
  • And they Took Small Steps, starting with just painting the picnic tables, then stepping up to do more small improvements. Lots of people had a chance to make a small but meaningful contribution, whether it was showing up to paint, spreading the word about the project or contributing supplies or money. I’ll even give participation credit to anyone who took a selfie at a newly-painted picnic table or with the new volleyball nets and gave the volunteers a shout-out online. Anything that contributes in a small but meaningful way to the project counts as Take Small Steps participation.

Now imagine for a moment that the city council had been an Idea Friendly group. Instead of their role being limited to saying yes or no to the cost of paint, they’d have the role of Venture Capitalists of New Ideas.

The first role of the Venture Capitalist of New Ideas is to Build Connections because they have large networks to draw from. When asked about paying for paint for the picnic tables, they could think about who might have access to paint for free or at a discount. (Maybe the city has some leftover paint from another project? Maybe there’s a business that does a lot of painting? Maybe ask a business that has expressed support for the park in the past? Can we get remainder or mis-tinted paint, even if it means the benches won’t match?) Then the council members could think about who else might be willing to help with the project, or who might want to offer some volunteer time or community service hours.

The second role of the Venture Capitalist of New Ideas is to invest actual money only when an idea has been tested and shown initial success. Once the group showed early success with painting the benches, the council could jump in with funding for the group’s next request or to extend the project to another location. 

Here’s the real reason for the city council to act as Venture Capitalists of New Ideas: there is no way to guess whether this project might fizzle out and not even get the tables painted, or whether it might take off and spark a revitalization and rehab movement that sweeps through the entire town. We’re terrible at guessing that before the projects even start. It seems like it’s always the most unlikely projects that end up being a huge success. Since we can’t guess whether this is that one project, we play Venture Capitalists. We connect them with more resources, and we pay attention to how the project is going. Only when the project has proven itself with tiny first steps of success do we invest our limited funds in it. Until then, we are generous with our time and connections. 

Notice this: the amount and timing of money from the city council would have been the same. But the attitude of the council and the helpfulness of the council would have been what was different. And that would be a big difference. 

Cheers to Jared Hybertson for sharing this story with me so I could share it with you.

Keep shaping the future of your town, 

PS – My colleague Glenn Muske says you can start your own holiday. That has Idea Friendly written all over it.