This title sounds like a community’s version of a get rich infomercial. However, stay with this for a couple of paragraphs and see if it just might make sense.
In the 1970’s and 80’s Morris Massey, a management guru, popularized the idea of motivating people by better understanding their imprinted values – the values that were largely “locked in” when one was about ten years old.
These values would be based on one’s experiences and observations of the world around them at about that age of ten. This, according to many psychologists, is the approximate age when we decide largely, for each of us, what is good/bad, normal/not normal, and comfortable/uncomfortable in our lives.
Massey used versions of the theme “you are who you are because of where you were when you were ten years old” in his books and a videotaped management series that was popular at the time.
Hypothetically, if one were to apply the notion that our experiences, at about age ten, helped lock-in our values, could we not deduce that living in a small town, assuming it was a good experience, would be imprinted in us, as adults, as something good, normal and comfortable? For me, I lived in the town of Greenville, Michigan (pop. 8,500) from the age of seven up to 16, clearly a span of years either side of and including this value-setting age of ten. And, the experiences from these years certainly contributed to small towns being attractive and “right” for me.
Today, I live about two hours from Greenville, but have little reason to visit. However, as opportunities arise, I do pass through the town and when I do, there is a peculiar feeling. It’s like I own something in Greenville, but I don’t. I drive past the house we lived in and I know I don’t own it, but I own the image of it as the home I grew up in. I see Baldwin Heights Elementary School, and it’s my school. I see the parks I played at, the lake I swam in, the ski hill I learned on and the golf course where I played and caddied. They are all mine. And, if I stop at a restaurant, I almost feel obligated to tell the waitress about my life in the town, but, thankfully, at least for her, I don’t.
Now, I tell this not as nostalgia or reminisces of my childhood, but as the notion that Greenville has me hooked! It is my “hometown” and most of us only really have one town we call home. The question is how can “the Greenville’s” capitalize on this hometown attachment.
Camille Cates Barnett and Oscar Rodriguez wrote the featured article for the March 2006 edition of the International City Management Association’s Public Management Magazine, entitled Connections Matter: Using Networks for Economic Development. The article focused on strategies of leveraging a community’s expatriates to better one’s town. Oscar Rodriguez was subsequently a featured speaker at the 2008 Michigan Small Towns and Rural Development conference and offered this insightful quote about the value of these expatriates or “alumni” to a community’s prosperity:
“Your hometown’s footprint in the world grows if you see it as the hub of the ‘life paths’ of its citizens, past and present, as they grow up and as they stay, move away and maybe return.”
The concept recognizes the attraction people feel to their hometown even though they moved away. It recognizes that your community is not just a town in a fixed time and place, and everybody who has ties to your community counts, not just those who live there today.
If part of your community’s strategy is to attract creative workers and entrepreneurs, what better audience than alumni who are already emotionally attached to your town and receptive to your message to return home. And, even if they remain away, yet stay connected, they still can significantly benefit their hometowns.
So how does a community go about engaging its alumni? The best strategy is to adopt a “life cycle” approach of tending to alumni including attention to what can be done before they leave and, once they are away, how to stay connected so they might return.
Before they leave – Start by accepting that people will leave your community and work proactively to reinforce their connectedness to their hometown before they depart. For many, leaving home is a normal step in their life, and it may be just a temporary absence for some. The last impression they have before they leave may very well be the most lasting one, so make this a positive experience. Ignoring their departure or, worse yet, having them leave with any sense they “deserted their town” is not the impression we want them to leave with. It helps your expatriates to know their hometown cares enough about them and is helping them to achieve their dreams. If you engage them, then they’re not really gone, and even if they don’t return, they are out there to help their hometown.
Branding your community creates an image in the minds of your young adults and instills the “customer loyalty” you want before they leave for college or the experience in the big city. A tradition might be worth starting to establish an expectation upon high school graduation. It there an event or a gift your teens can look forward to upon high school graduation? It would certainly be a nice recognition for those who will remain in the community, but it’s arguably more important as a significant memento for those who will be leaving – something that will fondly remind them of their hometown.
While they are away – Your most robust efforts in managing your alumni will be needed while they are away. These efforts support their decisions to return some day, but more likely, it keeps them engaged with their hometown and allows them to participate in activities and initiatives of the community.
Social media is certainly a way to remain engaged, but there are some other more personal and more proactive strategies as well. Having ambassadors in strategic cities where your alumni tend to cluster can help in maintaining a network and staging occasional “hometown”events.
And, “catch them when you can”. Holidays and class reunions are times when these alumni may slip back into town. A nominal sponsorship of high school reunions might be a prudent investment to gain access to groups of your community’s alumni that gather annually.
Why alumni matter – Certainly, your goal is to have your alumni return home; however, for many, this won’t likely happen. But, consider the value they can otherwise provide even though they may remain away. They are potential contributors to your community fund-raising campaigns, they are nodes of your network who can contact other alumni, and they, themselves, are in other networks which connect with individuals or enterprises who could find your community attractive for ventures or be markets for your hometown’s goods and services.
So, start counting your alumni and add 100’s to your population in the next few months.
Allan Hooper is the principal of Downtown Strategies, consulting on asset-based and anchor-based strategies for small to mid-sized communities