Seeing ROI Through a Community Lens

colorful abstract people

“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.”

― Ani DiFranco

Often, when people have conversations about proposed changes in their community, there are two questions that are either explicit, or are just under the surface. These questions speak to return on investment (ROI). People want to know: what’s in it for me; and what is it going to cost?

It’s reasonable to think that someone would want to know what kind of return they might expect on their commitment of time, energy, or money. That expected ROI does not, however, always reflect some sort of purely selfish interest on the part of the person whose support you are seeking. Rational people see their self-interest tied to the common good.

Social change, community building, and placemaking are about improving everyone’s quality of life, and identifying their common self-interest. This is why it is imperative to express your case for support in terms of the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ metaphor, as well as pointing out specific individual benefits.

Most individuals don’t have the ability to create the scale necessary for many of the quality of life measures that they seek. They don’t have the resources to create a park, or a cultural event. They can’t singlehandedly avoid public health issues. They can’t ensure that people will be trained, and make living wages performing the services that they need to care for themselves and their loved ones. Vibrant, healthy communities embrace the idea of the public good.

I have spent a considerable chunk of my career in higher education. For a long time, public investment in higher education was seen by elected officials as a public good. Colleges and universities are economic engines, and incubators of innovation. For some reason, however, public investment in higher education has seen a steady decline over the past couple of decades. One contributing factor to this dwindling support is the fact that college recruitment strategies have focused so heavily on the individual career and income gains that can be realized by obtaining a college degree. Lawmakers took notice and essentially said, ‘if the gains are private, maybe the investment should be private.’

Take some time to look at the issues you are concerned with through a community lens. Even if the issue seems to focus on the challenges individuals or small groups, how does the resolution of those challenges benefit the community as a whole?

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