Over the last six years Blue Stone Strategy Group has been assisting Tribes throughout the country in their efforts to strike a balance between addressing immediate needs and investing in long-term sustainability. We are all familiar with crisis response mode – dealing with numerous daily issues and putting out fires, so to speak. Strategic planning is essential to Tribal prosperity, but how often do Tribal leaders really dare to dream beyond the short-term and start laying the groundwork for the future?
Visionary planning is what Blue Stone calls the process of creating a vision as part of a strategic plan. It requires strong, forward-thinking leadership and an engaged community. Vision plans usually focus on areas pertaining to Tribal welfare: strengthening culture, wellness, education and health. The best visionary planning is based on input from community members and can become a strong foundation for positive change.
If creating and following a Tribal vision is essential, why don’t more Tribes do it? The short answer is that engaging the passion and energy of the people can be notoriously difficult, leading some leaders to avoid it altogether. To facilitate this important process, our experienced team members utilize proven methods for involving community members and gaining their support.
Early on, we urge Tribal leaders to identify the driving forces in their particular community. We need to know what their priorities are and what compels them. Perhaps language revitalization or youth development are concerns of the people. We look for whatever drives a community to action. In master planning, we want to know a Tribe’s vision or mission statement, Tribal leaders’ priorities and goals, strengths, threats and opportunities.
“It’s also important to know what can go wrong,” says Blue Stone Strategist Anthony Farese. “If you don’t ask the question, ‘What can go wrong?’ he warns, “and something does go wrong, you’re playing catch up instead of controlling the situation.”
An accomplished finance executive, Farese served as Chief Financial Officer of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community from 2007-2012, prior to joining the Blue Stone Team. He’s a spirited advocate for incorporating the will of the people through visioning. “Elected officials,” he says, “may not have any obligation or duty to involve the community in decisions. But I’ve been taught this in Indian Country: The better approach is to have people come along willingly.”
Once Tribal priorities are set and data is compiled and analyzed, the leadership can better understand its limitations and develop a plan that meets the expectations of its membership. “This exercise,” says Farese, “can help gauge whether a concern voiced by membership is one leadership can address.”
Although project decisions are ultimately made by leadership, bringing the people along through visionary planning demonstrates government transparency, notes Farese. It encourages the community to engage in its own governance, and offers a way to participate in critical, thoughtful dialogue that captures more than a referendum vote could.
Not only do community members feel involved in the decision making process, leaders can begin to address concerns before they become roadblocks. “Leadership needs to go about answering questions in a way that’s balanced,” says Farese. “The people need to know who is accountable and what is actionable.”
Developing an outreach effort and compiling information can be daunting, especially for Tribes with a large citizenry or a non-contiguous landbase. Partnering with an objective, independent third party like Blue Stone that has expertise in Indian Country can help leaders formulate strategies and action agendas for getting genuine participation and feedback.
“We match up the format of gathering community input with what the cultural preferences are,” says Tim Keller, a Blue Stone strategist. “We’ve facilitated gatherings of hundreds of people. We’ve hosted individual listening sessions with different groups – youth, elders, front-line employees. Sometimes folks are more comfortable when they’re not on the spot, so we will do traditional surveys or mailings. We do our primary research on the ground, in Tribal communities.”
Keller has worked with 30 Tribes throughout the country during his time with Blue Stone. He’s been involved in all of the company’s visionary planning sessions. Although Tribal communities share similarities, no two are alike. Forming and navigating relationships, Keller says, is a matter of respect. “We follow the leadership’s guidance on the best cultural fit,” he notes. “We’d never do anything but that.”
Community engagement and visioning is no mere academic exercise. These efforts yield real results and can prepare Tribes for short- and long-term change. Whether our work with Tribal leaders is project-based or a lasting partnership, Blue Stone provides culturally appropriate, seasoned guidance to help create stronger communities.
“We believe in creating more than just a book on a shelf,” says Keller. “There has to be buy-in from the community.”
Farese agrees with that assessment. “You want engagement,” he says. “It works if it’s well orchestrated. You get good results.” His final word of advice on visionary planning: “Review, review, review! This is important, high-level work that will help shape your vision for the next seven generations.”
• Visionary planning is a bridge between addressing immediate needs and investing in long-term sustainability.
• Bringing community members along through visionary planning demonstrates government transparency.
• The best strategic plans include visions developed from genuine community feedback and active leadership participation.
• Be pro-active. Prepare for community member opinions or opposition, then build a plan to address those concerns.
• Guide project partners on your Tribal cultural ways to foster mutual respect.