Satisfaction Guaranteed

Find out what people want and keep everyone happy

By Jessica Royer Ocken

"Every parks and recreation department I know of is trying to be more forward-thinking," said Dr. Charles H. Hammersley, associate professor of parks and recreation management at Northern Arizona University. "They like people being happy with their facilities and services, so they want to be proactive and move forward to keep them happy."

It's true. Everyone wants to offer programs people will enjoy-and that goes double for activities that truly meet a need. But how do you know what those are? Whom do you ask, what do you ask them, how do you ask them-and then what do you do with the information you've gathered? And who's paying for all this?

Before you're hopelessly overwhelmed, have a look at some examples and ideas from successful facilities and experts across the country.

Ready, set, plan

Once you've decided to get some community input, you'll want to jump right in and start asking questions, but the information you gather will be more useful if you make some plans and do some research first (and you might save money, too!). Make community input one component of a larger strategy: a master plan.

"A master plan establishes a direction for the future and allows [your organization] to meet the changing needs of the population," Hammersley said. "This is usually done every 10 years, but it should probably be done every five."

Community assessment is a part of this planning and a tool that can help most organizations, said Jacob Silver, Ph.D., president of Huron Mountain Research Services LLC, a firm that does consulting and evaluation. "It could involve a community survey, but it doesn't have to." Before you start collecting your own information, "be aware of local data sources-census data, school-district surveys, hospitals, the public health officer," he suggested.

Each of these sources will provide a portion of the big picture. The census can illuminate the age distribution of the population you're seeking to serve. If there are a lot of seniors, programming aimed at this age group might be successful. Lots of young families? Maybe child-care or preschool programs would be winners. An influx of immigrants? Programs could help them with language skills.

Schools can offer insight into the needs and concerns of their students and parents, as well as alerting you to programs they already provide or opportunities to collaborate.

What about the medical community? Aim for someone in the hospital CEO's office, Silver suggested, as the physicians are likely very busy. "Ask them what sort of services would be called for based on the needs they see from clients at the hospital."

With all of this information in mind, you'll know whom to survey in the community, and you can develop some potential programming ideas to ask them about.

It's also helpful to have a handle on what services and facilities you already offer. The Dallas park district is currently in the second phase of its 10-year Renaissance Plan, designed to make the district the "premier parks and recreation system in the country." A major asset thus far has been the conditions assessment.

"[Analysts] went to every piece of property we have, took photos and assessed its condition," explained Carolyn Bray, assistant director for Dallas Parks and Recreation, East Region.

Bray's region covers about half of the park district's holdings and includes 23 recreation centers, 10 community pools, camping and hiking facilities, 286 community parks, and White Rock Lake, a recreation area that draws visitors from across northeast Texas and beyond. Now all of these places, as well as those in the West Region, are in the park inventory database.

"It shows everything that's good about the facilities and everything that's not good," Bray explained. "Just having a system like that is worth the money. It allows you to look at the reality of what is needed. Feelings are out, facts are forward. If we want to improve things, this is how it has to happen."

In addition to examining your own assets, perform "an assessment of what you currently have in town, an inventory of facilities and recreation areas," suggested Hammersley.

Hopefully you've spoken with local school districts, but don't stop there. "That means churches, youth organizations, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs. [Find out] what programs they're offering and what groups they're serving," he said. "That starts pointing you to areas that are adequately covered and areas deficient in programs or facilities"-places where your organization could address a need.

"Frankly, if I were in charge of a fitness organization and there were well-endowed schools, a YMCA and a park district [in the area], I wouldn't be unhappy," Silver explained. "[This means] there are lots of customers in the area. Look for a niche the others aren't serving."

Input, Output

Over the years, Seattle's Department of Parks and Recreation has developed and implemented a community-input system that is perhaps unique in the United States. Now a companion organization to the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Associated Recreation Council (ARC) began in the late 1960s as groups of citizens who "wanted to supplement the city's recreation programming" at local community centers, explained Michele Finnegan, strategic adviser to the Seattle Parks and Recreation Operations Division.

At first they'd simply collect their own fees and offer a yoga class or two. But by the mid-1970s, these citizen groups were managing substantial amounts of money and programs, so in 1976, the park district formally recognized the councils and formed the ARC.

Each park district facility in the city-from the Japanese Gardens to the Bitter Lake Community Center-now has its own volunteer council to manage programming and activities, and these site-specific councils (as well as a few citywide councils for issues such as senior adult programming or youth sports) are members of the ARC, an organization that was worth some $8 million in 2005.

Because these councils are comprised of members of the local community, they virtually eliminate the need for formal assessments. There are informal assessments in place on an ongoing basis, as the council meets once a month as a whole, along with a paid representative of the park district facility. The Seattle Park District also is implementing a computer system that will streamline evaluation of individual programs and activities.

Although forming an ARC would require extensive restructuring, Finnegan recommends a volunteer advisory council for any community-serving organization.

"It gives [community members] buy-in and ownership," she said. "And it provides a source of volunteers for special events." In addition, these council members are bound to be "big advocates of recreation, and it's nice to have advocates in the community."

Develop your survey

Armed with this information, you can prepare to question the community-unless you've already gotten enough insight to know where to target your efforts. If you determine that you need to talk to those in the neighborhood, you first need to decide how to proceed.

A consultant to assist with a community survey (or one taking a larger role in developing your master plan) could cost from $50,000 to $150,000 depending on the size of the city, Hammersley said.

If you're not sure you can afford this (as many smaller park districts and other organizations can't), "speak to a local consultant for a couple of hours to get a handle on things," Silver suggested. "Or, if you need to, write up a small contract. Just be very specific as to what you want."

Smaller communities in northern Arizona have been known to use Northern Arizona University's parks and recreation management students as resources for research. But if your organization is a long way from Flagstaff, don't despair. There could be a nonprofit organization or local university willing to help. (Visit for one example of university resources available online.)

Of course, you could always handle the process yourself. But whether you're employing outside assistance or not, start by determining what you'd like to know. "Touch on community satisfaction with current programs," Hammersley said. "Ask them what activities they are currently participating in, ask them what they'd like to participate in but don't and why, and then move into areas of need. What would they like to see in facilities or services?"

And, most importantly, follow up by asking about methods for paying for the alterations, Hammersley said. "Bond issue, property taxes, sales taxes, private donations, grants, partnerships? Give them that list and ask for their preferences. Find out what they're willing to do."

This element is key because "it takes a long time to develop strategies for funding," Hammersley noted. In the 1996 assessment of Flagstaff, Ariz., an aquatic center was the number-one request, but it wasn't until 2003 that the $14 million bond passed to pay for it.

It's also important to calculate your questions carefully.

"[N]arrow things down," said Diane Nicely, executive director of the Beaumont Centre Family YMCA in Lexington, Ky. Rather than an open-ended question-What new facilities would you like to add?-allow respondents to select from a list of pre-approved choices (perhaps developed from your preliminary conversations with key players in the community). "If you just ask, it gets a little crazy," Nicely explained. "Someone will suggest you put a golf course in the back."

Another factor to consider when developing questions is how you're asking, especially because organizations across the country must reach out to specific ethnic groups and immigrants, who make up a rapidly growing portion of the population.

"You have to make a culturally targeted survey," explained Ivonne Rangel-Lira, site director of the General Robert E. Wood Boys and Girls Club on Chicago's south side. "In our case, we know it's a Latino community and most don't speak English, so we target accordingly."

Start with some information about the cultures in your community and the needs found through preliminary research, she suggested. A more general survey may not get you the information you want.

After you've developed your questions about community needs and areas of interest, "figure out who you want answers from and what parties to ask," Silver said.

Telephone or mail surveys are the most expensive and time-consuming possibilities, but you can also gain insight from focus groups, by inviting local families to town-hall meetings or by hosting an open house at your facility. Don't forget to ask current members or participants for their opinions, too.

A Master Plan Pays Off

The Dallas park district, a sprawling organization with no way to manage a community assessment on its own, contracted Fort Worth consulting firm Carter & Burgess to conduct a community assessment (to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars).

In addition to evaluating the condition of every park district facility, they conducted an assortment of interviews and meetings with key players in the various communities served by Dallas Parks and Recreation. They met with mayors and city councils, community and business leaders, and held neighborhood gatherings.

"They also did a 20,000-person residential survey to see what people thought about the parks, what they wanted, what they were concerned about," said Carolyn Bray, assistant director for Dallas Parks and Recreation, East Region.

Using this information, the park district developed a new vision and mission statement to further guide their efforts.

And, they prepared and passed the largest bond issue in their history-$100 million-in 2003, which will go a long way toward meeting their goals.

Implement your answers

After the data collection is done and you have an array of information, "create an action plan and determine how to implement it," Hammersley said. What were the most popular responses? Which of them can be put into effect right away? Which ones require additional funding?

Once you've prioritized and outlined how you'd like to proceed, take this plan back to the community for their input once again.

"This builds support for the master plan," Hammersley said. "You may also do some small revisions based on feedback."

From there you can move on to actually beginning new programs or building new facilities. But however you move forward, be sure to "communicate with the community so they know what's coming"-or why that new aquatic center is not coming right away, Hammersley suggested. "You want to have buy-in from the community and a feeling of participation."

Once you get things rolling, a system of evaluation should present itself-particularly because the community is now accustomed to offering input. Have program participants evaluate their instructor and experience when the session is over. Check in with those visiting the pool to see if it's meeting expectations.

"Look at the number of people in a program over a period of time," Nicely said.

"Is it growing, staying stable or declining?"

This may sound like a hassle, but computer software can track and manage customer information, streamline the registration process and, with the click of a button, print out mailing labels to send a survey to everyone who took a particular class, played in a certain sports league or visited the aquatic center over the summer. Better yet, save money and time by e-mailing your computer-savvy clients to have them provide feedback via a Web site you've set up.

After you've started implementing items in your master plan, Nicely recommends taking some risks and trying new things. See what else the community suggests. The Beaumont Centre Family YMCA's extensive martial arts program includes not just karate, but shao lin and tai chi, and a building addition now provides space for Pilates, drum lessons, guitar lessons, ballet, fencing, cheerleading, modeling and more.

Some of these more unusual offerings have been introduced because "specialized people come to us or are referred to us," Nicely said. "Something indicates an interest."

Fencing was introduced after the 2004 Olympics. The Y's guitar instructor, who came looking for a space to offer his classes, now teaches eight students.

"We've tried a variety of things-Irish dancing, ballroom dancing," Nicely said. Some offerings last longer than others, but as long as the instructor is comfortable with the number of students and willing to continue, and as long as the facility has space available, the program is given a chance.

"We approach it as a service and something we can provide to the community," she said.

Once you've got something good going-or even just a good idea-make sure the community knows about it. If your organization has a newsletter, give your new programs prominent play. Send press releases to local newspapers, too.

"You don't have to spend a ton of money," Silver said. Just get organized and be creative. Church bulletins, school functions, public bulletin boards and word-of-mouth can all be powerful-and inexpensive-means to get the word out.

Hammersley takes a slightly different approach to this issue: If you've done your research in advance and kept in touch with the community, they should be anticipating the new program or service as much as you are.

"You wouldn't just decide to build four new softball fields," he said. "You go through the input process or go back to your assessment plan. Find out what they want and then go do it. Assess first-always."

Another key to keeping things moving is the right staff person. If you're targeting a specialized segment of the population, find someone informed to lead the charge, like Rosalie Bocelli-Hernandez, the Durham, N.C., Park District's outreach coordinator for the Latino community-a community comprised mostly of immigrants.

"I watched the news and did research," she explained. She noted that immigrants often don't understand local laws. So her English as a Second Language classes now include information on North Carolina lifestyles and law enforcement information. "They don't know what to say if police stop them, or if there's a hurricane," she said. Latino outreach efforts also include classes in accent reduction and computer literacy.

That's not to say that Durham's Latino outreach efforts are all business. Many Latinos love soccer, Bocelli-Hernandez noted, "but we don't have enough fields for them to rent, so we're trying to encourage them to try some other sports and activities."

Don't stop there

By now you should feel pretty proud of yourself, as you've developed and implemented a master plan-a process that likely has taken six months to a year. But don't forget, for real, lasting success, evaluation needs to be a cyclical process. Your community changes over time, so keep up with it to stay one step ahead of your patrons' needs.

The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, in particular, has mastered this, as each of its facilities has a volunteer advisory board to manage programming and activities, as well as make suggestions about the facility. The advisory boards, known collectively as the Associated Recreation Council (or ARC) even have their own budget and staff.

Another successful approach is the Latino Outreach Initiative at Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which aims to alter the makeup of that organization.

"The idea is to create a model that all clubs can use to reach out to Latino youth and to support Latino families," explained Santiago Marquez, director of Latino outreach for Boys and Girls Clubs of America. "The beauty of the Latino Outreach Initiative is it's a strategy: outreach, programming, staff development and sustainability."

Grant money helps start programs for the Latino community at selected clubs across the country, "but they must continue after that," Marquez explained. Clubs are advised to add Latino community members to their boards of directors and to network with other advocacy agencies in the area. "Increase Latino board members and staff, increase programs of interest to Latinos, and make everything integrated-available to everyone," Marquez said. "These are key elements that will help an organization transform itself."

Whatever portion of the population you decide to target with your new initiatives, keeping things integrated is vital and can only enhance the experience of those using your services. Bocelli-Hernandez is not only in tune with the Latino community and the things they need to thrive in a new environment, she also wants to acquaint others in Durham with what Latino culture has to offer. To this effect, she has developed classes like bilingual international cooking, Spanish and folkloric dance.

"Those programs are for anybody," she said. "We try to cover all the angles."

And with all the angles covered, you're bound to be serving a happy community.

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