The California Fires and Community Engagement

The work Dimitri and I do is always exciting. Working with hospitals and healthcare organizations to build communities that are healthy and thriving in all ways. Working with educators to change the face of public education in America.

Suddenly, that all pales compared to the past month’s work – traveling around California, teaching the boards of the state’s Fire Safe Councils how to govern for maximum community impact. Fire Safe. In California. In October of 2007.

We have packed the car with a month’s worth of clothes and books and files and computers and work-still-to-be-done. It is October 12th when we hit the road. We have no idea that once again we will find ourselves in the middle of the nation’s top news story.


Week 1:
The mission of the California Fire Safe Council is to “mobilize Californians to protect their homes, communities and environments from wildfire.” This statewide organization is a catalyst for helping communities decrease the effects of wildfire in California’s fire-prone areas. The actual hands-on work of providing both community education and direct action – clearing and chipping to ensure that “brush” doesn’t become “fuel,” for example – is done by small, independent, community-based Fire Safe Councils, organized in both urban and rural settings, wherever there is a threat of wildfire destruction.

The Allstate Foundation has generously funded our work with the Fire Safe Council, as they understand that keeping communities fire safe is in everyone’s best interests. When it comes to catastrophic wildfire, there are lots of “good guys.” And Allstate is right up there in our book!

The work we are here to do is nothing less than prescient – teaching small regional Fire Safe Councils how to “Govern for What Matters,” transforming the passion board members feel for the mission into effective governance.

We spend a full day meeting with the board of the statewide organization. Then our first regional workshop, gathering board members from local Fire Safe Councils, is October 17th in Rancho Bernardo, a suburb of San Diego.

The Workshops
At the front of the room, I have hung a sheet that I often use in governance workshops. Here it seems both appropriate and haunting. It says:

Governing for What Matters:
Should Boards Always Be Putting Out Fires?

While everyone in attendance is a board member of a Fire Safe Council, most do not know each other. So we start the day with introductions, asking folks to also share (for my benefit) what they hope to get out of the session.

This is a governance workshop. But as the participants talk about what they hope to learn, the word raised most often is “engagement.” They want to engage their communities in their mission. They want to engage their volunteers. They want to engage their boards.

The day is spent in facilitated dialogue, giving folks a chance to not only learn but engage each other.

Governing for What Matters
To begin, we share the 2 steps in Governing for What Matters. First, we define what matters. Only then can we put “what matters” into action.

So the group defines what matters most, starting with their vision for success, moving towards the mission that will accomplish that vision, and then moving again to the values that will guide that work.

The group becomes engaged almost immediately. The vision they share is for a community with a shared sense of responsibility for the safety of its residents. A community that is engaged in its own well-being. A community that doesn’t have to pay special attention to fire safety, but instead assumes it to simply be the way life is, just like one accepts that mowing the lawn is part of living in the suburbs.

We talk together about the fact that Vision, Mission and Values are not just words to put on paper; that they are, in fact, all that matters. If we are fiscally prudent, but pay no attention to creating real change in our communities, what good is the money? The group is energized as they realize the possibilities in just these simple steps.

The rest of the day is spent teaching how to put “what matters” into action. We facilitate the group through an accelerated version of the single planning process that covers everything a board needs to be actively and consciously accountable.

We walk them through the steps that aim their work at creating significant, long-term community improvement. We go through the steps that provide for the comprehensive health of the organization’s efforts. We show how these steps provide for both Legal Oversight and Operational Oversight. We review issues related to Board Mechanics. And we share how the board can monitor monthly to remain as fully accountable as any governance expert could desire.

“If this planning is done annually,” we tell them, “the board will be doing its best. If NOT done annually, boards are almost guaranteed to be putting out fires.”

The story continues in Part 2…

(Photo credit – NASA)

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