As commercial district managers, we sometimes forget how critical it is to build trusting relationships with community leaders. We go about our days dealing with the logistics of getting a street closed or managing our next big event without realizing that our work would be easier and more successful if we took the time to reach out and network with local community leaders, religious leaders and government officials. These relationships can help grease the wheels of many projects, and when nurtured can reap rewards in terms of higher attendance at your events, expeditious approvals, additional funding for projects...the list goes on. Not every commercial district manager is adept at building these relationships. I have seen many district managers spend days holed up in their offices doing office work when they should be attending to relationship building with critical community stakeholders. It takes a certain kind of person to do this kind of outreach, and district management entities are often stymied in their efforts by frequent staff turnover, which makes it difficult to establish the relationships that ultimately help the organization become more effective. So, what are some strategies to building these relationships over time? There are a few simple often overlooked ways in which district managers can begin to develop and maintain relationships over time.
- You have to give something to get something. Doing someone a favor or going out of your way to help is a surefire way to make friends and gather ‘chits’ that you can get back later. If someone invites you to an event, do your best to stop by. If you can use your email lists to help others promote or drive traffic to an event, do it.
- Support community events and non-profit causes. Develop relationships with local non-profits by helping them raise funds. For instance, you could help facilitate a fundraising event in a local retail store. In one instance, I worked with a locally owned bookstore that hosted wine/cheese fundraisers for local non-profits. They found that these events not only generated sales, but also raised awareness of their store – not to mention helped build customer loyalty. In other cases, a non-profit event in your district, such as a 5k run/walk for charity, is another way to drive retail traffic and sales. In return, the local non-profit will be on board with helping promote your events and activities when they happen.
- Develop relationships with local religious leaders. The built-in constituency that attends local services can be very helpful. When you need to announce events, or need to conduct consumer surveys, having the local pastor mention this during announcements can make the difference between collecting 50 survey responses or 400.
- Attend political events as an individual and advocate for your organization. Many political leaders have discretionary funds or influence funding decisions that can help your organization. Attending political events – yes, even in the evening – meetings and gatherings can help make sure that a local political leader is in your corner when you need them to make a call, expedite approvals or even push for funding on behalf of your organization.
- Identify civic institutions and participate, if possible. Where I live, there are local community boards that have the power of approval or influence over certain things like street closings and sidewalk eating permits. Knowing who the players are on individual committees and spending time explaining your organization and your efforts BEFORE you need an approval can be helpful in the long-run.
No one said that relationship-building wasn’t time consuming. It often doesn’t happen during regular 9-5 working hours and can't always be done directly on behalf of our non-profit organizations that are required by law to remain apolitical. But there is no point ignoring the fact that our organizations live and breathe in the local community and political realm. This means that our jobs sometimes take us to evening meetings that we don't get paid for, sometimes require personal investment and contributions to organizations (and maybe even political campaigns). At the end of the day, the rewards in terms of your organization's success are well worth the effort. In the end, you look better by being effective at getting things done, your organization is more effective, and your board is happy - a win/win for everyone.