Finding Your Community Magic

'Festival Magic'

I've heard this phrase for the past 8 years while serving with an amazing group of 4000 volunteers who put on the Gilroy Garlic Festival - lauded by most as the premier food and entertainment festival on the West Coast.  While the saying started out as a bit of a joke to explain how things get done, the reality is those two words are the bedrock of an annual event that has been taking place for almost 35 years.

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The history of the festival is long and storied - this video gives a great overview.  However, the elements behind the concept of 'Festival Magic' are applicable to communities of all types, whether it's open source software development, social media communities, or affinity groups.  This 'magic' isn't really all that magical - it breaks down to the following main ideas:

Empower Everyone to Lead

Gilroy Garlic Festival volunteers are expected to lead (and follow) at all levels of the organization.  Even the most junior volunteers are given some form of responsibility and ownership of their designated tasks, and they are always encouraged to share ideas on how to make things better.

Additionally, in the words of Hugh Davis, Garlic Festival president for 2012, 'no job is too small for a volunteer to take on.'  It's worth noting that he said this while responding to a patron who was both grateful and shocked to see him helping pour cups of free water for festival guests waiting in line to board buses back to the parking lot.

Empowering your volunteers and community members to lead in their own way gives them a sense of pride and ownership in your community.  The Garlic Festival learned this lesson early on, and it's baked into the DNA of the organization.  When people are interviewed about why they volunteer for the festival year after year, the two main themes that come out are pride in the event and a sense of ownership/family.  In short, none of the volunteers wants to be the one who lets the festival (or each other) down.

Nurture the Next Generation

The Garlic Festival's founders had amazing foresight (and the experience of seeing another similar festival fail in leadership development) and decreed that no person would ever serve more than one consecutive year as the festival president.  Additionally, there are defined terms for board members, advisory committee members and committee chairpersons.  These limits are not meant to discourage volunteerism at all - in fact, it's quite the opposite.  Encouraging volunteers to find and mentor new leadership talent builds an organization that not only continually strengthens its ranks, but also brings a new influx of ideas and passions to the table.

A strong community is not afraid of leadership change - finding a way to embrace and encourage turnover keeps things fresh and vibrant.  In our case, a future Garlic Festival president may well emerge from the volunteer pool of teenagers at this year's event!

Make it Fun!

You can probably file this one under the 'yeah, tell us something we don't know' category.  However, it is always easier said than done.  In the case of the Garlic Festival, we accomplish this primarily by focusing on making the event fun for the patrons.  When they are having fun, it's infectious - our volunteers can't help but feel the atmosphere of fun when they see festival guests enjoying themselves.  Does this mean that there isn't serious business going on with our festival volunteers?  No, but purposely making the work fun makes the time go faster and encourages people to volunteer and contribute year after year.

The next time you are evaluating your community, think about the fun factor, and what you can do to improve it.  Sometimes this can be as simple as letting a team develop their own identity in the form of t-shirts, slogans, or nicknames.  Remember, fun doesn't necessarily have to cost a lot, but enabling people to make their tasks fun goes a long way toward encouraging continued community involvement.

The Bottom Line

Building up this kind of community is not easy or quick - the festival has had its share of bumps along the way.  However, by continuing to focus on bringing in new ideas and talented people, the strength and bonds between the volunteer community have continued to grow.  At the end of the day, the most powerful thing you can work toward building in your own community is a pride of ownership that guides your members long after you have stepped away from leadership.

My hope is that you'll take some of these fundamentals of our 'Festival Magic' and sprinkle them liberally within your community to help it thrive and grow.  Who knows, one day you might be as lucky as we'll be next year in Gilroy to celebrate 35 years of community, food, fun and fellowship! :)


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