The third step in the start-up phase of food council development is to describe the general purpose of the council.
What do we mean by council purpose?
The purpose is getting at a general aim of the council, and explaining what role a council could fill in the community. The purpose is drawn from two important questions:
- What is the focal point of this council?
- What critical functions will this council perform?
Clarifying the purpose is critical, as many other decisions, such as the structure and resource needs, will flow from the purpose. At the same time, it is not incumbent on the organizing group to decide the purpose on their own – the larger community needs to weigh in on it, and the council itself may choose to provide additional clarification over time, therefore the focus on purpose is to envision a general aim for the council.
What does the process look like?
Many people have been traumatized by previous situations where groups try to develop a vision or mission statement. The Community Food Strategies team has had great success with a series of exercises adapted from the Network Weaver Handbook.
The result of these two exercises is a visual depiction of the group’s focal point and a short list of its top functions. The facilitator then crafts a statement using this information and additional language from other councils to present a draft to the group for feedback. A collaborative decision-making process is then followed to get the purpose statement into a form that the group feels comfortable circulating to the community for feedback.
What else should you consider?
- Elevate the focal point so that it includes all food issues. Consider looking at what other groups have done, such as using Whole Measures, to define a scope big enough that everyone sees themselves in it. Food systems are complex, and successful groups address the whole system, not just one part. Refer to the focal point exercise for more information.
- Do not try to identify the purpose by simply having a group conversation. Use exercises that uncover what people are thinking in a structured format. Free-for-all conversations have a tendency to be less than decisive, even when using a strong meeting facilitator.
- Identify what functions are important now, in the future, and never. Councils without clear agreement about what they have been formed to do, and what they are not formed to do, often end up with stagnated energy down the road. This is because including diverse groups of stakeholders brings a diverse range of mindsets and agendas. It can also be difficult to garner support if the council isn’t defining its functions clearly – groups who already educate or run programs may feel threatened if they think the food council plans to focus on education or programming. So it’s important to be clear what the council’s functions are and aren’t. Refer to the function exercise for more information.
- Don’t let “making it perfect” become the enemy. Groups have been conditioned to get caught up in language and semantics, and people can get hung up debating specific words being used. Ultimately the descriptions will be put before many more people in your community, so don’t worry about trying to make it perfect from the beginning. This further emphasizes having a consent-based decision-making process – if it’s within everyone’s range of tolerance, you can proceed, even if it isn’t perfect.
Tools & Resources
The following tools and resources are helpful in describing a council purpose.