The Meaning of Community: Mastering the Potluck Dinner Strategy
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — If I asked you to organize dinner for 30, you could — but it’s a lot of work. The potluck dinner strategy is simpler and more powerful.
We followed what I call the “potluck dinner strategy” in 2006 when our University of Michigan team partnered with Michigan State University and Wayne State University. The alliance we organized throughout 2006, the University Research Corridor, turns 15 this year.
As U-M Mary Sue Coleman said when the URC was announced, “We have an absolute responsibility to the state to help transform an economy that is flagging. Together we have achieved much. But we must set our sights higher and do even more to turn ideas into action.’’
A few weeks later, when Pfizer announced plans to leave Michigan, Coleman led efforts to recruit top Pfizer scientists and transform the old Pfizer Ann Arbor campus into a new expanded U-M research campus.
Fifteen years later, nearly everyone involved with that original organizational effort has moved on to new jobs or into retirement. Startlingly, the URC carries on, true to all of its original founding mission, language, and strategy mapped out around the big tables.
The Potluck Dinner Strategy: The core of American philanthropy and community
The roots of these sorts of alliances — and American philanthropy itself — can be traced back to early American “barn raisings.”
A new family would arrive, and the community would gather to help their neighbor in need, coming together to help them build a barn.
The “barn-raising” tradition lives on through potluck dinners in offices and community gathering places, from church picnics to “Taste of the Town” events.
That “come together” spirit is the core strength of a true community alliance: communities gathering together with neighbors helping neighbors. Or organizations helping each other.
During our very first meeting, we didn’t have a name. We didn’t even have a name for what our group would do (some called it a consortium or partnership, a few called it marketing). I hate “weak words,” so I insisted it was “an alliance,” a word that stuck.
We always had a great big meeting table, and everyone involved worked on a lot of events. So quickly, we started thinking about other gatherings we could join. The alliance announcement came in late 2006, but we joined statewide events like the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference.
With the potluck dinner strategy, the convener says, “we are having a potluck dinner Monday at noon in our conference room: I’m providing hamburgers. What dish can you bring?” The convener helps avoid duplication.
Suddenly, we have a feast with 30 dishes: lower costs, higher quality, shared burdens, more diversity of thought and offerings — and more fun.
The meaning of community
When the URC was being planned 15 years ago, Michigan was still midway through a decade-long recession U-M economist Don Grimes called “the winter that never ends.” The nation’s attention was turning to research-focused communities like Silicon Valley.
Detroit News columnist Dan Howes inspired our planning efforts by writing “all the right tools are here’’ in Michigan for an economic comeback. He calling our three universities “the closest thing Michigan has to Silicon Valley: an intellectual powerhouse.’’
Community, meaning “common, public, shared by all or many,” comes from the Latin term communitatus. Its three parts:
- “Com,” a Latin prefix for “with” or “together.”
- “Munis,” meaning “the changes or exchanges that link.”
- “Tatus,” a Latin suffix meaning small, intimate, or local.
German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies argued “community” is a tighter and more cohesive social entity with “unity of will” — like a family — within a larger society.
Because communities have greater freedom and security than a larger society, he argued communities tend to take on a life and culture of their own (which seems to be similar to any “true brand” like the URC).
The Potluck strategy goes far beyond meetings
At our very first planning meeting, we immediately built upon common ground.
I said I was excited because I’d earned my bachelor’s in journalism from Michigan State, I worked at Michigan (I met my wife there and was about to do my graduate work there), and I was born in Detroit, where my dad earned both his degrees from Wayne State. So I felt connected to all three.
Everyone around the table was soon rattling off their own connection to each school or the cities where they were based: Ann Arbor, East Lansing, and Detroit. Any thought of this being a rivalry soon faded. We gathered to work together.
What would we call this? How would it work? I went home and kept thinking of the Research Triangle in North Carolina.
Everyone in America had heard of the Research Triangle, so I did a bit of research and math and quickly figured out that Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State did more research than the three Research Triangle partners did.
Michigan already had tried a 1990s alliance of the schools called the Life Sciences Corridor (but governors are possessive about names, programs, and funding, so the very next governor called that same idea a Technology Tri-Corridor, a quickly forgotten nonsensical name). Funding quickly shriveled up.
In contrast, everyone had heard of the Research Triangle, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill section of North Carolina anchored by Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University. The area is a hub for technology and biotech businesses.
“So why don’t we blend the two and call our alliance the Research Corridor?” I suggested. It would “sound like” the nationally recognized Research Triangle and Michigan’s Life Sciences Corridor (giving it instant familiarity), but it would be a new name.
The university vice presidents around the table said we needed to add the keyword “University,” so it became the University Research Corridor (URC).
Some months later, some wanted to throw in “Michigan” to make it the Michigan University Research Corridor (because university people love acronyms). I said, “No! Do not make your acronym MURC! Murky is terrible.”
We kept it the University Research Corridor (URC) and wrote “Michigan’s” in small letters in some logos. It worked. Fifteen years later, all of the original presidents and vice presidents (and me) are gone, but the University Research Corridor carries on.
Another major goal: showing people who never set foot on any campus the research-intensive universities still helped and served the entire state and nation through their health systems and research.
That led to regular comprehensive benchmarking reports from the Anderson Economic Group showing how the URC helped the state and compared to similar peers nationwide.
We also considered a second choice name: Statewide Universities of Michigan, SUM, arguing that our alliance would be greater than the sum of its parts. That particular concept went nowhere, but its meaning advanced through maps and cases showing we had programs everywhere serving the entire state.
A key foundation was the potluck dinner strategy, the idea that every person — and every university — brought something unique to the table. We were bigger together than the sum of our parts.
“There are times when wisdom cannot be found in the chambers of parliament or the halls of academia but at the unpretentious setting of the kitchen table.”
― E.A. Bucchianeri.