Coming to a mailbox near you . . .

The Farm at Sunnyside's Sam Quinn gets a head start on the Foothills Forum survey.Lindsay Sonnett
The Farm at Sunnyside’s Sam Quinn gets a head start on the Foothills Forum survey.

Here’s a heads-up to everyone with a Rappahannock County address: Watch for the Foothills Forum survey, coming to your mailbox or P.O. box this month.

This effort has many parents. It is supported by financial support from you, the community. It is sponsored by Foothills Forum, the nonpartisan local nonprofit. And it was developed in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research.

This project is the culmination of hundreds of hours of interviews and meetings and focus groups. The survey will establish a scientific, factual baseline of information for research and reporting, including projects with the Rappahannock News. You’ll have several opportunities to come to the table to consider and weigh in on our common future.

We’re guessing you have questions. Well, we have answers.

What is the Foothills Forum survey about?

We’re a nonpartisan nonprofit tackling the need for more fact-based, in-depth coverage of the issues people in Rappahannock County say they care about most. To establish a baseline of what concerns residents for the future, we’re mailing the Foothills Forum survey to every address in Rappahannock County.

What makes this survey different, and why should I participate?

It’s a first for Rappahannock: A comprehensive, countywide questionnaire on a full range of interests, issues, concerns and levels of satisfaction mailed to each household in the county. It is community supported in the best sense, paid for through your generous contributions to and memberships in the nonprofit Foothills Forum. The survey will be mailed to every household. It has been professionally developed with the renowned Center for Survey Research (CSR), a unit of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. CSR is the go-to organization in our state for scientifically accurate survey work.

How was it developed?

It began with a big push to collect lots of diverse, local input. That effort was guided by the crackerjack Foothills Forum survey committee, made up of some of your friends and neighbors with deep professional survey experience. The committee met with CSR, which provided advice on taking the pulse of a community. The committee developed and held a series of five focus groups — listening sessions — this past spring to get a grassroots, ground-up idea of what concerns people like you about the future. We met with taxpayers, seniors, young parents, students, villagers, farmers, gardeners, people who work in the county, employers and many others. Everybody’s comments were fed back to CSR with the committee’s suggestions. CSR developed a draft and pretested the survey last month with another group of a dozen citizens. That group filled out the draft survey and suggested changes and improvements. That’s what’ll show up in your mailbox.  

How does the survey work?

The survey’s mailings will go to nearly 3,000 mailboxes and P.O. boxes. Each address, or household, will receive four different mailings starting the week of Oct. 19: 1) A postcard alerting you the survey’s coming. 2) The survey itself, along with a self-addressed return envelope you’ll simply pop in the mail when you’re done. The survey itself will be enclosed in an envelope from the Center for Survey Research. 3) A thank-you postcard (after all, you filled the survey out and returned it, right?). 4) A last-chance second mailing of the survey in case you missed the first one.

Who’s supposed to fill out the survey?

That’s up to you. There’s one survey per household, so CSR is asking the adult in your household with the most interest in County issues to complete the survey.

Why is Foothills Forum mailing only one survey to each household?

CSR says that one survey per household gives us the best shot at comprehensive results.  

How do you know the end result will be honest responses?

Your answers – all answers – will be kept confidential. No one will ever be identified by name. The  professionals at CSR will ensure that what’s reported on the surveys will be fully captured in their compilation; nothing will be missed or ignored. And while it is voluntary, we hope you will complete it and send it back because it will help all of us discover and define issues of importance to everyone in the county. This is your chance to be heard. Foothills Forum hopes to be a big table where every voice is welcome.  This is your seat at the table.

What do I do with it when I get it?

Completing the survey should take 15 minutes or less. When you’re done, slip it in the stamped return envelope provided with the survey and send it back to the survey center at the University of Virginia. The more responses we get, the more accurate the findings.

What happens next?

The Center for Survey Research will tally the information you provide along with all the others who take the survey. They will collate and analyze the findings and produce a report early next year. Once we get the findings, you’ll read about it initially, then in depth, in the pages of the weekly Rappahannock News. We’ll also be posting on our web site: foothills-forum.org. Foothills Forum approached the News early on to help get the word out about the survey and the priorities it reflects.  Because the information will inform enhanced coverage of the issues you think are important, Foothills Forum invited the newspaper’s owners, Rappahannock Media, to be its media collaborators.

Then what?

Individual financial contributions by people in the community — including you, if you decide to pitch in — will help us pay for experienced researchers and journalists who will start with the survey’s findings on key issues and dive in on the topics. We’re calling those people Foothills Forum Fellows. The resulting in-depth Foothills Forum reports should address the complexity and causes underlying particular local issues and will appear in the Rappahannock News so that everyone can benefit. The reporting will be driven by the survey’s findings and will focus on solutions and promising approaches from other communities dealing with similar issues.

Our relationship with the newspaper is based on a four-page media agreement that includes a firewall protecting the journalistic integrity of our media partners. They’ll ultimately decide what to publish of the Fellows’ work and how to present it. That way the newspaper can’t be unduly influenced by anyone. They will be guided by what you answer in the survey and what the Fellows learn about those topics from the professional research that follows.

And after that?

We plan to collaborate with the newspaper and other prospective partners (such as longstanding county nonprofits and others with expertise) to host community forums where you can attend, listen and participate in community-wide discussions of a given issue. Those forums are future chances to be heard; to take your seat at the table.

How else can I be involved?

To join Foothills Forum as a member; go to foothills-forum.org (don’t forget the hyphen). If you have specific expertise or strong interest in a subject, consider being a volunteer researcher to help us advance our collective knowledge. And you can “Like” Foothills Forum on Facebook.

Tell me again: What is your relationship with Rappahannock Media?

We’re collaborators. They’re the county’s oldest (and only) mainstream media outlet, and they are committed to producing enhanced reporting, which they can do with your support for the survey and the co-sponsored forums.

Why go to such trouble?

We started by talking to hundreds of people and heard one thing loud and clear in every discussion: We all love Rappahannock County. Many of you said you cared deeply about its future. And many of you said you wanted to see more coverage and a deeper understanding of the issues driving our future. You’ve proven it with your volunteer efforts, your financial support and your interest. We believe this endeavor will lead to a more informed, more engaged community with a bright future driven by its own unique values and priorities.

Larry “Bud” Meyer is chairman of the Foothills Forum board.

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