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    8. Community Capacity Building and the Reasonable Person Model: A Rural Oregon Experiment


    A family foundation in Oregon is funding a major effort to build the capacity of rural communities across the state so they can define and achieve their own vision of vitality. The effort, now in its 13th year, has been an applied experiment in the theory and practice of community capacity building, particularly leadership development. This chapter describes the evolution of the experiment over the years and draws linkages to the Reasonable Person Model (RPM). The focus of the chapter, however, is on how the leadership training reflects the concepts of RPM—developing mental models, taking meaningful action, and being effective—and how it is reasonable people who can lead their community toward positive change.

    Communities across rural Oregon are engaged in a grand, applied experiment to promote vitality by building community capacity. This community capacity approach is based on the premise that the sustained effort of a broad and diverse base of community leaders is the ideal way for communities to address the many challenges and opportunities they face. In this experiment, vitality and the Reasonable Person Model (RPM) are aligned in a number of ways. Both are centrally concerned about people having the mental models for working together to improve their community. The importance of taking action, learning from doing, and seeing the pattern in what works is also common to both approaches. Finally, they share a focus on promoting change and achieving desired outcomes and impacts, including measurable changes in social, environmental, and economic indicators.

    The experiment is led by the Ford Institute for Community Building, founded in 2000 as a unit of the Ford Family Foundation of Roseburg, Oregon; I served as director from 2003 through 2011. The institute’s purpose is to help the foundation achieve its mission—”successful citizens and vital rural communities”—through capacity building. There was no known existing equivalent effort to follow, so the institute began a process of discovery, leading to what I called the institute’s “rural Oregon experiment.” The primary strategy that the institute chose to build capacity was through the development of a broad and deep base of community leaders who would strengthen community organizations and collaborations needed to define and achieve a community vision of vitality. The method of developing leaders was through a training program, the Ford Institute Leadership Program.

    It was only after the leadership program was in full operation with classes across the state, in 2010, that I became aware of RPM. I had taken classes from Stephen Kaplan and Rachel Kaplan in the mid-1970s, and their ideas, especially as captured in the book Humanscape (S. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1978), had served me well as an academic and a consultant in the fields of public engagement and leadership development. No doubt because of this past experience when I learned about RPM, I recognized that the institute was engaged in RPM-related work as it helped develop community leaders. I realized that the institute’s leaders were very much like the “reasonable people” that are at the hub of the RPM diagram. Thus, this integration of the institute’s leadership program with RPM is retrospective and therefore somewhat imprecise and incomplete, but the intersection of community leadership and capacity building with concepts of RPM should be evident.

    In this chapter I first describe the foundation and the institute programs and how they evolved, describing in some detail the Ford Institute Leadership Program, the primary investment. I then focus on the leadership classes that are designed to develop the broad and diverse base of community leaders, the reasonable people, who are the key to rural community vitality. I then provide a brief summary of three case studies that show how different communities benefited from the institute programs, and I conclude with comments about the relationship of RPM and community capacity building in general.

    The Foundation and Institute

    The Ford Family Foundation (not related to Ford Motors or the Ford Foundation) was established in 1997 from the estate of Kenneth Ford, founder of Roseburg Forest Products, to serve the more than four hundred rural communities (under thirty thousand residents) in Oregon and Siskiyou County, California. In 2000, the foundation board established the Ford Institute for Community Building with the charge to support the foundation’s mission of “successful citizens and vital rural communities” through community capacity building. At the time there was no specific model to follow, although there were other statewide community leadership programs, such as that of the Blandin Foundation in Minnesota. The founding director of the institute organized two gatherings to assemble ideas, one drawing experts in leadership training, capacity building, and rural development from across Oregon, the other drawing from across the nation. From these gatherings the institute began the development of programs including leadership training for individuals, assistance grants primarily to strengthen community organizations, and a set of supportive resources, including an in-house publication and a free book program with titles related to leadership and organizational development.

    In January 2003 when I became the director, one of my first decisions was to retain an organization, Rural Development Initiatives (RDI) (, an Oregon-based nonprofit, to deliver institute training. Hereafter, decisions were made by an institute/RDI team. (A history of the institute The Wisdom of Communities that includes a description of programs can be found on the institute’s website at

    An early decision was to focus on development of capacity at three systems levels—individual leaders, community organizations, and collaborations among people and organizations within and across communities. This targeting of capacity at multiple levels is a major departure from the normal practice in philanthropy. Seldom does a philanthropic organization fund leadership training at the levels of both individuals and organizations, and very few support community-wide collaboration as part of a broader capacity-building program. Thus, capacity building has generally operated from a theory of change that posits, explicitly or not, that empowering specific individuals or organizations is the key to desired change—a distinctly expert-based “we know best” style. We anticipated that broad community engagement would be a more acceptable approach across rural Oregon, with its much more egalitarian and bottom-up style.

    A second and closely related decision was to expand the training from serving just a few select individuals or organizations to a much more inclusive approach. Thus, leadership classes would include not just the “usual suspects” but would include a broad and diverse, much more representative, mix of community members. And, all community organizations—nonprofits, membership groups, institutions, and local government—would be invited to participate in training. This strategy, we felt, would create a base of community leaders and functional community organizations that could collaborate to define and achieve a common vision of their future. In these early decisions we were searching for a way—a mental model—to guide our engagement with communities. We were moving away from standard practices toward something different, but what? Looking at our situation now, from an RPM perspective, we were striving to know ourselves, striving to find patterns of information from the experience of others to guide us, and striving to develop ways to foster model building. We were engaged in an applied experiment and intended to learn from doing.

    We were not aware at the time, but this approach closely paralleled a theory of community change being articulated by Vaughn Grisham (1999) called the Tupelo Model, which grew out of his analysis of the economic success of Tupelo, Mississippi, following World War II. We were introduced to Grisham’s work by the Heartland Center for Leadership Development of Lincoln, Nebraska, which had won the contract to develop the institute’s leadership curriculum. Grisham attributed Tupelo’s economic success to capacity building at four levels: human development, leadership development, organizational development, and community development. This model became a core element—a mental model—within the leadership curriculum. It promoted a much broader perspective on community success than is often found in rural communities, many of whom “chased smokestacks” or strived to find a single business—the “silver bullet model”—that would solve their economic woes. The Tupelo Model says, in contrast, that it is really all about people, all people, working together, harnessing their power to get things done in organizations, and ultimately collaborating on a shared vision for the community. We amended the Tupelo Model and created our own Ford Vitality Model, which better captured the institute’s intentions and investments (Figure 8.1).

    In this model the institute invests first, and primarily, in leadership development as the foundation for success. There is a strong belief in this model that investment in leaders is also an investment in organizations and collaborations that those leaders will eventually make. In addition, the institute replaces the ultimate goal in the Tupelo Model—economic development—with the triple bottom line of economic, environmental, and community vitality (top line of the diagram). The Ford Vitality Model provides the institute with a theory of change—an expectation of what causes what—that provides logic for investments in programs that can then be evaluated.

    The institute’s model, however, proved to be a challenge for some in the foundation and for some in communities. Individuals used to a top-down approach to solving community problems were doubtful that a community had the wisdom to help itself, certainly not as much as would a key investment by a state agency, major business, or philanthropy. Similarly, in communities the model challenged some who had control of power, in particular city managers who often had an agenda for the community or longtime residents who had traded positions of authority for decades and were uncomfortable with expanding the base of community leadership. Further, in at least a few rural communities—company towns—the model for success was to defer all community decisions to mill bosses, and participation in capacity building was pointless.

    Figure 8.1. The modified Tupelo Model.
    Figure 8.1. The modified Tupelo Model.

    While the institute believes that the Ford Vitality Model is an ideal way for rural communities to achieve success, it doesn’t define success. A key aspect of the institute approach is that it encourages the community to collaborate to define a shared vision and to select its own indicators of success as well as the projects and programs to achieve them. We had developed a broad model of success and moved quickly to test it through action.

    The Ford Institute Leadership Program

    RDI facilitated the institute’s first class, Leadership Development, using the Heartland Center curriculum in the spring of 2003. The curriculum, which is still in use today in version 6.0, is designed as an introductory community college class. It includes sixteen three-hour modules with topics appropriate for community leaders where there is little or no power hierarchy as found in executive or military leadership. Also, the class emphasizes the role of leaders in helping others achieve their goals rather than serving as a platform for personal advocacy. Thus, the curriculum defined leadership as a form of “servant leadership,” creating the broad context for the numerous more specific modules.

    Course Content

    Editors’ Comment: A small and diverse classroom creates a safe environment for students to try out what they’ve learned. Standing up in front of a classroom can still be intimidating, but the classroom also provides an opportunity to overcome such jitters.

    Modules in the leadership class include such topics as knowing yourself as a leader, effective communication (particularly listening), working in groups, negotiation, asset mapping, developing resources, mentoring, managing volunteers, and project development. Each module includes one or more bundles of information to enhance the participants’ knowledge and skill. Each bundle, from the RPM view, promotes a way of thinking—a mental model—to use that module in the community leadership context. To develop skill, all modules involve small exercises whereby participants can try things out, such as public speaking, making a request for donations, or developing a project timeline. These small experiments, done in the safe space of the facilitated class, help individuals test out new skills and build confidence. By participating with others in the class, individuals experience the pattern of “what works” becoming more evident.

    Editors’ Comment: Asking participants not only reveals what approaches were effective, but by taking the time to listen to them, it also shows them respect.

    This new information, however, is not presented in a top-down style. Rather, facilitators promote discussion among class participants to bring out what they already know. One exercise in particular, called appreciative inquiry (Bushe, 2013), targets finding out from class participants what worked in the past and why in their community. Most often when a class starts, the community is fixated on its issues and deficits and does not recognize its past accomplishments. With guidance, virtually all communities develop long lists of successes and then go on to identify many reasons for their success, such as having a project champion, broad community support, and perhaps an outside funder to catalyze local donations. From the RPM view, this exercise helps people know themselves better (Basu, Chapter 6) and helps the group develop a more complete model of what works for them. Participants typically leave this exercise with an understanding that they already know something about the many modules in the curriculum yet to come, and they are more aware that, as a group, they know a great deal. This self-assessment, as individuals and a community, helps brings out the best in individuals. It is in this exercise, in the first day of the classes, that the notion that people can act—and have acted—with reasonableness is evident.

    A closely related module involves an exercise called asset mapping (Kretzman & McKnight, 1993). Assets can be found at the individual, organizational, community, regional, state, and national levels. Class facilitators help participants identify the unique talents of each participant in the class as well as those of residents of the community. Many rural communities have residents who have exceptional value, perhaps as specialists in a certain aspect of the economy or a specific issue such as rural health care, or perhaps are simply well connected to the political world, investment capital, or philanthropy. This exercise also helps communities define what is unique about their place—its location, soil, water, air, sun, wind—and its existing development—roads, health services, schools, and organizations. In combination with appreciative inquiry, these activities help communities switch from a “glass half empty” to a “glass half full” view of their situation, promoting the sense of hope that is needed before one can move forward with action.

    To give the class participants a real experience of working within a diverse community group, we embedded a small community project in the curriculum. Embedding means that within the sixteen class modules there are activities whereby the participants identify a range of possible projects, advocate for their favorite, come to agreement on the highest priority (consistent with several institute guidelines), design the project, promote and develop funding, and—after the conclusion of classes—build it. To give the project some substance, the institute provides a matching grant. Most projects involve improvements to playgrounds, nature trails, community signs, or similar small capital projects that involve physical work and are visible in the community. While the projects are meant to have value to the community, their primary role is to provide a safe situation for participants to practice the skills learned in the class. From the RPM view, the appreciative inquiry, asset mapping, and class projects bring forward the many experiences of the multiple participants, providing more opportunities for participants to recognize that there is a pattern to what works in successful community projects. The institute spends considerable energy and funds to ensure that the class projects are a success, and our experience has been that once a community has completed the class project, it feels ready to move on to another project that is often more complex and challenging. There are several dozen new community centers, libraries, youth centers, parks, fire halls, and such across Oregon that were developed subsequent to the class project.

    Course Participants

    We initially set the size of the leadership class at eighteen to ensure that everyone had a chance to fully participate in the class discussions, but we soon learned from class facilitators and participants that twenty-five was a better number, as it permitted great diversity and more vibrant discussions. With more people, the range of experiences and ideas expanded but not beyond the point that each person could participate in the discussion. We experimented with classes as large as thirty-five participants but found that size too large.

    Editors’ Comment: Selecting a broad range of participants is central to the participatory process. Grese’s work with youths (Chapter 19) and Ginsburg’s work with incarcerated people (Chapter 9) provide other examples of this principle.

    We also chose to increase the diversity of the classes by engaging a much wider range of ages than is typical for community leadership training. The norm in community leadership programs is for the funder to handpick midcareer leaders, often between twenty-five and forty-five years of age. The logic is that this group provides the greatest return on investment. We chose to include both youths (from ages thirteen to twenty) and elders (ninety-three is the oldest participant to date) to capture a better representation of a real place. We set a target to have six to eight youths in each class, including a mix of usual suspects (e.g., student body officers) but also unusual suspects, such as high-energy youths who would benefit from guidance. In addition to enriching the class discussions, by including youths the institute expects that its investments will pay back over more years than the standard practice of selecting only older individuals.

    We also set a target of having several (at least three to five) retired leaders with long experience in the community in each class. Our premise is that it is important to honor the past before suggesting changes to what exists; elders can share the community’s stories and values. Elders also can serve, sometimes with training, as mentors to youths and those with less experience. The diversity of ages helps ensure that the classes included a mix of known, emerging, and potential leaders.

    To ensure that we could not cherry-pick a select set of class participants (and thus create a special institute clique), we placed the nomination of participants in the hands of a community committee made up of a diverse group of individuals who know the community well. The class facilitator takes the committee through a semistructured process that examines the many interests and organizations in the community. Following this process, the committee members write down a list of fifty to one hundred nominees. Committee members then contact the nominees and provide a packet of information from the institute about the program. Nominees then apply if interested. Thus, all class participants are nominated by community members, and all self-select to participate. This process leads to a very engaged group of class participants who have excellent attendance, are good students in terms of really studying the materials provided, and share their ideas openly with their classmates.

    Course Logistics

    Editors’ Comment: In this section Gallagher uses course logistics to promote physical and cognitive comfort. Creating environments that foster participation is also the subject of Monroe’s work with resource managers (Chapter 14).

    When the time came to decide when and where to hold classes, we followed a board directive: “We go to communities.” Although a more common practice in community leadership training is to bring people from several communities to a retreat center, we decided to hold classes in communities at a comfortable gathering place, such as a community center, not associated with a particular issue or group. This decision means that participants come from the same general area, not from dispersed communities. It also supports our earlier decision to engage young and old, many of whom would have a difficult time participating in training at a distant retreat center. In addition, having the institute staff and contract facilitators travel to the community permits getting to know each community and its unique characteristics.

    We experimented with several patterns of delivery, such as classes one evening a week for a semester, but settled on a monthly format as the most supportive environment for learning. Classes meet on Friday afternoon and evening and Saturday morning and afternoon one weekend a month for four months. We work with communities to make sure the dates do not conflict with local events. Class participants report that this level of engagement—four modules a weekend once a month—is about the right mix of intensive study followed by time to assimilate, share the class materials with others, and return to the next class with questions and ideas.

    To further diminish the potential for overload and to promote informal discussion among diverse class participants, we provide a catered meal between the two modules on Friday and the two modules on Saturday. This time to relax, refresh, and enjoy a meal together has proven to be of exceptional value in strengthening the network of participants. Indeed, when asked in formal evaluation what the number one benefit of the leadership class has been for them, participants report that it is the “positive acquaintances” they have made. They also report that this network of people is a major factor in their motivation to move into new leadership roles.

    When we offered the first leadership classes in the spring of 2003, we treated the selection of communities as a small experiment by selecting two single communities and two community clusters. Participants strongly favored the cluster approach even though the communities may have historically been at odds, perhaps due to economic competition or more likely sports competition. They enjoyed meeting people from nearby communities and felt strongly that working together was important if they were to make progress toward vitality. Based on this feedback, we divided the more than four hundred communities into eighty clusters, or hubs. As suggested by community members, we made the initial boundary decisions based on watershed and local government/school district boundaries, but we amended the boundaries as guided by each community as it began the leadership class. The foundation board provided sufficient funding so that four hubs could take the leadership class each fall and four more could take it each spring. At this rate of eight communities per year, the institute was on schedule to present the “Leadership Development” class to all eighty hubs in ten years, a schedule that has been met.

    Evolving Curriculum

    The institute, however, was poised to grow in two unexpected ways. First, while the leadership class was well received in each hub, feedback from participants and facilitators indicated that the class was not of sufficient duration to present the abundance of issues that needed to be addressed. Particularly missing was adequate treatment of leadership at the organizational and collaboration levels. From this feedback we proposed the development of two new classes, “Effective Organizations” and “Community Collaborations.” They were to be delivered to each hub following the leadership class. The classes were each designed as twenty-four hours of class time with open enrollment to permit as many individuals from as many community organizations as possible to attend. The classes were also held in the community to promote broad participation. Further, the institute provided follow-up funding so that the facilitators could work outside of class with each participating organization or collaboration to implement the class concepts in their specific situation.

    Second, as the new classes were being developed, feedback from class participants also made clear that one leadership class was not enough. The classes were becoming well known and popular; participants had many acquaintances interested in taking the class. With this information, we went to the board to request funds to deliver two additional leadership classes in each hub. Each class would be a separate cohort. With board approval, by the close of 2005 the Ford Institute Leadership Program, which had been a single leadership class offered to each community, grew to a set of five classes—three Leadership Development classes and one each of the Effective Organizations and Community Collaborations classes—offered to each of eighty hubs. After much discussion and some experimentation, the sequence of class delivery became

    • Year 1—Leadership Development cohort 1
    • Year 2—Effective Organizations
    • Year 3—Leadership Development cohort 2
    • Year 4—Community Collaborations
    • Year 5—Leadership Development cohort 3

    The multiple leadership classes keep class size manageable for quality discussion and for a network to develop, and when there are too many applicants for one class, some can wait until the next class. By the end of the class series, the institute typically has about seventy-five leadership class graduates in each hub and as many more community members who have participated in one or more of the other classes but not the leadership class. It is the institute’s expectation that this group of 150 individuals will prove to be the critical mass that can move the community forward.

    With the institute classes now in their eleventh year, there are over five thousand graduates of the leadership class alone and as many participants in the other two classes. About fifty of the eighty hubs have completed the five-class series, and all are scheduled to complete the series by 2016. Several communities that have completed the series have requested additional classes, and the board is providing funding with indications of continued support for additional classes into the future.

    The multiple classes made several other opportunities possible. For instance, when the first leadership class conducts its asset-mapping exercise, it identifies all community organizations, which we then invite to the second class, Effective Organizations. This class, which includes many individuals who were not in the leadership class, seeds the second leadership class, and so on through the series. Another opportunity was to improve the representativeness of the classes, particularly the first leadership class, which had the potential of not reaching some segments of the community. To aid with recruitment, the institute developed and offers a prequel twelve-hour class in the Spanish language and a twelve-hour class designed by and for Native Americans. Both have proven effective at encouraging people from these cultures to participate in the main classes, thus leading to a more broadly supported learning and action.

    The multiple classes also provided an opportunity to invite graduates of the first class to serve as volunteers to help deliver subsequent classes. About 12% of all leadership class graduates volunteer to go through two days of training to become ambassadors who facilitate, organize, or advocate for future classes. The participation of ambassadors dramatically reduces the cost of the leadership classes, making the multiple classes possible. The more than five hundred ambassadors also have become a select cadre of well-prepared community leaders who serve as key contacts for the institute and other organizations wishing to invest in the community.

    The ambassadors, in conjunction with the contract facilitators, are working with the new director of the institute in the development of a stage-two program called Pathways. Whereas the five classes of the Ford Institute Leadership Program (stage one) were largely prescriptive, Pathways is intended to be responsive and adaptive to community situations. The Pathways program has a basic process of discovery and planning, but the actual process and the desired outcomes are to be defined by the community. When a community identifies a desired outcome, whether a broad vision or a specific project, the institute has funding to provide assistance in planning and community coordination and outreach. The process was beta tested through 2012 and began full operation in 2013, with those communities that completed the five-class series being offered the first chance to participate.

    While the Pathways program is just rolling out, it appears that most communities (hubs) will go forward with four forms of institute support. They will (a) if they request, engage in the Pathways process with its open-ended, community guided process; (b) continue to identify and complete small projects that they have the capacity to work on now without further training or external support; (c) request support for and offer additional classes, with community ambassadors doing most of the delivery; and (d) draw heavily on the grants and resources to address specific situations, bring people together across geographic and interest boundaries, and find and share information.


    Before closing this section, one particular issue stands out as being solved by the institute’s approach to capacity building. When the institute began engaging communities in classes, some board members were concerned that communities would become dependent on the foundation, expecting a steady flow of grants and resources for years to come. Dependency is an issue in philanthropy, particularly when a foundation invests heavily in a specific organization to address a specific problem. The organization adds staff, rents space, and makes a number of commitments to meet the requirements of the grant. When the grant ends, the organization struggles to sustain itself at its larger size and can place considerable pressure on the original funder to continue support. The institute approach, however, by creating a diversity of community leaders, strong organizations, and effective collaborations, doesn’t cause any one organization to grow and become dependent. Indeed, quite the opposite happens: communities are identifying and completing small and medium projects without any philanthropic support and are only asking for philanthropic support on large projects when they are well prepared. It is probable that the actual number of grant requests made by rural communities to philanthropies in Oregon has actually declined as the institute’s programs have saturated the state. The institute approach is offering a substantially different model of investment for philanthropy.

    Throughout this description there are strong echoes of RPM in the development of the institute programs: the model building through repeated small experiments (classes) and the intentional effort to not be locked into traditional philanthropic practice. There is the challenge to the institute, and the foundation, to know itself and respond to people in communities. There are the many aspects of the leadership class and its delivery that speak to a range of RPM concerns, including:

    Editors’ Comment: As R. Kaplan (Chapter 2) and Ivancich (Chapter 5) describe, effective model building depends greatly on multiple, varied experiences.

    • Model building both for the members of the institute learning helpful ways to aid communities and for community members learning the skills they need to help themselves.
    • The institute’s programs offer a diverse range of experiences that can fill the varied needs of different communities.
    • The institute is in a constant and evolving effort to create a more supportive environment when it is designing its leadership class. Awareness of RPM’s informational needs informs this effort.

    The following case studies attempt to articulate how the institute has addressed these concerns.

    Three Short Case Studies

    The institute has offered over 250 classes to rural communities, but are they making a difference? Anecdotal information and formal evaluation suggest that about one-third of communities are moving forward with vigor and visible success, as in the case studies below. Another third are making a visible effort but with less vigor and success, usually with smaller projects. The last third may not be moving forward in any visible way, at least not at the community level. Following are three of perhaps a dozen communities that can report major success that can be attributed at least in part to the institute investments. These communities were among the earliest to engage in the five-class sequence.

    Lake County, Oregon

    Class graduates in Lake County (population seven thousand), a region of ranches in the high desert of southeast Oregon, led the community in 2007 in developing a shared vision to be “Oregon’s most renewable energy county by 2012.” Their operating organization, Lake County Resources Initiative (LCRI), has creatively and effectively promoted use of the region’s massive geothermal, biomass, and solar resources to replace a long history of dependence on expensive trucked-in fuel oil. The primary activity of LCRI is to provide residents with the expertise to tap these energy resources for their homes, businesses, and institutions. LCRI has developed demonstration projects of geothermal and solar energy to show how these systems work, and numerous homes as well as the hospital and schools have switched their space and water heating from fuel oil to geothermal and solar heating. A utility district is forming to provide geothermal heat to the downtown core. Lake County is arguably now, on a per capita basis, the most renewable energy county in Oregon. LCRI has received so many requests from other communities to share their expertise that they have formed a collaborative with the regional community college to develop a renewable energy training center that will occupy a school in the summer months, creating a new flow of visitors to their community and economy.

    Vernonia, Oregon

    Institute class graduates also proved highly effective when a disaster struck Vernonia (population two thousand), located in the Coast Range west of Portland. In a five hundred-year flood in December 2007, the community lost all three of its school buildings as well as its local electric utility and health clinic. The town was already depressed, having lost it primary employer, a large lumber mill, several years before. After the flood many, including the town newspaper, thought that the town should unincorporate, the school district should merge with a neighboring district, and students should be bused to a neighboring community thirty miles away over mountain roads. The institute held its first leadership class in Vernonia in 2005 and the second in 2007; at the time of the flood there were fifty-six graduates of two leadership classes as well as several score more participants in the “Effective Organizations” class. The graduates used their network to respond to the crisis as it unfolded, then to the cleanup of debris, and finally to the rebuilding of the community. The network of graduates was particularly important in leading the community effort to build a new K–12 school. They used their organizational skills from the classes to pass a bond issue, which they then leveraged to attract government and philanthropic funds. Against high odds and many naysayers, their new LEED-certified and biomass-heated school, with a curriculum that focuses students on the community’s forest environment and heritage, opened for classes in the fall of 2012.

    Yreka, California

    Yreka, the seat of Siskiyou County, California, has a population of just under eight thousand and is located in a region of geographic and cultural diversity that includes public lands with dispersed ranching, intense specialty crop farming, tourist districts, second home clusters, small-lot homesteads, and Indian country. One of the first four communities to participate in the leadership class in the spring of 2003, the community completed the five-class series in 2007, requested and completed additional leadership classes in 2008 and 2009, and has helped to beta test the institute’s new Pathways program, bringing the total number of graduates to well over one hundred. In their “Community Collaboration” class in 2006, they began a process of exploring how they might strengthen their economy and over the next several years drew on institute resources to hold conferences on economic development. Despite previous animosities between communities, the graduates of classes in the four hubs across the county have led their communities in working together, establishing a cycle tourism focus that has since 2010 moved their project forward from a plan to action, quite probably adding a valuable piece to the economic puzzle of this rural county.

    Concluding Thoughts

    The formal evaluation by Oregon State University has documented the outcomes and impacts of the institute programs over the years. The institute’s logic model proposed that a series of early, intermediate, and late outcomes would be evident in the years following the classes, with impacts (actual changes in community indicators) visible in ten years. The formal evaluation documents that class participants are gaining a significantly higher level of community leadership knowledge and skill and that this is not declining over time. Indeed, for many people it continues to increase with time through their real community experiences and through use of the other institute resources, such as publications and conferences. Further, evaluation shows that graduates are using the information in volunteer organizations (87%), at home (86%), and in the workplace (81%). The number of hours of community service reported by class graduates jumped from fourteen per month prior to the class to thirty-three hours a month after the class. Class graduates vote at a near perfect rate. When asked in an open-ended question how the institute class has mattered in their community, over 900 (of 1,266) responses were about increased community capacity, with many noting that now they felt that the community had the critical mass of leaders to move forward.

    Yet, it is not clear that all rural communities will, or should, survive. Many are struggling to keep the last vestiges of the essential institutions of small towns—the store, post office, and school. Many rural communities developed during the timber boom years from the 1930s to the 1980s no longer serve as the locus for timber processing and are searching for a new purpose. There are many variables at the state, national, and global levels that influence the future of rural communities, and it is not clear that building capacity, no matter how well accomplished, can help all communities achieve vitality, much less survive.

    Nonetheless, prepared and engaged community leaders may be the key variable in determining if a community lives or dies, and if it lives if it can be a vital place to live and work. Community leaders do not sit on the sidelines and grouse about all that is wrong but instead look hard for what is possible for their specific place and work hard to engage the community as a whole in moving forward. They know they cannot wait for a benevolent outside force—perhaps the government or philanthropy—to fix the situation for them. They realize that it is up to the community, particularly a broad and diverse base of community leaders, to define their own future. In RPM terms, the leaders have an increased capacity for creating supportive environments, finding ways to bring citizens together to create communities with vitality.

    In closing, the institute has been extremely fortunate to be guided by a strong board and president, supported with a substantial budget, managed by good staff and partners, and provided tremendous freedom to experiment. The institute and communities are extremely fortunate that the board sees its commitment to communities as in perpetuity, not the one-, three-, or ten-year commitments common in philanthropy. Perhaps the greatest challenge for the institute comes from its own success—it is now working with virtually all communities in Oregon and Siskiyou County, and it is difficult to keep relationships fresh. This challenge will continue to grow as communities finish the prescriptive class series and move into the Pathways program, where every community will be doing something unique to its own situation. While the challenge to sustain relationships will be great, having so many communities so engaged will provide the host of small experiments that can help find the pattern of what works and, if shared, can help improve vitality for all.


    • Bushe, G. R. (2013). The appreciative inquiry model. In E. H. Kessler (Ed.), The encyclopedia of management theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
    • Gallagher, T. (2013) The wisdom of communities: How the Ford Institute helps rural people achieve their own vision of vitality.
    • Grisham, V. L., Jr. (1999). Tupelo: The evolution of a community. Washington, DC: Kettering Foundation Press.
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