Volume XII | Issue 1 | Spring 2012
In Vernonia, residents gather for a community dinner. Sharing food fosters a sense of community. Leadership Program organizers learned this early; meals are an essential part of the class structure. Photo: Benjamin Brink

Experience reveals what works best

Leadership Program organizers share nine years' worth of experience

When Ford Institute Leadership Program organizers began studying different ways of delivering leadership classes, they tried a number of formats: one week night every week; a seven-hour class module; a three-hour session.

After settling on a model where participants get together on Friday nights and all day on Saturdays, the Institute discovered that when or where the classes were held weren’t the most important factors in achieving success. What was? Food.

“Although the leadership knowledge and skill was important,” says Tom Gallagher, former director of the Ford Institute for Community Building, “it was the positive acquaintances that came with people sitting together and eating that correlated highly with motivation. It’s nice to have time together, but sitting down and eating together is even better.”

Today, meals are an essential part of the leadership class structure, and that serves as one of the lessons learned along the way as more than 4,000 people in more than 70 areas have participated in the program. Here are a few more.

The power of talk

Chatting with your neighbors around a spaghetti dinner is just one of the opportunities the classes provide for people to really get to know each other. Talking in the halls on break, late nights planning class projects, comparing results on the Meyer-Briggs personality assessments — those minutes all add up to new and deeper relationships. 

One of the most talked-about topics in interviews done as part of the program evaluation was the networking — the opportunity to get to know people in their region.

“We knew networking would be important, but we didn’t think it would be as big of a deal as it turned out to be,” says Joyce Akse, director of the Ford Institute for Community Building. “The classes helped get people from neighboring communities together. They realized they have people nearby to call on, even if they aren’t from the same town. It’s a powerful outcome.”

Keeping it local

From the beginning of the program in spring of 2003, classes have been held in local communities, unlike many programs that bring participants together in a central location more convenient for trainers. In retrospect, that was a choice that has done much to assure the success of the program.

“That was a signature decision, one of the most important ones that was made,” Gallagher says. 

Besides making it easier for people to participate, it also kept the focus on the local areas. Having local classes also paid an unexpected dividend for the Institute: knowledge. Although the cost of having class trainers drive thousands of miles a year is large, it pays off in the intimate knowledge gained by the Institute of the towns it serves. “When we go to our communities, we get to know our communities well,” Gallagher says.

The truth of youth

Although the involvement of youth is now a hallmark of the Leadership Program, it wasn’t always so. In the beginning, Institute planners discussed whether or not to include students, and the outlook wasn’t good. Scheduling, liability and other issues appeared to outweigh the benefits. Despite that, youth were included on a trial basis.

“We found out pretty quickly that having young people in the class was one of the best things we do,” Gallagher says. Besides bringing a fresh, new perspective, “other class members loved it. And we’ve had no problem with youth, and no special challenges.”

Many leadership programs across the country focus on the 25-45 age group, often requiring a proven leadership track record. Not the Ford Institute Leadership Program. Cohorts are comprised of participants as young as 14 and as old as 89, and while some are experienced leaders, others are just interested. 

“The older participants bring the history of the community to the program and are great at mentoring the younger ones,” Gallagher says. Plus, he points out, in order to build capacity, a community must call on new, often inexperienced members.

Keeping it small

Each Leadership Program cohort undertakes a project that benefits the community. In the early years of the program, the projects were big — too big. “We learned quickly that if they tackled a big project they got discouraged and gave up,” Akse says. Now, projects are limited to no more than a $12,000 total budget (including a $5,000 matching grant) and a realistic timeline of up to a year. 

“We want them to practice skills, work together, and use their network to create something of value to their community. We found they did that most effectively at a smaller level. This allowed them to achieve the outcome quickly, and then they can go on to bigger and better projects,” Akse says.

Leadership is not enough

The original vision for the Leadership Program, following the best practices of other programs around the nation, was to teach potential community leaders the skills and tools they needed to lead. Although that is still the program’s goal, input from participants has caused the program to expand greatly in the last five years. 

Today, three fully developed training courses — the Leadership Program (repeated twice), Effective Organizations and Community Collaborations—are offered in each area. 

“Leadership was not enough for participants,” Gallagher says. “They wanted to know about organizational development and collaboration. It was comments from participants that led to the new classes.” 

Sharing the journey

One of the topics brought out in the evaluation interviews was the value people placed on working with others from nearby communities. “When we work in communities, people almost always comment about working with others from adjoining areas,” Akse says. “The evaluation told us that people want to look to those who share their problems.”

The long road ahead

“I thought we’d see change faster,” Gallagher says. “I am heartened by the variety and depth and change we’ve seen, but it’s not the 10-year project I thought it was.” 

That conclusion has been bolstered by the example of other projects, like in Tupelo, Miss., where an economically viable community was created, but on a longer timeline—about 30 years.

Return to Issue Index
Share this: