What was unique: ‘true relationship bonding’
When Elin Miller moved to Douglas County in 2009, she didn’t know many people in the area. Recently retired from a high-powered career — her last job was as a presidential appointee overseeing a four-state region for the Environmental Protection Agency — she joined her husband on their hazelnut farm in Umpqua. She decided to join the Ford Institute Leadership Program’s Roseburg cohort, not because she needed the leadership training, but for the networking.
“After a pretty intense career path, I wanted to find a place for myself in the community where I could create some value and do some good for the community itself,” Miller says. “What was unique about this experience was the true relationship bonding resulting from how the classes were set up. It wasn’t just sitting there and hearing about leadership; it was the doing part. You had groups and teams mixing up, and you got to know everybody in the class.”
Without the leadership class, I would never have done it
When Oregon State University researchers interviewed participants of the Leadership Program, the second most frequently cited community impact of the Leadership Program was the networks it cultivated. (The first was the increased number of effective community leaders.) “We are finding more and more that networking is just critical to be able to carry out the mission of nonprofits in rural areas,” says Mary Ward, a trainer for Ford Institute classes.
For Miller, those relationships quickly paid off when she decided to run for a position on the Umpqua Community College board of trustees. She tapped fellow students in the Leadership Program and other community members to advise her, winning the hotly contested race with 67 percent of the vote. “Without the leadership class, I would never have done it,” she said.
Networking is valuable even in a county so small that it feels like everyone already knows each other. Take Sherman County, population 1,725. A countywide meeting to discuss what to do with revenues from a large wind farm project began with input from the more than 200 people present; it ended with a plan for improved city-county networking.
Today, a monthly meeting puts people representing the city and the county together; speakers talk about common issues. “A lot of this came out of the first go-around of the Ford class,” says Sandy McNab, a member of the cohort. “It opened some doors for us. Now, if one city needs to be working on a big sewer line project, another city is likely to send over some maintenance guys for a few days.”
Networking is not always done between people. Researchers found that, though respondents most often talked about the networks that were formed among Leadership Program participants, others spoke about the expansion of networks throughout the community. Bandon resident Lyn Silverman was in the middle of a Ford Institute Leadership Class when she figured out how to cure the “donor fatigue” that was driving down business contributions in her coastal area.
“Just being at the training put all kinds of great thoughts in my mind,” she says, “and I came up with an idea for the food assistance programs in the county. We were all helping low-income people with food. Why didn’t we join together in a major fund-raising?”
Her brainstorm turned out to be a huge success. All of the county’s food groups banded together to plan one big event, a variety show. Volunteers were able to concentrate their efforts, businesses made just one donation, instead of several, and supporters did not have to choose which group to support.
“The community really got behind it, and it has become a part of the culture of Bandon to do this fund-raiser,” Ward says.
A formal network
The success of the food group collaboration was just the start of a formalized network that today helps non-profits connect throughout the coastal area. Bandon Cares began by surveying all of the nonprofits in the area to find out what kind of support they needed. This allows all groups in the area to know what each other is doing, what their needs are for volunteers and provides opportunities for common training.
The group works with the Bandon Chamber of Commerce to maintain a common community calendar of events, maintains a website to provide information to nonprofits about opportunities for recruiting, training and meeting, and holds events a couple of times a year that boost communication and networking among nonprofits.
“At a time when resources are diminished and need has increased, the successful strategy is being able to work together to leverage resources,” Ward says. “That’s what networking is all about.”