Monday, January 30, 2012

Reaching Out on Rural & Regional Issues: (An Online) Work in Progress

By Timothy Collins, Assistant Director, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, Western Illinois University

The Upper Mississippi Valley Rural Partners LinkedIn Group, which I helped to found in 2010, is an ongoing experiment in social networking and regional cooperation. The group was to be a foundation for a regional information exchange that inspires people to act. Results so far have been mixed.

The online partnership emerged as part of the Partners for Rural America - North Central Convening held in May 2010. The meeting’s broad but fixed agenda was based on USDA priorities, but they did not suit my passion for sustainable land use and my desire to do research on the relationships of Mississippi Valley’s people and ecology.
Backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge
in northwestern Illinois shimmer on a late spring morning in 2011.
It turned out that a small group of like-minded participants was interested in forming some sort of regional partnership focused on the river. Gary Becker, Executive Director at Local Government Institute of Wisconsin, got us started with the LinkedIn site as our meeting was in progress. We had picked low-hanging fruit, with something tangible to report.
Everyone knows what it’s like to leave a meeting energized and full of good intentions. We also know that returning to work is a reality check. We have our commitments (often over commitments). We have our habits. Breaking out is so very hard to do.
In this case, I decided to make a commitment to do something that takes little time: seed the site with an item or two each month. I won’t deny a bit of self interest. First, it forces me to keep up with my reading. Second, when I write one of my regular essays for the Daily Yonder on watersheds or land use, I have an outlet for letting people know about it.
On another level, the LinkedIn site offers exposure to the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs in its policy role of disseminating information. This function is part of my job and meshes nicely with my life’s work of trying to understand and do something positive for rural areas.
Screen shot of the Upper Mississippi Valley Rural Partners LinkedIn site.
The Upper Mississippi River Rural Partners site experiment raises two sets of questions. One concerns the collaborative goals of the 2010 Partners for Rural America regional meeting. In its jargon, the website promised:
As each team works on specific projects, they remain part of the greater whole allowing synergistic regional activities to develop that may cross the topic silos. The [steering committee for the] North Central Region also concentrated on resources already available to build new partnerships and coalitions, helping to achieve immediate and near‐future deliverables. As the projects develop, additional partners and resources will be identified and included.
In response to this stated mission, I wrote an essay in the Daily Yonder (sorry for the shameless plug) asking three questions:
  • Will the partnerships built at the regional meetings grow and persist?
  • Will they be able to create the opportunities to stem the loss of people and jobs in rural areas?
  • Ultimately, will federal and state governments be willing to provide targeted resources to the partnerships to make this happen?”
Beyond the existence of our LinkedIn group as an example of persisting partnership, the answer to these might not be too positive. Frankly, I don’t know. A fourth question, the most significant of all, has emerged since 2010: What happened to federal leadership?
The other set of questions emerges from the Upper Mississippi River Rural Partners LinkedIn site itself:
  • Is the site providing useful information to its members? What types of information do members want?
  • Has the site empowered people to act? If so, how?
  • What spark will it take for the site to become part of a larger, more active network of people interested in the region and the sustainability of its landscape?
In a small way, the site is something positive. It has more than 90 members from all over the world. Would more contributors be a good thing? Maybe. Then again, maybe the more leisurely approach of an item or two a month might get more attention from members because we are all inundated by the amount of information we deal with each day.
Sounds like a topic for a poll when I get around to it.
Does your rural organization maintain a web presence? Does your experience with social media help or hinder your professional relationships? What can we do as rural advocates to best use social media?
About the Author
Timothy Collins has been assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs since 2005. His roles include research, policy, outreach, and sustainability. He has authored more than 125 publications, reports, and essays on rural issues, including environmental policy, development, sustainable land use, and education. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.
Norma Jean, a circus elephant struck by lightning in 1972,
rests under this monument in the Mississippi River town of Oquawka, IL.
All photos provided by the author.
Visit the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Investing in the Next Generation of Rural Leaders

By Noah Wilson and Mary Snow, Rural Fellows, Rural Support Partners

A majority of rural nonprofit leaders are planning to leave their jobs in the next five years, and an ever-increasing number of underemployed young professionals are clamoring for meaningful work. Each of these is a crisis in waiting, but together, these converging trends frame up an opportunity that cannot be missed.

This post lifts up one example of an effective program investing in young leaders – the Rural Fellowship at Rural Support Partners. As current Rural Fellows, we are learning tremendous amounts every day (check out our video for a taste of this). The beauty of the Fellowship program is that it is a sound business choice as much as it is a social good: young practitioners are an investment that starts paying you back from day one.

Bridging a Gap

After conducting 267 surveys with organizations from rural communities across the Southeast, Rural Support Partners and the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 63% of executive directors responding to the survey planned to leave their job within five years, while 7% were currently in the process of leaving. According to the study, “the nonprofits that we surveyed are doing some things to attract young leaders, but not many… Our findings suggest that collectively, as a sector, we may not yet be ready for the generational shift that is occurring”.

If nonprofit organizations in the rural South neglect to attract and develop young talent, they could soon be desperately short of the skilled and trained leadership needed for their future work.

Meanwhile, every year, a large number of graduates (1.5 million in 2011 in the U.S. alone) exit university with high hopes of putting their educational achievements into practice in their respective fields. However, the cutting-edge skills, innovation, and energy that carry young professionals through school are being dulled by a lack of opportunities to do meaningful work in their fields when they graduate.

You don’t have to be an economist to see that there’s a market failure going on when the need for young practitioners in rural organizations has yet to be met by this oversupply of un/underemployed young talent.

Rural Fellowships

The Rural Fellowship was created by Rural Support Partners, a social venture in Asheville, North Carolina dedicated to helping leaders, groups and networks achieve better results through collaboration.

It is a year-long paid position intended to simultaneously teach young practitioners and get them working at a high level in the field of sustainable rural development.

In our daily work as Rural Fellows, we are encouraged to think deeply about how to influence lasting change in Appalachia. We are learning to think strategically about the power of networks, use innovative communication techniques, analyze and effectively present data, and work to align people’s common goals and agendas to solve complex social, economic, cultural and political problems in rural communities. We are matching the above techniques with our own unique skill sets and knowledge, sparking new innovations and challenging ourselves daily.

Creating Opportunities from Uncertainty

We can speak firsthand about the incredible value and importance of programs like this one. Mary’s story offers a glimpse into the world of a young professional looking for meaningful work.

After university, I juggled multiple jobs as a freelance writer and waitress before traveling across the globe to fulfill my passion for working across diverse cultures. This quest to continue learning about the complexities facing our world lead me to a Masters degree in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity from the University of Essex in England.

As a native of Appalachia, I wanted to put the skills that I had developed from my cross-cultural studies to work at home. However, despite my resume full of international charm, I still felt the weight of my ambition lost in a cluster of job applications. Once again, I found myself waiting tables, which is not to suggest any lack of merit in that field, but I felt that I had all of this energy, knowledge and passion lying by wayside as I waited (excuse the pun) for an opportunity to put the skills that I had crafted from my studies and travels to good use.

As a Rural Fellow, I’m grateful to be involved in meaningful and engaging work on a daily basis, where my perspective as a young practitioner is stretched, challenged, nourished, and valued by my colleagues.

Sixty qualified candidates applied for this position, which highlights the sizeable pool of talented young individuals striving to immerse themselves in this field. It is imperative that this opportunity for developing young professionals be extended to other organizations working in rural areas. Investing in the next generation of leaders is a smart, strategic decision that will harness the energy of young practitioners, while developing the future pool of skilled, experienced leaders needed to work for the long-term betterment of rural communities.

What prevents nonprofits and grant-makers who are working in rural communities from hiring and training young professionals? How can we begin to overcome these barriers to offer more meaningful opportunities to young leaders?

About the Authors

Noah Wilson is an unabashed jack-of-all-trades who’s been living in the Appalachian Mountains for as long as he’s had a choice about where he calls home. A recent graduate of Warren Wilson College with a degree in Sustainable Economic Development, he can either be found in the office, in his kitchen, on a dance floor, or somewhere up in the Blue Ridge Mountains hiking with a big grin on his face.

Mary Snow is a native of North Carolina and grew up under the tall shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Her southern roots stayed close to her side as she traveled from the far corners of Southeast Asia to South America. After dusting off from her travels, she earned her Master of Arts in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom and joined Rural Support Partners shortly after in July 2011.

For more information about the Rural Fellowship program and our work with leaders, organizations, and networks, please visit

Visit the Rural Futures Lab at