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A New Take on Leadership Development

The Bush Foundation recently sponsored a learning community meeting of leadership development investors and practitioners in Minnesota, where I had the opportunity to learn about a very interesting community leadership development approach by the Initiative Foundation called the Healthy Community Partnership (HCP) program. Intrigued about the HCP program, I conducted a follow-up interview with Dan Frank, Program Manager for Community Development at the Initiative Foundation, so that we could share their innovative work with all of you.
The Initiative Foundation has designed an astounding program that is reaching significantly more people than traditional approaches, catalyzing concrete community action, and building relationships and skills that are broadly distributed within a community to support sustained growth and positive change.

The Initiative Foundation serves a 14 county area in Central Minnesota. They spend a lot of time visiting counties and small rural cities looking for opportunities around economic development. They may help a community that wants to tackle targeted issues like better preparing young people for careers, improving community parks, or drawing more people to local businesses. The Foundation then invites a specific community to submit an application for the Health Community Partnership program. If selected, they will receive leadership training, technical support and financial resources.

As part of the application process a core group of people from the community work together on the application. They respond to a number of questions in the application process, e.g. tell us about your community and what you like about it, tell us about the challenges your community is facing, tell us how you think being a part of the Healthy Community Partnership could help you to make your community better. They assemble a larger team of participants from as many sectors as possible with a target of having 20 sectors represented, which might include business, faith communities, arts and culture, local government, health, safety, environment, youth, education. The foundation believes that sector diversity brings more information and resources to the change work and this is an important consideration in the review of applications.

When a community is selected the Foundation works with them for 5 years. There are three priority areas the community is asked to explore: economics and survival, quality of place and life issues, and youth and early childhood as part of future workforce development. The core team may identify an issue like community parks in their application, but they are expected to engage hundreds of people from the broader community in what they would like to see happen as part of the decision-making process. The core group is asked to make a one-year commitment and it’s their responsibility to recruit new people to the leadership core. They often form three tasks forces around the three priority areas and identify issues that are really important to people in each area. They look for the low-hanging fruit where they can achieve some early success. For example, one community had big emphasis on early childhood to improve literacy and another community focused on helping young people have career exposure.
Through the Healthy Communities Partnership program, the Foundation provides four, four-hour trainings in the community that address a number of important leadership competencies: understanding and using data, communication, listening and working with sensitive issues, conflict management, and personal mastery. Personal mastery may mean an increased awareness of what your triggers are, where you come from, or understanding accuracy vs. completeness (e.g. both perspectives can be right and when you put those things together, you can sometimes get a more complete right). These skills are important as people from diverse parts of a community learn about and develop an appreciation for each other and different perspectives. Participants also learn about managing effective groups and getting things done. The Foundation places a strong emphasis on helping participants look at systemic change and positive civic engagement.

In addition to leadership training, the Foundation provides technical assistance that is geared towards the specific needs of each community as they move forward. It could be physical design work, survey work, or bringing in models of what other communities are doing. The Foundation pays attention to providing technical assistance so as not to replace the work of community participants. Consistent with this philosophy, the work of the Foundation is geared towards resource referral, building new connections and providing coaching. For example, they will guide communities by helping them understand and use data on early childhood. The role of coaching is to push and probe a bit. When the community has developed an action plan, they are eligible for seed money to move the project forward.

Seed money can vary based on project and is generally about $20,000. Communities are eligible for follow-up money, but it is not promised. It’s based on success and luckily there have been many successes since the project was launched.

The Initiative Foundation’s community leadership development model incorporates many network principles that are worth highlighting:

  • They are not just recruiting individuals but select a large group more capable of connecting their effort to produce systemic change
  • Participants are encouraged to reach out and engage others to identify issues that they feel are urgent and that they are willing to work on
  • Many people benefit from leadership and skills training
  • Original participants are encouraged to develop the leadership of others

How are you designing leadership programs to engage and develop more people so that skills and leadership will be encouraged throughout a community?