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A Case Study in Popular Education Webinar: Additional Resources & Information by Jean Burkhardt

Submitted by: Natalia Castaneda on Jul 14th, 2011 at 1PM PDT

Author: Jean Burkhardt, Program lead for Horizons, Northwest Area Foundation, 2002-2008. Consultant, organizational and community development.

This article was written by Jean to answer some of the questions that came up during the recent webinar featuring the Horizons Program by the Northwest Area Foundation, A Case Study in Popular Education and Scaling Leadership Impact.

Why use leadership development to take on rural community poverty?

In 1998, NWAF solicited input throughout the region as to what stood in the way of communities taking on poverty and solving it. “Leadership” was often the answer. Individual leaders were described as old, lacking in skills, tired, stuck, or just plain absent. Communities were not spared accountability either—many people acknowledged that they had just stopped being involved and that somehow they needed to revitalize and “heal our democracy”.

NWAF then did a scan of more than 100 leadership programs – none focused on poverty, few had been tested in rural areas, none had tracked community outcomes. Scale was a problem—most reached only a few dozen people a year. Few had written curriculum (the Ford Family Foundation in Oregon was just piloting a new written curriculum) or had been evaluated for anything other than participant satisfaction.

We knew that we wanted a leadership program that was accessible to all members of the community. Too many leadership programs are of the “pluck and buff” variety—choose a few talented or motivated individuals, increase their skills and connections and then claim victory. These programs generally pull rural people out of their communities one at a time so the community gets no leadership traction and the individual can often end up marginalized. Also, if we were going to take on poverty in any meaningful way, people who were living in poverty had to be able to participate fully. Poverty is often hidden and denied in rural communities, making it harder to identify solutions.

So, we continually asserted that every community member is needed, that all have the potential to provide leadership, and that we would try to accommodate anyone who wanted to participate. We described leadership as a part of the community's infrastructure--every bit as important as water and roads--needing constant attention and intention.

Did communities get it? Absolutely.  Evaluation consistently showed an expanded viewpoint on leadership.  This was in part due to the influence of LeadershipPlenty, the curriculum developed by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change that focuses on the "we, not the me".  But it was also forged by coaches that kept helping communities to reach out further and deeper into their communities.  A program goal was to reach 15% of each community during the course of the program. Most blew past that goal within the first few months.


The types of small rural communities that participated in Horizons 2003-2010.

As I reviewed the questions after the webinar, it seemed that it might be helpful to describe the types of communities that Horizons was designed for. The program has not been tested in urban areas, although components of the program (LeadershipPlenty, Study Circles etc) have been used extensively in urban settings.

Horizons was designed to fit the needs of very small communities unique to the region served by the Northwest Area Foundation: Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. More than 3000 communities in those states have populations less than 5000 and many have a poverty rate that exceeds the national average. Because the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF) was singularly focused on poverty reduction, only communities with at least a 10% poverty rate (using 2000 census figures) were eligible. The poverty of these communities is also compounded by isolation; distance between communities in the plains can easily be 50 miles or more and mountain passes in Idaho and Washington can make distance totally irrelevant! Many communities have been in decline for decades—loss of people and economies and hope. Several generations have never experienced a growth pattern; they have consolidated their school systems, closed their hospitals and watched main streets wither. Yet, they are remarkably resilient-- they remain committed to their place.

The majority of communities in the region are homogenous Caucasian communities, and the Horizons communities mirrored that. About 20% of communities had substantial Native American populations, with those being either on reservations or bordering them. About 6% of the Horizons communities had large Latino populations, most in the state of Washington. In some communities, the changeover from majority white to majority Latino has happened in less than a decade.

Most of the Horizons communities were under 1000 in size—these towns generally do not have full time staff (no EDA director, no city administrator) and depend upon volunteers. Many communities describe “the same five people”-- a core group of volunteers that do everything, are tired, but have a hard time sharing those roles. Thus the stated need to broaden (more different types of people) and deepen (more people in each group) the leadership; communities resonate with the sports image that they don't have a “deep enough bench”!

These are communities with a history of “organizing” to take on a task, but not to take on a complex social problem like poverty. One Idaho participant reflected “there are no social activists here...just regular people who try to get by each day and who love their children and their community.”

Outcomes and theory of change -- answering the question “leadership toward what?”

An early tagline helped to clearly identify the purpose of Horizons: Community Leadership to Reduce Poverty. This signaled that Horizons was not generic leadership development—it had a specific purpose. And, it indicated that the leadership was not just one or two people, but the entire community. 

We muddled around with a theory of change and a set of outcomes. The basics were there from the beginning but we got better at articulating them. A first stab at a theory of change:  "Improving a community's leadership systems will result in action on poverty" was thrown out at the end of the pilot with 36 communities because it was clear that more was needed--leadership development alone did not lead communities to focus on poverty.  The introduction of study circles focused on poverty during a "mini-Horizons" with 8 communities convinced us that the issue of poverty had to be the lead activity and had to be re-introduced throughout the program.  Thus, a new theory of change  " focusing a community on poverty and improving its leadership systems will result in community action on poverty".  This seemed to work for the more than 200 communities that were part of Horizons 2 and 3.

After trying several visual versions of logic models and outcomes, we finally settled on a grid of outcomes that showed the three main focus areas of the program—poverty, leadership and community--and four areas of progress that communities could track and measure: increased awareness and knowledge; skills and mobilizing; taking action; sustaining action and creating structural change . Every program component and every coaching activity was designed to expand a community's understanding of poverty, to push them to make a commitment to action, and to build the leadership and community structures that would sustain that action.  As the foundation and delivery organizations developed better written materials and visual methods to show outcomes, communities seemed to get better at both identifying and accomplishing them. 

During Horizons 2, we began to use community blogs as a way for communities to track their progress on program outcomes.  This grid appeared on each blog; communities used the prompt questions to help them code their progress.  The delivery organizations and the foundation could also keep track.  An interesting sidelight -- community blogs were read across the nation.  Members of Congress referred to them before staff visited a community so they would know the latest issues.  Some communities caught the attention of national funders.  And, for communities that often no longer have a newspaper, the blogs served as a primary news source for friends and relatives  (remember, this preceded Twitter and extensive use of Facebook!) 

(The grid above can also be seen in PDF form at