Reflections on the Future of Community Engagement and Leadership in Rural America

by Collin Westgard

On February 21st, 2018, the Center hosted “The Future of Community Engagement and Leadership in Rural America”, a panel discussion featuring Benjamin Winchester and Catie Rasmussen, both with the Center for Community Vitality at University of Minnesota extension,  as well as Becky Adams,  Recruitment Coordinator for the Blandin Foundation Leadership Program. The panel focused on the nature of rural leadership, and the role that leaders play in the development of their communities. It’s easy to think of rural communities as places where nothing much happens, but many of them are vibrant centers for non-profits, community organizations, and local businesses.

The first panelist, Ben Winchester, aUMM alum and former professor, used statistics and hard data to bring a new perspective to rural leadership. Using data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics, he showed that non-profits are moving into rural areas at an unprecedented rate, even as population growth in those areas has slowed considerably. The rural Minnesota counties with the greatest percent increase in non-profits between 200 and 2010 were Beltrami, at 44%, Houston, at 42%, and Cook, at 39%. Winchester explained that this is a trend throughout the state, with rural counties seeing an average growth in non-profits of 19%. Another metric he used was “Population per Organizational Role”, the population of a county divided by the number of leadership positions available at non-profits and local government. This statistic can be an effective indicator both of community participation and of a potential need for leaders. In Minnesota, rural counties have an average of 16 people per leadership role, compared to over 51 people per role in urban counties. He concluded that data indicates an unprecedented level of community engagement but also a pressing need for leadership development programs to capitalize on this momentum.

Winchester’s colleague Catie Rasmussen was able to shed light on the process of running successful leadership development programs. She linked leadership to the idea of “Social Capital”, the connections between people, organizations, and leaders that work to engage communities. She shared information about a leadership program that she has run in 6 counties across Minnesota that aims to foster leadership skills in county residents by teaching them more about their communities and how to engage with them. Her program has achieved extraordinary success by examining the needs of the local community, and partnering with businesses and local government to ensure that the program becomes self-sustaining. Rasmussen’s program has demonstrably increased the level of community knowledge and involvement in each of the six counties it has worked with, and is looking to start new projects throughout the state.

The final speaker was Becky Adams, leadership recruitment coordinator for the Blandin foundation, a Grand Rapids based charitable organization whose mission is to strengthen rural communities. She discussed the role of the non-profit sector in rural leadership, and lent her perspective on the trends mentioned by the previous speakers. She then answered audience questions, which ranged from questions on how to get youth involved with rural communities to the challenges of having too many conflicting community organizations.

This talk highlights the way that rural towns are defying stereotype and working to create engaged communities that care about working together to build a better place to live, work, and play. However, our communities are also in dire need of people willing to step up as leaders and take on the responsibility of working for their community. It is places like the Center for Small Towns, the Center for Community Vitality, and the Blandin Foundation that will create rural communities across the state that are engaged, growing, and unique.


You can now see the videos from “The Future of Community Engagement and Leadership in Rural America”

Catie Rasmussen

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