Written by David Olson, former SDSU Extension Community Vitality Program Director.
The Community Vitality Program of the SDSU Extension utilizes organic, interactive, ongoing, and collaborative processes for acquiring input to create, test, and keep programs current with the people and organizations that is serves.
We have used the following methods to gain feedback regarding current programs and to discover ideas for developing relevant new programs:
- Caring conversations have been held by Community Vitality Field Specialists as they network with community leaders, market, and deliver SDSU Extension programs in South Dakota’ communities. This type of conversation identified the need to reach the millennium generation and engage them in participation in community level activities and build the capacity of community leaders. As an example staff created the Growing Leaders SD workshop, tested it, and revised it based on that input.
- One practice that has been successful is asking for feedback in informal conversations at our local and regional training events. An example is feedback from this year’s day-long workshop, Writing Your Future Grant. Staff identified that participants thought that the workshop was highly successful and that participants wanted to have a similar workshop delivered in their own communities or regions of the state. They also wanted coaching when they wrote their first grant. That idea fits with the program’s local capacity building approach. community vitality staff are now designing a community grant writing program that will be tested in 2014.
- Another method is engaging at the request of a community group to help them fulfill the objects of a grant that they have received. This is in process with Wagner Area Horizons, Inc. They have a grant from the Bush Foundation and have asked the SDSU Extension to participate in developing programs that help reduce racism, move them toward reconciliation between the cultures, and develop a leadership system recognizing the differences in cultural leadership values helping participants work together to improve the community. They will be active in the designing, testing, implementation, and evaluating the programs.
- community vitality programs are created as the result of research conducted in South Dakota Communities. Research was conducted by SDSU, NDSU, and UNL Extensions and ended June 30, 2013. The findings related that each small town was distinct and needed to develop its own marketing plan to attract new residents. Staff from all three Extensions developed a 4-session Study Circles type program called Marketing Hometown America. It leads communities in developing individual community plans. The program is currently being tested in all 3 states.
- The Community Vitality Program welcomes requests from foundations and State and Federal agencies to help them make their programs successful. This was how the SDSU Extension became involved in the Horizons Program and helped Bush Foundation market their Innovative Program and Bush Prize Award at our Writing Your Future Grant workshop. Upon learning of the possibility of a small community grants program from one of the foundations, the program director offered to create a beginning grant writing workshop that could be delivered in communities to prepare them for applying. The expertise of the Program Director who ran a successful small grants program for neighborhood organizations in the Kansas City area for 9 years was also offered. The South Dakota Rural Development Office approached the SDSU Extension to partner in the Stronger Economies Together Program which has led to two regions of the state developing regional economic development plans and two new regions beginning the training to do the same thing.
- Participation in in-state networks has also been a means of keeping current on what other community vitality agencies are doing. It has identified areas where the SDSU Extension might have an appropriate role or should encourage and support other agencies. An example of this is in the area of housing. Almost every community with which we have worked has identified housing as an important area for community improvement. We participate in the South Dakota Housing Collaborative to stay informed and support the agencies that have the capacity to work in this area. When those agencies request a leadership or capacity building program, we work with them to design and deliver a program that responds to their request. An example of this is responding to the request of the Wagner Community Housing organization’s request for facilitating the development of their strategic plan.
- Community Vitality staff participate in national networks with peers from other states and the federal government to learn about funding for programs, research in community vitality, and programs that are experiencing success in other states. This has led to a research project comparing the Horizons program in SD and the Raising the Tide Program in Mississippi. In addition Extension staff from Ohio has proposed developing a program to help communities prepare for an oil and gas boom and bust cycle. It awaits funding.
It has been the experience of the Community Vitality program that regional and state wide meetings to collect input from the constituents of the state of South Dakota have been costly and inadequate. Only three residents attended the community vitality session at the last state-wide advisory meeting. Budget limitations and lack of staff time have not allowed mail back or telephone surveys. We plan to continue eliciting constituent feedback using the above methods until funds are available to supplement them.
David P. Olson
Former Community Vitality Program Director