Monday, August 22, 2011

The Demand for Leadership in Rural Minnesota

Think about it. Most of our rural communities have a range of groups to run the town and the interests within: school board, PTA organization, city council and commissions, chamber of commerce, humane society, Red Cross, Boy and Girl Scouts, fraternal groups such as Eagles, VFW, Legion, fire department, economic development authority, cultural and arts groups and more. How many people do we need to run our small towns? Are there enough leaders available?

Benjamin Winchester, Research Fellow at Extension Center for Community Vitality at the University of Minnesota (pictured left), suggests that in many rural communities the answer is “no.” There’s not enough people to cover the volunteer board roles and the elected or appointed public roles we’ve created in our society. If you live in a small town or most anywhere in rural MN, this probably doesn’t come as a shock to you. You’ve been noticing for some time now that the same people are involved in the church council; are involved in the Lion’s Club; are involved in the Red Cross blood drive; are involved in the PTA or school board and more. Or that sometimes no one steps up to take board positions or open council seats.

Winchester observes that changing types of involvement spread human resources even thinner: organizations are trending toward wider geographical areas – regional vs. individual community; groups are formed toward narrow goals & self-interests – bike club vs. community recreation center or YMCA; and greater diversity in social interests all contribute to competing needs for people to head them up. It’s an issue of supply and demand. He points that out growth in public sector organizations, together with growth in the nonprofit sector, then compared with declining populations in many Minnesota counties leads to a stressed leadership demand.

In one specific calculation, Winchester illustrates by averaging the numbers for all of the nonmetropolitan counties in the state that there are only 72 people age 18 and older per leadership role as compared with the number of organizations in the same geography. Breaking that down further and figuring a bare minimum of three board members per organization, this leaves a pool of only 24 people from which to interest and recruit leadership. In looking at a statewide map included in the presentation that depicts the county-by-county leadership demand ratio, I notice that several counties in southwest and west central Minnesota come in well below 24; in fact, in some counties organizations vie for the attention and time of a pool of less than 14 people per organization.

Presenting to the Southwest West Central Volunteer Connections at its August meeting at Bremer Bank in Willmar, Winchester told the group that his research provides some opportunities for discussion around program changes such as connecting organizations and rebuilding a sustainable social infrastructure, as well as solutions such as expanding our base of leaders, merging organizations or dissolving groups. For more on Ben Winchester’s work click here.

Lois Schmidt, Bremer Bank NRS, Willmar

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