A few weeks ago I attended the Leadership Chautauqua cohosted by the Bush Foundation and Leadership Learning Community that focused on how to improve leadership effectiveness and, in turn, strengthen community vitality. Walking on the University of Minnesota - Morris campus on a beautiful June evening, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of my first “Chautauqua.” I was delighted to see the big white tent welcome me as I crossed the campus. A hundred years ago, I learned, events like this were held to bring folks together to respectfully learn from each other as equals—an opportunity to “give a lift in the right direction, introduce a subject or fill in knowledge gaps.”
This event did just that. It provided not only an opportunity for retreat and reflection, but a wonderful time for networking and learning. The group, the setting and the conversation gave me time to think about how we support rural communities and their way of life. With ever-changing populations, I started to wonder from where the next generation of leaders would come.
I live and work in rural Minnesota. I was born and raised here. I have a passion for small communities and love the prosperity and security that they have provided for generations. Right now, we’re seeing the demographic of our rural communities getting older and the pool of individuals available to lead in those communities getting smaller. A few years back, I remember listening to Minnesota’s State Demographer and Economist at the time, Tom Gillespie and Tom Stinson, (a.k.a. “the Toms”) provide the age projections through 2035 for our state. They acknowledged that none of the experts, not even the Federal Reserve at that point, exactly knew how this transition would impact not only the economy, but the social structure of our communities. This made me step back and think. Things are going to be different, but how do we prepare?
According to Ben Winchester, a U of M Extension research fellow, organizations in most rural counties require an average of one in 34 residents to serve in leadership positions, compared to one leader required for every 143 residents in major metropolitan areas. The demand for leadership is up to five times more in rural counties than in urban areas, while the supply of leaders is diminishing due to aging and migration. In some counties, the numbers shift to an average of one in 11 residents serving in leadership positions. How do we recruit and develop these leaders to be the best they can be?
I am invigorated and challenged to think about what lies ahead. Let’s think comprehensively with the desire to “do the people good,” as is the intention of a Chautauqua.
Nancy Fasching is the senior administration and grants officer at the Southwest Initiative Foundation, a rural regional community foundation dedicated to advancing southwest Minnesota through leadership, relationship building, program development, and philanthropy. The Foundation organizes and equips leaders to address local opportunities. Some of its current work includes the community foundation program, Early Childhood Initiative, Youth Energy Summit and Leading By Example Business Executive Summit. Through past partnerships, the foundation has also been able to host three Nonprofit Leader’s Academy sessions to equip leaders as individuals.
The Bush Foundation is working to address this very same challenge of adapting to economic and demographic shifts, something we and others call the “new normal.” Our approach is to support communities in not just surviving but thriving in this new normal by building leadership capacity, engaging communities in working together to identify and solve problems and providing access to tools for innovation. To learn more about the new normal and the many ways citizens are responding to it, visit our video library.
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How do we sustain the vitality of our rural communities while they face the challenges of an aging population, a strain on the pool of leaders and stressed financial resources? Where do you expect the next generations of leaders in your community to come from? We want to know what you think.