Community assessment programs help small towns identify their strengths, challenges, desired changes, and the local and non-local resources needed to meet community goals across a wide variety of focus areas, from business development, to civic engagement and land use planning. Currently we know of six such programs in the U.S., and they are in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Michigan, Wisconsin and Vermont. There are many other assessment programs that are targeted more narrowly at main street revitalization, health services, food systems and tourism, to name just a few. For this project it was not possible to engage program delivery organizations in all six states, but we plan to connect everyone at various points along the way.
Project Scope and Duration
Delivery organizations, Extension faculty and communities in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are participating in this research and extension project, which is funded by USDA’s Agriculture, Food and Research Initiative. Launched in August, 2017, the project is scheduled to conclude in April, 2020. In Idaho, the delivery organization is the Idaho Rural Partnership (IRP) and Extension faculty are with the University of Idaho. In Montana, we are working with Montana Economic Developers Association (MEDA) and Montana State University. Wyoming’s organizations are the Wyoming Business Council and University of Wyoming. An initial outcome of this project is that all three assessment programs have adopted the common program name, “Community Review” (so Montana Community Review, Wyoming Community Review and Idaho Community Review).
Questions This Project Will Answer
We are interested in the ways these broad-based assessment programs support rural communities. By conducting evaluations across the three states we will identify common benefits and challenges in assessment delivery and translation to action steps. Through the use of Ripple Effects Mapping and before and after satisfaction surveys, we will discover the impacts experienced in communities that have had assessments.
An overarching framework for this project is the Community Capitals Framework (Flora & Flora, 2013), which thinks of communities as made up of seven different kinds of capital that, when in adequate supply, all work together to create strong and vibrant communities. These capitals are natural, social, cultural, human, political, built and financial capital. Through before and after satisfaction surveys (make this a link to the survey?) conducted in communities in the three states, we will identify patterns in how communities perceive themselves to have abundant capital and where they believe they are limited. This knowledge will help with the applied activities of the project, which involve modifying the assessment programs to better focus on community vulnerabilities. In so doing, we expect communities to achieve more success as a result of their Community Review. Two of the researchers on this project recently published an article that analyzed the first 15 years of surveys conducted in Idaho (article link) and found that communities tend to be weaker in political, financial, human and built capital, but relatively strong in social, cultural and natural capital. Through our evaluation activities, we expect to find improvements in the typically weaker capitals as a result of Community Reviews.
Using a participatory “design team” approach involving university Extension and delivery organizations in the three states, we are remodeling the structure and process of community reviews. One of the first things we learned together is that we all shared the same experience of working with some communities that were ready for the opportunity afforded by the review and some that were not ready. In order to better ensure the delivery organization and partners’ investment of time and money results in successful outcomes, each review will be conducted in phases. The first phase will focus on engaging a wide range of community members in listening sessions and through that process assessing the community’s readiness for further review program activities [link to readiness self-assessment]. If and when a community is deemed ready to move to the second phase, additional experts will be brought into the community for a deeper dive into key focus areas identified jointly by community leaders and delivery organizations. When the second phase of learning more about these specific issues concludes, a combination of technical assistance, leadership development and coaching/mentoring will support local residents and leaders in their efforts to implement review recommendations.