REAP Investment Fund Inc

Report date
February 2016

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

The most instrumental activity providing the best investment for the Plan Directors were 3 technical assistance retreats held in September 2014 and April and August of 2015. The retreats provided information to the Plan Directors and other attendees from their communities in a special “just for them” setting. This was more successful than traditional communication methods like emails, newsletters, webinars and even personal visits.
Another instrumental component of the project was the communication efforts from the project’s Technical Assistance Team. Personal visits and telephone calls by the technical assistants to the community leaders and Plan Directors provided an element of accountability to someone outside the local community. The teamwork between the technical assistance staff and the local Plan Directors helped build relationships that led to the knowledge of being supported and valued by Vision West ND and REAP. This led to increased attendance at the VWND Consortium meetings by the Plan Directors and in some cases, additional people from their communities.
The relationship between the Technical Assistance Team and the local Plan Directors significantly increased the capacity of the local Job Development Authorities and/or Economic Development Organizations that many of the Plan Directors were affiliated with. Bringing expertise, resources and support from Vision West ND, USDA Rural Development, the Bush Foundation, the North Dakota Dept. of Commerce and many other agencies was instrumental in the completion of several local projects.
Training sessions were designed to building and enhance community capacity. This was the core of all the training provided. This included developing the core components of their sustainability plans through the use of new tools. We included opportunities for learning about county economic drivers, training on social media (including helping them set up new accounts), identifying how to work within the values of rural cultures and learning more about the community’s key success factors identified in their original planning process.

We learned about being aware of the importance of community diversity and how to work within a changing culture. We addressed opportunities in value-added industry. Plan Directors learned new skills in grant writing techniques and in communicating directly with private and public funding sources.

Key lessons learned

There are funding limitations placed on the Plan Directors. We identified counties with paid economic developers as their Directors are much more active. They were more likely to continue working their sustainability plans than Directors not directly providing financial support for economic development.
The eight counties in SW ND have long-term funded economic developers. They are organized and support one another. This was evident in their approach and implementation processes. The counties in the northern tier are not as organized. Some northern counties have limited, part-time city developers instead of county development offices. The northern counties with county economic developers were much more open to working on their plans because the plans fit their job activities.
Those who were volunteer Directors were more likely to fall away from that position due to a lack of time and funding. While this provides a challenge for counties to fully implement their county plans, we do not characterize it as a failure. This is because, with the exception of just one county, all counties are involved or represented in the regional planning effort on the VWND Consortium.
We also learned that some of the people who originally took on the position of Plan Director were no longer in that position. In some cases, a replacement was not named. This caused us to change direction in how we were going to work with the communities.
In some cases, we were able to engage the Vision West ND consortium representative from that county, who either took on the role of plan director or passed information on to others in the community that could work particular aspects of their plan. In some cases, we had no response whatsoever from anyone in a county, even if there was a consortium representative. This indicated to us that there was not an interest in continuing the work at the local level in that county, though the county input was continued at the regional level through the consortium representation.
3. While we provided education on capacity building in the retreat setting and worked individually with local Plan Directors, capacity for plan implementation continues to be an issue at the local level. We identified late in the project that much of the capacity problem is related directly to communication. Communication between Plan Directors and local leaders is not adequate in many counties resulting in lower levels of support from local leaders. This often happens because the counties have full control over the economic development budgets and developers are concerned about “rocking the boat.”

We don’t view this as a failure, but rather an opportunity for training the local Plan Directors and city and county developers on how to effectively communicate with and engage local leaders in a positive way, specifically county commissions and city councils. This is one area we will address in the future.

Progress toward an innovation

We identified significant project achievements in ten of the counties. The counties with significant project achievement have organized and enjoyed collaborative efforts from across community sectors including economic developers, businesses, city and county government and education. Four other counties have experienced a slower but forward movement. They have progressed but have not seen significant progress in fulfilling their county plans and have not had as much collaboration. Two of the counties made a decision to be involved at the regional level and not to participate in this Technical Assistance for Plan Directors project. Both believe their efforts at the regional level are much better served. Three of the counties have demonstrated limited participation at the local and at the regional level. We have not been as successful with the four segments located on the Fort Berthold Reservation that participated in local planning. One of these communities reaches out to us when they need assistance. Two of the communities have completed projects identified in their community plans. None of the four have been responsive to us when we have reached out to them, however.

What it will take to reach an innovation?

We were able to achieve the innovation in more than half of the 19 counties. In the counties where we are still at the “test and implement solutions” level, it was the lack of inclusion and collaboration with the local leaders that was missing. Even though most of those leaders saw value in and were involved at the regional level, they were not being engaged through collaboration at the local level. For these Plan Directors it was a struggle to understand how to get “buy-in” locally. Many felt their positions and efforts didn’t warrant the attention of local leaders who were inundated with more pressing issues of rapid and demanding development.

What's next?

The Vision West ND Consortium has been exploring a number of other opportunities that will strengthen plan implementation at the county, segment and regional levels. This is being done through discussions with local leaders and local Plan Directors. One of the requests from Plan Directors is to keep networking and to work on collaboration and idea sharing. The VWND Consortium has made this commitment and will schedule upcoming gatherings in conjunction with at least two Consortium meetings each year. Agendas for the sessions will be developed by the Plan Director in the host county with assistance from the Vision West ND administrative team.

Another identified effort is to engage local leaders in leadership succession planning and knowledge transfer. Local leaders who have been in the trenches” for several years demonstrate typical “burned out” attitudes. Unfortunately in small rural communities, it is very tough to find a successor. The succession planning/knowledge transfer event is viewed as an opportunity to improve inter-generational relationships in the community and infuse local leadership with new energy.

If you could do it all over again...

It would have been nice to have begun with a better understanding of the capacity issues for each county or segment. There was a long gap between when the plans were initiated and when the follow up and technical assistance was provided by this project. It took some time to know the issues that were commonly shared and those that were more personal or individual to a Plan Director or a community. This included the real or perceived barriers to capacity building. Once we reached these realizations, we were able to effectively and collaboratively refocus our work giving attention to those who were on board while trying to bring others back to the project and to participate.

One last thought

Just to clarify, the “we” is predominately the Vision West ND Consortium. The REAP Investment Fund, Inc. is extremely proud that the VWND Consortium continues its work as that is the ultimate prize of any project – that those assembled under the project continue to implement the goals of the project. The REAP Investment Fund currently works to assist rural businesses and development in the region. Their focus is to bring progress and funding to their regions and to provide economic development through their loan programs.

The Bush Foundation Community Innovation grant was so timely to this project and has been greatly appreciated. On behalf of the two boards (VWND Consortium and the REAP Board) and the Plan Directors, we thank you for the funds for this project but most of all for identifying that what we do is important enough to warrant a partnership with the Bush Foundation.