Mission-Driven Management Consulting Firm
Rural Support Partners is a mission-driven management consulting firm working to deepen the impact of community economic development efforts and innovate the field of rural development. We offer services to rural-focused organizations, social enterprise businesses, foundations, and networks across the United States and internationally while doing deep mission-based work in Central Appalachia.
Our approach is participatory, streamlined, strategic, and results-based. We employ cutting-edge tools and tested methods while offering the flexibility of a customized and responsive approach to meet our clients’ evolving needs and interests. RSP’s services are based on a strong commitment to rural communities and result in more effective leaders, increased organizational effectiveness, improved strategies, more successful collaborative efforts, and deeper impact.
Our work is informed by the latest research on rural development and organizational management, steeped in the daily reality of rural people and places, and grounded in a commitment to participatory practice. This three-pronged approach means we bring the latest innovation and proven practices to all our projects while ensuring the visions, plans, and results of our work emerge from the hopes and dreams of the clients we serve.
While Rural Support Partners offers consulting services to a wide variety of rural-focused clients across the United States and internationally, we also have a deeper mission to advance the economic transition of Central Appalachia—our home region. Here, we focus specifically on those organizations, institutions, foundations, and networks working to advance the new economy of our region. Our services help these mission-critical leaders, organizations, and networks achieve deeper impact and broader scale—which, in turn, helps to advance RSP’s mission. See the below section entitled Systems-Based Organizing for more information on our mission-driven work.
To help guide our work, we have a set of values that are at the core of everything we do. With our values at the center, our daily work is informed by a theoretical framework consisting of popular education, community organizing, participatory rural development, and community wealth-creation. Pulling tools and practices from these theories have led us to develop our own brand of community practice in Central Appalachia that we call Systems-Based Organizing. Below, we further define this model and offer deeper insight into the theories that ground our daily work.
Systems-Based Organizing: Defined
Systems-Based Organizing (SBO) is a participatory values-based approach to advancing large-scale systems and policy change by strengthening, connecting, and aligning the leaders and organizations within a specific system, sector, or geographic region. In practice, SBO integrates community organizing with leadership development, organizational development, and network development.
Over time, SBO results in an effective, interconnected, and strategically aligned set of leaders, organizations, and networks with the trust, capacity, power, and resiliency to advance large-scale systems and policy change. The diagram above outlines the Systems-based Organizing model, defining the daily work, short-term outcomes, and long-term impact of the approach.
Popular education—the mindset and underlying way of working—is a participatory approach to adult education that is based on helping groups of people learn from their experiences. Sometimes when outside consultants come into a community, they come in as experts, as the people who have the answers. This is the opposite of popular education, and the opposite of how we work. We always begin our work with the assumption that the people living in local communities know best what their community needs and how to provide it. As facilitators or network coordinators, we are not passive or empty. We have knowledge, expertise, experiences, and concrete ideas to offer. But we always start with the people we are working with. We always assume that the folks sitting in the room with us know more about how to make their communities livable than we do. Collectively, they have the wisdom to bring about significant change. They might not have tapped into that wisdom yet, but it’s there. It is our job to help them surface their collective wisdom and build concrete plans for taking their work to the next level.
In our daily work, we use an approach called the spiral model for popular education, detailed in a post, here. We have adapted the spiral model from a book called Educating for a Change (by Rick Arnold and colleagues, 1999).
Participatory development is an approach we use, along with the spiral model for popular education, when we are facilitating a meeting with a group of people.
Participatory development centers upon the planning and implementation of discrete projects that improve a community’s well-being. Unlike some US approaches to community development, however, participatory development starts from the basic belief that everyday people in low-wealth communities are not the target for community development projects; rather, they are the people who determine, drive, and control the entire development process. Participatory development starts from the assumption that marginalized and low-income people best understand the problems they face and how to fix them. Participatory development is notable for three innovations:
- Its emphasis on participatory group methods, especially Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methods such as community mapping, wealth and well-being ranking, and preference ranking;
- Its equal emphasis on the attitudes and behaviors necessary for implementing these methods in a way that is fundamentally participatory; and
- Its emphasis on building the capacity of groups and organizations to thrive on their own over the long haul.
In our daily work with groups and networks, we have adapted many methods and approaches from the practice of community organizing. Community organizing refers to the process of bringing people together for two main purposes: (1) to get work done that makes communities more livable, and (2) to develop the knowledge, skills, and collective power needed for improving communities.
Some community organizing approaches focus on organizing individuals. Others focus on organizing through institutions such as churches, school parent-teacher associations, or grassroots groups. We organize through anchor organizations and collective impact networks. As mentioned above, anchor organizations are high-capacity organizations that are working on a sustainable economic development strategy across a multi-county region. Collective impact networks are webs of organizations and individuals that are collaborating strategically to move forward a coordinated body of work.
We call our work systems based organizing, which we describe in more detail above. Our vision is to build an infrastructure of leaders, anchor organizations and collective impact networks that work in a coordinated, strategic way across a geographic region (e.g., Central Appalachia). We bring together organizations and networks that have a high potential for broad and deep impacts. We bring together organizations and networks that have the potential to expand the reach of their work by collaborating with others. We bring together organizations and networks that aim to influence systems and policies and shape broader fields of work.
The idea behind wealth creation as a framework is that the resources and assets of rural communities – their natural resources, agricultural produce, labor force, and young people – have for too long flowed out of rural areas, along with income and wealth. In practice, networks and organizations that work from a wealth creation framework use a place-based systems approach to rural development that can restore, create, and maintain wealth that stays in low-wealth areas by simultaneously improving economies, the environment, and social conditions.
Wealth creation is more than a conceptual framework, more than a way of thinking about or understanding rural development efforts. Based on the wealth creation framework, we have developed a set of tools, measures, and systems that anchor organizations and collective impact networks use to develop a shared analysis of the challenges they face in their work; collectively plan and carry out a coordinated, aligned, and strategic body of work; and track, measure, and report their outcomes across a broad geographic region (e.g., Central Appalachia, the Deep South). In addition to providing a useful conceptual framework, wealth creation also provides a set of practical tools that help groups of organizations or networks develop shared analyses, shared plans for action, coordinated and strategic bodies of work, and shared systems for measuring the outcomes resulting from that work.
This is the approach we take within our mission-driven work in Central Appalachia—focused specifically on the sectors of community economic development and philanthropy. We also teach and train others on this approach as it can be applied to any system, sector, or community. Call us at 828-552-3231 to learn more.