What Difference Has RSP Made in Central Appalachia?

The words partners use to describe RSP

In the fall of 2015, Rural Support Partners conducted an evaluation to understand and assess the value of our work across the region from the perspective of its partners. Carlye Gates, a former candidate (now graduate) from Western Carolina University’s Master of Public Affairs Program, carried out the evaluation through interviews that inquired partners about RSP’s value in the Central Appalachian region and our core strengths, among other topics. Below is a portion of the evaluation report. To download the full report, click here.

The Value of RSP’s Work in Central Appalachia

Over the last 7 years, RSP has played a critical role in Central Appalachia by delivering a high quality set of services that the region needs. One interviewee described RSP as “a terribly important enterprise in the region.” Another suggested that “a measure of its value and impact is how embedded it is in the region’s community and economic development infrastructure.”

RSP has contributed to the success of existing collaborative networks, strengthened organizations, increased the level of cross-sector collaboration, and created a movement around the economic transition. RSP’s impact is most evident is in the success of existing collaborative networks including the Appalachia Funders Network (AFN) and the Central Appalachian Network (CAN). Speaking to the success of the AFN, one interviewee expressed that “[they] don’t believe AFN could have gotten where we have gotten or done what [they] have been able to do without the solid backbone support from RSP.” Similarly, “for an organization that has been around for a very long time, [CAN] is a stronger organization…they have a stronger governing structure and a stronger voice. They were important in the region before but RSP’s backbone support has been really critical.”

As a result of RSP, interviewees expressed that there are stronger organizations in the region. RSP is “making stronger, more resilient organizations that can hold an alternative space.” RSP has also increased cross-sector collaboration and has “helped build relationships between institutions that would not have otherwise happened.” One interviewee asserted that “as a result of RSP’s work, a model of collective impact exists. In the past 7 years, it was RSP that made that collective impact model work because RSP is the backbone support organization. This region now operates more like a region and it is through that collective impact model.”

Lastly, RSP has created a movement around economic transition in the region by developing a framework for the broader transition movement, shifting and shaping the analysis of what economic development should look like in Appalachia, and empowering people to take ownership of their future. For example, “there’s lots of talk about [economic transition] and that probably would have happened without RSP but RSP has moved it toward action.”

RSP’s Strengths, Skills, and Abilities

RSP’s core strength is building and strengthening collaboration across the region. Other skills and abilities include strategy developing, facilitation, and leading participatory work. The most frequently cited strength was building and strengthening collaboration. RSP is “at the stage of bringing experience in working with a wide variety of rural nonprofits, rural governments, and rural people.” In this way, RSP staff “are connectors; they are good about connecting people.” A second strength identified was strategy development and strategic thinking. One interviewee described the way in which staff “almost methodically move through different iterations of a plan and keep people engaged in the work.” A third strength that was identified was facilitation. When asked to describe staff’s strengths in facilitation, interviewees noted staff’s ability to adapt to the needs of the group and willingness to be flexible during the facilitation process. A fourth strength identified was leading participatory work. RSP is able to successfully engage communities, ensure that social change work is being shaped by community voices, and empower community members to find their own vision. One interviewee noted that “staff are skilled in making sure that the content, process, and way that they are working is being guided by the people that they are working with.”

Beyond the specific skills that staff bring, interviewees describes staff as excellent listeners, results-focused, and context-aware. RSP “wants to get paid for results.” Additionally, “they understand and appreciate the context. They don’t bring a particular strategy and cram it into a context.”

When asked to describe the values that RSP staff bring to their work, interviewees noted that RSP cares deeply about the issues that it works to address and brings a sincere commitment to its work. According to one interviewee, “there is a high level of sincerity and personal commitment that is brought to [the work].”