August 2007 // Volume 45 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB2

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Low Resources in a High Stakes Game: Identifying Viable Rural Community Partners

Extension resources are shrinking, yet community leadership needs are great, and, the consequences of neglecting them are dire. It is difficult to respond to all the requests that are made of Extension faculty and even more difficult to decide which of the communities will benefit the most from programming. This article illuminates these issues by examining contributions from related research. First, a link is forged between community capital theory and community survival indicators. Next, 111 signs are provided that identify community viability. Finally, a guide is proposed for use in Extension to help determine where to concentrate scant resources.

Susan M. Fritz
Associate Vice Chancellor
Associate Dean
College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska

Amy E. Boren
Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska

Denise Trudeau
Assistant Professor
Department of Interdisciplinary Studies
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, Virginia

Daniel W. Wheeler
Professor and Head
Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska


Higher education institutions are operating in an era of shrinking budgets (Acker, 2001). This fiscal austerity translates into challenges in adequately addressing institutional mission and demonstrating impacts. No place is that more of a challenge than in Cooperative Extension. Community needs can be considerable, and in some parts of the country, neglecting these needs can result in ruin. Across the nation, communities are disappearing as a result of the national trend of negative growth in rural counties (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).

Regardless of these shifts in population, Cooperative Extension has a statewide programming mission to serve the educational needs of all citizens at all age levels. Unfortunately, limited resources require tough choices in programming. High-priority programs that produce the greatest impacts, and from an accountability standpoint, stand up to public scrutiny, are valued (Bogue, 1998). From a community leadership perspective, it is often difficult to respond to the myriad of community requests that are made of faculty. To compound the problem, it is often even more difficult to decide which of the potential community partners will benefit the most from an infusion of leadership programming.

How can theory be used by Extension faculty to help prioritize requests for community leadership development? This article proposes to address that very question by forging a link between community capital theory (Flora & Flora, 2004) and community survival indicators (Luther & Wall, 1988).

The Theoretical Framework

Linking theory to practice is an essential part of the land-grant mission. Thus, the work on community capitals by Flora and Flora (2004) was chosen for theoretical framework for the research reported here. In their work, Flora and Flora (2004) describe the different resources available within community and how these resources translate into capital for the community. Luther and Wall (1988) identify specific, community attributes that tend to indicate the viability of a particular community. Linking these two perspectives together may help to identify where the greatest programming impacts can be achieved for the greatest number of people.

Community Capitals

According to Flora and Flora (2004), there exist both tangible and intangible resources in every community, no matter how remote or impoverished. Expanding on the literature concerning these intangible and tangible capitals, Flora and Flora (2004) carefully assembled a comprehensive list of seven capitals that may be found in a community.

Intangible capitals consist of those unseen assets that community members possess, both individually and corporately. Human capital consists of the knowledge, skills, and abilities of individual community members and how those individual assets can be invested into the community as a whole. Cultural capital includes the general values and attitudes held by a community, including the way they tend to approach life in general. Political capital is generally thought of as the amount of power a community has to determine the availability of resources and influence the distribution of those resources. Social capital is comprised of the social networks and the amount of collaboration found among community members as well as between communities. A key component of social capital is mutual trust.

Tangible capitals are the visible assets that a community possesses. Financial capital primarily consists of money that is used for investment into the community rather than for individual consumption. An important part of financial capital is its ability to be translated into other assets such as built capital. Built capital is comprised of the assets that have been constructed in and around the community. Roads, bridges, public services, and buildings are all part of a community's built capital. This provides a foundation for community development and growth. Natural capital includes the natural resources found in and around a community: landscape, water, flora, and fauna all are part of a community's natural capital.

Community Survival Indicators

In 1988, Luther and Wall published the results of their research into the economic trends, quality of life, kind of leadership, and future plans of 18 communities across 14 states, from Texas to North Dakota and Ohio to California. After careful analysis, patterns of characteristics emerged from their case studies of these towns (Luther & Wall, 1988). These patterns of characteristics indicated that certain community traits tend to be found in successful, vital towns, such as a willingness to invest in the future (Luther & Wall, 1988). The discovery of these patterns of characteristics led to their compilation in a list of 20 Clues to Rural Community Survival. Figure 1 lists the 20 clues, or community survival indicators, in numerical order. These indicators of community survival provide helpful signs of community viability that can be used in a subjective manner to profile a community.

Figure 1.
The 20 Clues to Rural Community Survival

1. Evidence of community pride

2. Emphasis on quality in business and community life

3. Willingness to invest in the future

4. Participatory approach to community decision-making

5. Cooperative community spirit

6. Realistic appraisal of future opportunities

7. Awareness of competitive positioning

8. Knowledge of physical environment

9. Active economic development program

10. Deliberate transition of power to a younger generation of leaders

11. Acceptance of women in leadership roles

12. Strong belief in and support for education

13. Problem-solving approach to providing health care

14. Strong multi-generational family orientations

15. Strong presence of traditional institutions that are integral to community life

16. Sound and well-maintained infrastructure

17. Careful use of fiscal resources

18. Sophisticated use of information resources

19. Willingness to seek help from the outside

20. Conviction that in the long run you have to do it yourself

Purpose and Methods


The seven community capitals and the 20 community survival indicators provide ways of examining a community to determine its potential for survival and for growth. Community capital theory (Flora & Flora, 2004) provides broad descriptions of the various forms of capital that a community may possess. Community survival indicators (Luther & Wall, 1988) provide specific signs of community potential for viability. Integrating the community capitals and community survival indicators could provide a theory-based guide to assist Extension faculty in determining where to invest their limited resources for a maximum return. Thus, the purpose of the research reported here was to integrate the community capitals with community survival indicators to create a guide to help determine the most viable community partners.

Integration by Graduate Panel

Fifteen leadership education graduate students volunteered to participate in a group exercise to integrate community capital theory (Flora & Flora, 2004) and community survival indicators (Luther & Wall, 1988). First, the students reviewed descriptions of the community capitals (Flora & Flora, 2004) and the community survival indicators (Luther & Wall, 1988). The students were then led through a group process to categorize the 20 indicators of community survival under the seven community capitals. Because of the broad application of some of the clues, participants were permitted to categorize the clues under more than one capital. Last, through the use of brainstorming, the students identified specific examples of the community survival indicators that are common to most rural communities.

Results of Graduate Panel

Table 1 reports the results of integrating the seven community capitals and the 20 community survival indicators. Several of the indicators were listed twice, and one ("Inclusive culture where women are seen in leadership roles") was listed three times. Nineteen community survival indicators were listed under the intangible capitals, and 10 were listed under the tangible capitals. Table 2 reports the results of the brainstorming session to identify specific community examples of the community survival indicators. One hundred and eleven examples were listed for the 20 community survival indicators, or more than five examples, on average, for each indicator.

Table 1.
Integration of Community Capitals with the 20 Community Survival Indicators

Social CapitalCultural CapitalHuman CapitalPolitical CapitalNatural CapitalFinancial CapitalBuilt Capital
4. Collaborative decision making2. Quality in business and community is a way of life6. Realistic appraisal of community strengths7. Awareness of community's strengths compared to competitors8. Awareness of strengths of community's environment3. Invest in the future2. Quality in business and community is a way of life
5. Cooperative community spirit, working toward a common goal5. Cooperative community spirit, working toward a common goal10. Deliberate transition of power to younger generations9. Active, organized approach to economic development1. Evidence of community pride17.Thoughtful use of fiscal resources with focus on the future6. Realistic appraisal of community strengths
9. Active, organized approach to economic development 11. Inclusive culture where women are seen in leadership roles11. Inclusive culture where women are seen in leadership roles11. Inclusive culture where women are seen in leadership roles  8. Awareness of strengths of community's environment
13. Problem solving approach to providing health-care 14. Inclusive culture where all generations are included in activities20. Proactive in making community a good place to be18. Access information beyond that found in community  12. Believe strongly in good schools and support for education
18. Access information beyond that found in community 15. Strong presence of traditional institutions in community life    13. Problem solving approach to providing health-care
19. Seek outside help such as grants and development contracts1. Evidence of community pride    15. Strong presence of traditional institutions in community life
      16. Maintenance and improvement of infrastructure a priority

Table 2.
Validated Community Examples of Community Survival Indicators/Viable Community Partners Guide

Abridged Community Survival IndicatorsCommunity Examples
1. Community prideLocal museum shows historical prideCommunity festivals celebrate their heritagePride shown through decoration themes in communityCommittee in charge community beautificationSchool parades Thoughtful use of natural resources and care is given to environmentClean streets, yards and parks
2. Emphasis on Quality in Business and Community LifePresence of formal business organizationsA strong Chamber of Commerce maintains a city websiteClasses are offered on business development and entrepreneurshipPresence of an active economic centerPresence of an active community center  
3. Invest in the futureActively seeking new technology and resourcesLocal foundation for community developmentIndustrial parkPrograms for youth development and engagementJobs for youth Up-to-date educational system Alliances with post secondary institutions
4. Participatory Approach to Community Decision MakingFocus groups and task forces are usedPresence of active civic groupsCity Council meetings are open to all    
5. Cooperative Community SpiritPresence of an active community centerResidents cooperate in community celebrations Development of city improvement projects Community members work concession stands at gamesStrong public attendance at school games and activitiesCommunity members volunteer for fire dept. 
6. Realistic Appraisal of Future OpportunitiesContinuous and effective assessment of future jobs and growthStrategic planning to optimize community strengths Town has developed a mission statement which is visible in publicContinuous research in economic development   
7. Awareness of Competitive PositioningEvidence of small town merchantsAwareness of niche markets which capitalize on strengthsInnovative entrepreneurship Assessment of economic market and declines   
8. Knowledge of the Physical EnvironmentTourism is promotedPresence of community parkOrganized town layout that attracts businessAssessment and improvement of infrastructurePictures of attractions and resources are used to advertise  
9. Active Economic Development ProgramPaid community development professionalPresence of 'business incubator'Planning is done with the region in mindActive Chamber of Commerce   
10. Deliberate Transition of Power to Younger Generation of LeaderPresence of mentoring programsPresence of youth involvement in local governmentEntrepreneurship class offered in the high schoolService learning programs utilized to promote civic engagementYouth civic groups are supported  
11. Acceptance of Women in LeadershipWomen involved in local governmentWomen involved in law enforcementPresence of female business ownersPresence of female elected officialsWomen involved in educational administrationWomen accepted as church leaders 
12. Strong Belief in and Support for Education:Community support of good teachersCommunity events held at the schoolStrong attendance at parent/teacher conferencesAttendance of community at School Board meetingsSupport by community for school fund raisersSupport for a property levy to help pay school costs 
13. Problem-solving Approach to Providing Health CareCommunity-wide board is established to focus on health careCertification opportunities for the community (CPR, first aid, etc)A hospital or clinic is located in the community and has expert staffNetworking with specialists and special equipment (Cardiology equipment) Allocating money to EMT, AmbulanceAssisted living facility for elderly 
14. Strong Multigenerational Family OrientationAdopt-a-GrandparentCommunity celebrations passing on traditionsIntergenerational dialogues at the schoolsYouth volunteers at Nursing homes, etcVolunteer grandparents in schoolsFamily fun nights-with teamsStrong 4-H programs
15. Strong Presence of Institutions that are Integral to Community LifeActive community centerSupport of school, involvement in local religious institutionHistorical sites are celebrated and promotedBusinesses and entrepreneurship are promotedWell-attended community dinners and social meetings  
16. Sound and Well-maintained infrastructureStreets are improved regularlyCommunity budget allocates money to re-construction and town maintenanceSidewalks and handicap accessible curbsContinual upkeep of vacant buildingsCommunity wide clean-up and landscaping committeesBuildings are regularly repaired and kept up-to-date 
17. Careful Use of Fiscal ResourcesCapable council treasurerBudget planning sessionsCommunity fund is supported by residentsPublic attendance at meetings on the budgetStrategic plans-five yearsBalanced budget 
18. Sophisticated use of Information ResourcesInternet service in households and schoolsNew computers in the schoolsCommunity training on resource gathering and the internetNetworking with outside communities   
19. Willingness to Seek Help from the OutsidePartnership with a university Networking with outside health servicesExchange program with another state4-H international exchangeInternational Sister Cities Program  
20. Conviction that in the long run you have to do it yourselfThriving grassroots networksPresence of multigenerational businesses Applications for grants are actively soughtInclusive leadership style is adopted by community leaders   

Validation by Expert Panel

The results of the graduate panel were presented at the 2005 Conference of the Association of Leadership Educators (ALE). Seventeen participants were presented with the results of the panel of graduate students. These participants were asked to review the results and make any additions or changes they deemed necessary. The results were collected and reviewed. One addition was made ("Community members volunteer for fire department."), but no other changes or additions were made (see Table 3). These results were then compiled and sent back to the participants for validation. Seven participants responded affirmatively. The other participants did not respond.

Conclusions and Recommendations

It appears that the community survival indicators are highly concentrated in the intangible community capitals, including social, cultural, human, and political capital. This may be good news to Extension faculty working in communities, as these intangible capitals rely so much on the human component of a community and can be maximized with cooperation of community residents. In the development of strong, viable communities, it can be easy to focus solely on the tangible capitals. Our research indicates that it is the intangibles that matter most. It is important to issue a caveat, however, about minimizing the importance of tangible capitals for community viability. Certainly, future research is needed to determine the relative importance of one category (intangible, tangible) to the other in predicting community survival.

We believe that the integration of community capitals with community survival indicators has resulted in a concrete, less subjective guide that can assist those who are trying to make rural community partner decisions. The decision to choose one community over another is a difficult one at best, and any help in facilitating this process is welcome. The guide provides some specific examples of how the indicators of rural community survival might look to an external evaluator.

When attempting to determine where scant resources should be invested, Extension faculty may wish to consult the guide and see what kinds of indicators for survival are in evidence in the communities that are seeking assistance. In addition, we believe there is potential for sharing the guide with community leaders as a means of auditing their community's health and potential. This could help communities to take their own inventory and begin to maximize their potential for viability.


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