Strengthen ND - Supporting and Accelerating Community Development in Rural North Dakota
Megan Laudenschlager is the Executive Director of Strengthen ND, a nonprofit social enterprise founded in 2015. Megan is passionate about rural North Dakota and serves as a rural community fundraiser, organizer, and advocate. Megan’s areas of expertise include board and staff development, fundraising planning, grant writing, strategic planning, organizational action planning, program design and evaluation, succession planning, and meeting facilitation. In this article Megan gives a brief overview of Strengthen ND, why it was created, the work it supports, and highlights of its past and future work with rural communities throughout North Dakota.
Where I Come From.
Rooted. That’s what I feel when I embark on projects and meet with leaders and volunteers supporting good work in rural North Dakota. Impassioned. That’s how I carry out my work of supporting and accelerating community development. Why? Well, it’s because I can see a piece of myself, my family, or my hometown in every rural community I visit. It makes me personally invested in the work I do. Important. Exciting. Worthwhile.
I grew up on a farm and ranch that raised hereford and angus cattle along the Benson County-Eddy County line, just outside of Warwick, a small town in central North Dakota. Growing up, I learned the value of hard work, caring about our neighbors, and feeling a sense of belonging. My parents still live on that farm and continue to embody this spirit even today.
Warwick has historically been a small town with the earliest population estimates dating back to the 1920s, when the community reached its peak population of 290 residents. In 2010, the most recent U.S. Census, Warwick’s population dwindled to 65 residents. At one time a bustling spot of activity, the community, too, has fallen prey to the grips of long-term outmigration.
Still, Warwick, and all other rural communities like it in North Dakota, are special to me. My great-grandfather helped found and lead the Warwick Cooperative Grain Elevator, and my dad and grandpa supported its operations until it was no longer feasible to operate it in the 1990s. My great-grandfather’s family even helped build the Warwick Lutheran Church. My dad graduated from Warwick High School, and many cherished family members are buried in the Warwick Cemetery.
With the continuing population decline of the area, I often wonder what the community will look like 20 years from now. Who will ensure that the church that my family helped to build doesn’t fall into disrepair in 50 years? Who will care for the final resting places of my family long after I’m gone?
These questions are not unique. These questions, along with a myriad of others, keep some North Dakota residents up at night. These questions drive the basis of our work in rural communities.
Why Strengthen ND?
In 2015, as I was rounding out the end of a two-year Bush Foundation Fellowship, I had the opportunity to step away from my current position in philanthropy and begin to strategize around how some of those troubling questions could be addressed. The solution discovered? Establishing an entity that could support not only rural communities but, more specifically, the nonprofits and nonprofit professionals within those communities.
Strengthen ND was founded in August 2015 with a vision of working across North Dakota to elevate nonprofits and rural communities to support a high quality of life and resources for vulnerable populations. We do this by supporting and accelerating community development in rural North Dakota by 1) building the capacity of nonprofits and rural community leaders, 2) advancing regional issues, and 3) facilitating communities. This work can take the form of working with nonprofits and rural communities to support:
- Board and Staff Development;
- Fundraising Planning;
- Grant Writing;
- Strategic Planning and Organizational Action Planning;
- Program Design and Evaluation;
- Succession Planning;
- Project Management;
- Meeting Facilitation; and
- Other kinds of customized counsel and services.
What have we done?
Since we began operations, we have hit the ground running, working with organizations and communities throughout North Dakota spanning from Williston to Dickinson to Fort Yates to Oakes to Devils Lake and anywhere in between. Here are some of our highlights:
- Nonprofit Certificate Program: In 2015, we worked with Minot State University to craft a 6-month certificate program based on the core components of effective nonprofit management. Since 2015, we have graduated two cohorts of nonprofit professionals and are midway through our third.
- Northwest North Dakota Community Foundation: In 2015, we began working with the Northwest North Dakota Community Foundation, headquartered in Williston, and Equinor (formerly Statoil). Through this partnership, we have been able to support the investment of over $150,000 in the Williston area and the creation of a unique Equinor STEM Education Fellowship program for area teachers.
- Community Planning at Standing Rock: After the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests of 2016-2017, we were fortunate to be invited in to participate in leading a community planning process in conjunction with the North Dakota Indian Business Alliance and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Many of the goals set during that process, which ended in the summer of 2017, now have meaningful progress being made to better the area.
- North Dakota Local Foods Development Alliance: In early 2018, we support the creation of a statewide organization to support the creation and implementation of a strategic plan to support the local foods economy in North Dakota. This work kicked off with the receipt of a $10,000 North Dakota Consensus Council grant to support the alliance’s organization and advocacy for local foods systems.
- City of Minot’s Mayor’s Committee on Addiction: In 2018, we supported the Mayor’s Committee on Addiction to successfully write for and receive a $200,000 Bush Foundation Community Innovation grant to support the development of a hub-and-spoke approach to service delivery to combat the region’s opioid crisis.
- ND Full-Service Community Schools Coalition: Especially in rural communities, it is important for schools to have the resources to position themselves as hubs for access to services for children and families. In 2018, we were approached by a coalition of education and service providers to write for a federal opportunity to receive up to $2.5 million to support the creation of the full-service community schools ecosystem and service delivery in North Dakota. The grant proposal that Strengthen ND led was funded in full and received a perfect score.
- Tuttle Rural Innovation Center: The community of Tuttle has been impacted by an issues that afflicts many rural communities - school consolidation and closure. The Tuttle Public School closed in 2008. The community rallied around the facility, ensuring that it would remain a viable building by providing thousands of dollars annually to heat it. In 2017, Strengthen ND was approached by members of the community to obtain resources to support the facility’s organization, now named the Tuttle Rural Innovation Center. Since we began working with the community, the Tuttle Rural Innovation Center has been able to access a $200,000 Bush Foundation Community Innovation grant to support local foods strategy development for economic development and vulnerable populations support. Furthermore, we have been able to help the community leverage the grant to accomplish its big-picture vision for the space by engaging the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) (a program of the National Endowment for the Arts) to host the first-ever workshop in North Dakota as well as complete a robust business plan to create a small business incubator, events center, maker space, and commercial kitchen in the facility.
Looking to the Future
As we continue to hone our craft and work with rural communities, we are excited to see what 2019 and beyond might bring. In the immediate future, we are focusing on continuing our good work and throwing our collective weight behind three key initiatives: Rural Enrichment Centers, Building Resilient Farm Country, and Creating Pathways of Funding for Rural Community Projects.
- Rural Enrichment Centers: Building off of the lessons learned through our work with the Tuttle Rural Innovation Center, we are looking forward to expanding this replicable model to bring other types of rural enrichment centers to communities where a disproportionate amount of vulnerable individuals exist. Centered around local foods and food hubs, continuing education opportunities, wellness, navigating social services, and community building, Rural Enrichment Centers have the potential to re-energize and sustain quality of life in our state.
- Building Resilient Farm Country: In partnership with Souris Basin Planning Council and North Central Regional Planning Council, we are embarking on phase 1 of a multi-phase project to inventory and assess the potential uses of vacant and flood-impacted farmsteads in rural North Dakota. Through this work, we will be able to assess the level of opportunity in existence for microfarming and supporting rural repopulation through overcoming barriers to traditionally disadvantaged farmers.
- Pathways of Funding: If there is any resounding message that has come through to us because of our work, it is that there are so many good projects in the works in small towns, but accessing available funding for those projects can be an overwhelming obstacle. In our work, we have seen so many vital, creative, and high-potential projects struggle to get off the ground because they don’t fit a particular category of funding for a grantmaker, corporation, or state or federal program. In response to these projects that fall through the cracks, Strengthen ND will be assessing the feasibility of creating a funders collaborative or low-interest loan mechanism to fund those sometimes “unfundable” projects.
In summary, Strengthen ND and our work highlights the great sense of community that exists in rural North Dakota. We are doing our best to ensure that the way of life so cherished by rural North Dakotans remains a viable and desirable option well into the future. In short, we are all in for rural North Dakota - are you?
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