Cornerstones Blog

Putting Heart & Soul Into Words (and Action)

It can be hard to put into words—the magic that happens when Community Heart & Soul™ takes hold in a town.

Sometimes we refer to “it” as the secret sauce. “It” is also the tipping point when people go from focusing on what’s wrong with their town to seeing what’s possible. “It” is when a developer senses that good things are happening in a place and decides to invest in a vacant building downtown. “It” is when a longtime resident realizes her town is worth her time and runs for city council. “It” is when storytelling builds a bridge to a group that has traditionally been isolated. 

“It” is Community Heart & Soul.

The transformative power of Community Heart & Soul can be tough to describe, but the steps to get there are now clearly spelled out in our new Community Heart & Soul™ Field Guide.

After nearly a decade of listening, learning, refining, and listening some more, with our staff on the ground in small towns in New England and the Rocky Mountain West, the Orton Family Foundation is ready to share with you our field-tested method that leads to stronger towns. 

Our Field Guide, available as a free download, spells out step-by-step how to inspire residents to shape the future of their communities, based on what matters most to them.

We know it works. We’ve seen the results. Here are a few examples:

  • In Biddeford, Maine, Heart & Soul contributed to a solid community plan that sparked revitalization. In the past nine months, 144,000 square feet have been leased in a former mill, something that was expected to take two years. There are now 85 businesses in the mill complex. On Main Street, 19 new businesses have moved in in the past two years.
  • Cortez, Colorado has created trusting and productive relationships with community members. Kirsten Sackett, director of planning and building said, “They’re understanding more about what the city does. I’m understanding their needs more. … It’s not so much about process and paperwork anymore.”
  • When a controversial proposal to change how the town votes on its budget came up, the city council in Essex, Vermont turned to Heart & Soul of Essex to take the lead in organizing a community-wide conversation on the issue, moving it from conflict to consensus.

The Community Heart & Soul approach sets the stage for new leaders to emerge. Liz Subin, former coordinator of Essex Heart & Soul, decided to run for state legislature in Vermont. Golden, Colorado City Councilor Saoirse Charis-Graves never envisioned herself running for office until Heart & Soul helped her see how she could make a difference.

This is a small sample of the positive results that illustrate the transformative power of Community Heart & Soul. Maybe your town is next.

To learn more, please join us for a free Heart & Soul Matters talk, Community Heart & Soul: Building a Blueprint for Successful Small Towns from 4-5 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, Nov 5.  You’ll hear from me and Director of Programs Alece Montez-Griego with an overview of the approach. Heart & Soul veterans Mike Bestor, city manager, Golden, Colorado, and Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, will also be on hand to discuss how Heart & Soul has strengthened their towns. Click here to learn more and register.

Meantime, whether you are a city planner, elected official or a resident concerned about your town’s future, I hope you will take a moment to download the Field Guide and start the conversation about strengthening the social, cultural and economic vibrancy of your town.

David Leckey

Executive Director

Community Heart & Soul™ Headed for the Heartland


The Orton Family Foundation is partnering with a community foundation in Ohio to bring Community Heart & Soul™ to the Midwest. Orton’s first partnership in the region is also a first for a model of delivering Community Heart & Soul™ in collaboration with community foundations.  

Orton will work in tandem with the Findlay-Hancock Community Foundation of Findlay, Ohio, to bring Community Heart & Soul to one town in Hancock County in the coming year. The selected town will undertake a Heart & Soul project that will include training the community foundation in the Heart & Soul method. The community foundation will then take the lead in bringing Orton’s signature barn-raising approach to community development to towns throughout the northwest Ohio county. 

“The partnership with the Findlay-Hancock Community Foundation furthers Orton Family Foundation’s goal of bringing this proven method of community planning to towns and small cities in new regions of the country,” said David Leckey, executive director of the Orton Family Foundation. “Partnering with an organization that knows the towns, and the people who live in them, allows Heart & Soul to provide a solid base for creating the transformation that happens when residents actively participate in discovering common cause and make decisions guided by what matters most to their community.”

Rural Hancock County (pop. 74,782, including Findlay pop. 41,202) is in northwest Ohio, about 50 miles south of Toledo. The county is comprised of 10 villages varying in population from approximately 200 to 1,600 that lie within 17 townships.

The project is funded by a two-year, $136,420 grant from the community foundation along with staff support from Orton and the community foundation. Total anticipated project costs are $396,450, which includes the staff support. The selected community will be eligible for training, technical assistance and up to $130,000 and will contribute 1,500 hours of volunteer time as a match.

“We are looking forward to working with the Orton Family Foundation to bring Community Heart & Soul to Hancock County. Supporting our rural villages is a priority of the Findlay-Hancock Community Foundation and we view Heart & Soul as a way to empower residents, enrich the towns and ensure a vibrant future for them,” said Gwen Kuenzli, Findlay-Hancock Community Foundation board member and chair of the ad hoc committee that researched the program. 

Community Heart & Soul™ Moves Conflict to Consensus

ballot box

The Essex, Vermont Heart & Soul team wrapped up its two-year initiative and was organizing to go to work on projects that came out of the process when a call came in from the town’s selectboard. A citizen’s advocacy group wanted to change the way the town’s budget was voted on, altering a time-honored tradition of voting on budgets at an annual gathering called Town Meeting.

Like most towns in Vermont, Essex residents vote on town budgets by voice at annual meetings held the second Tuesday in March. Town Meeting is a distinctly New England tradition that typically involves a pot luck meal, and it’s not unusual to hear the tick of knitting needles while debates unfold over whether to buy a new fire truck or to increase the budget for sand and salt to keep roads passable in the winter.

Budget to Ballot, as the citizens’ group is named, argues that only a small percentage of residents attend Town Meeting and that changes are sometimes made at the meeting just before the vote without a full public debate. Last year’s meeting was attended by 261 residents. There are 15,808 registered voters in the town. Budget to Ballot proposes debating the budget at Town Meeting and voting on it by secret ballot the next month when the school board budget is also voted on by ballot.

Rather than rush the controversial issue to a vote in November, the selectboard saw an opportunity to capitalize on Heart & Soul of Essex’s community building know-how.

Max Levy, chairman of the selectboard contacted Liz Subin, who was co-coordinator of Heart & Soul of Essex and now co-chairs the Legacy Board that is carrying on the action plan of the Heart & Soul project that wrapped up in February.  He asked Subin if Heart & Soul could facilitate a community conversation on voting in Essex.

Subin was eager to put Heart & Soul right back to work engaging voters across the town, with one caveat. Budget to Ballot organizers had to be willing to go along with a process that wasn’t working toward a specific outcome, but, rather, gauging the community’s stance on how best to proceed. Budget to Ballot advocates agreed.

With a $5,000 grant from the town matched by Orton Family Foundation, Heart & Soul was dispatched to both educate citizens about voting and consider several possible scenarios for the future from not changing anything to installing a representative form of Town Meeting where delegates would attend from specified districts to eliminating Town Meeting.

“It felt like a really organic move from framing our values to identifying what matters for people living here and taking that and applying it to an issue,” said Liz Subin, who was co-coordinator of Heart & Soul of Essex and is now co-chair of the Legacy Board carrying on the work of Heart & Soul. “I felt really encouraged that Max thought about us to take this process from a place of battle and us against them and to a place of ‘let’s work together.’ To me that’s what Heart & Soul is all about.”

Heart & Soul is scheduled to report findings and make recommendations in December. Stay tuned.

There's No Place like Home


Barbara Ganley’s There’s No Place Like Home originally appeared on and other sites. Learn more about Barbara’s work at Community Expressions, LLC. A nationally recognized champion of the power of story in building stronger communities, Barbara helped the Foundation make storytelling a key element of its Community Heart & Soul™ method. See her groundbreaking white paper, Re-Weaving the Community, Creating the Future, commissioned by the Foundation. 
As I buckled my seat belt on the flight to Montana for a storytelling workshop, my seat mate introduced herself as Shelby heading home to small-town Montana for vacation from study abroad. I snapped shut my notebook, turned to her and asked, "Study abroad? Where?" 
 "North Carolina," she said.
When I shared that anecdote the next day with workshop participants, many looking mighty skeptical about storytelling, they roared and nodded, indeed that would be abroad. It was a moment of cultural bonding, of sharing a common context of belonging. They recognized Shelby; they recognized themselves. They connected through her story. And they began to connect with me, a newcomer. 
All in that moment.
But the story didn't end there. I asked if she was looking forward to going back home. She smiled as though it was a crazy question.
"Oh yes! I love my home town."
"What do you love about it?" I asked.
 "Oh, our beautiful ranch," she said without hesitation.  "And the people—everyone is so close. And the town—we have a movie theater that sells hot pizza!"
We laughed about that and then she told of early spring calf branding, how no matter what, the whole town stopped everything to pitch in: cooking, herding, branding, down to the high school boys, whether they lived a ranch life or not, wrestling the calves. 
Ranch people, townspeople, every people showed up to work and eat together, to laugh and swap news. Then she stopped smiling. 
"But it's changing so fast. Even in the time I've been in college, things have changed. The boys no longer want to help out. Kids aren't as connected to this place. They're heading to the cities and even out of state. They're leaving."
She shook her head.
"Do you want to go home after college?" I asked.
"Oh yes. But I won't. I'm training to be a schoolteacher, but I'll have to go to a bigger place. No jobs at home."
"What would change things, make the future brighter in your town?"
"Wow, no one has ever asked me that. Well, we need more job opportunities, sure. But we also need to feel that our town is special, as special as anywhere else. Instead of everyone on phones and computers, we could do things together and talk about what we want to save. Like our movie theater or our ranching life."
Shelby dared imagine a different future and even in that plane ride was plotting possibilities. But no one in her own community had ever asked for her story. 
As we left the plane, she reached out to shake my hand.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you for asking. I have a lot to think about now."
Imagine what could happen if youth and elders shared and collected and discussed stories about what they celebrate about their community—past and present—and what no longer works or has never worked, and most importantly, what they envision and need for the future? 
Shelby and her community. You and yours.
Barbara Ganley


A Tale of Two Cities: Co-branding across a divide

image of advertisement

When two cities in Maine got together to do some regional marketing the co-branding effort was a milestone in cross-city collaboration. There was just one problem: Which city should be named first, Saco or Biddeford? The issue was raised at every focus group.

“It always came up. Was it Biddeford and Saco or Saco and Biddeford?” said Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, the organization in charge of Biddeford’s Main Street Maine program. “There were feelings about that. There were traditions about that.”

The consultants hired to work with the two cities issued an ultimatum. Before any marketing could happen the cities had to solve the naming problem and solve it in one sentence.  

The solution: acknowledge the divide and move past it. Here’s how the brand statement summed it up: “We are Biddeford and Saco, Saco and Biddeford: one dynamic place, no matter how you say it.” A creative graphic captured the theme as well, and the towns can reverse the order as they see fit. 

More than symbolic, the logo represents a new chapter for the two cities, separated by a river and a history of division rooted in the nineteenth century. Biddeford was home to textile mills and workers. Saco was where the mill owners and managers lived.

Much has changed over the years. Biddeford’s downtown is beginning to revive, and Saco’s downtown felt the pinch of recession creating a leveling effect of sorts. In Biddeford the pump was primed by a two-year Community Heart & Soul™ project and subsequent master plan that spelled out goals for the community, one of which was more marketing. 

That gave the town the green light to pursue a partnership with Saco and to get funding to do it, Poupore said

The co-branding couldn’t have happened had the communities not been ready, said Ben Muldrow, principal with Arnett Muldrow and Associates, consultants on the project.

“Had a group of marketers from South Carolina come in and told them they should blend their names, we probably would have been run out,” Muldrow said. “The two towns have strong leaders, great organizations, and an exciting future.

Citizens' Institute on Rural Design™ Names 2014 Design Workshops

Four organizations were chosen to host the 2014 rural design technical assistance workshops. Here are the hosts and their challenges:

  • Carl Small Town Center, Houston, Mississippi. Design a cycling/walking connection to Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444 mile scenic drive popular with cyclists.
  • Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-op, Oregon County, Missouri. Create a plan to transform a vacant building into a public market and art center. 
  • University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Franklin, New Hampshire. Revitalize the downtown to ensure affordable housing and age-friendly design for senior citizens.
  • Lincoln and Lancaster County Planning Department, Lancaster County, Nebraska. Create design techniques and resources to help a dozen villages recapture their sense of place.  




Welcome, Laconia, to Community Heart & Soul™

This month the city of Laconia, New Hampshire (pop. 17,060) launched a Community Heart & Soul™ project. In the coming 18 months, Laconia plans to engage residents in a community-wide conversation about what matters most—empowering all residents to shape the future of their towns—before the city updates its master plan.

Laconia is the 10th town to deploy our Community Heart & Soul approach, and our first in the Granite State. We are in good company there, with strong support from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which awarded $20,000 for the project, and NH Listens, which will assist with training and outreach.

Backed by years of work with small towns and more recently by our nine Community Heart & Soul towns where we field tested the approach, we look to Laconia as a harbinger, bringing our proven, resident-driven method to places beyond New England and the Rocky Mountains, where the Foundation has concentrated its efforts. To do this we envision partnerships with like-minded organizations, as are onboard in Laconia, that align with our mission to build stronger communities. I’ll look forward to sharing more on this in coming months.   

So, I extend a warm welcome to Laconia and very much look forward to an experience that I have no doubt will be transformative as Laconians from all over—Lakeport, Weirs Beach, Downtown, young, old and in between—roll up their sleeves and get down to what matters most and what they value most about the unique place they call home. 

– David Leckey, executive director

Orton Family Foundation

Who Says a C-Store and School Zone Can't Mix?


In Cortez, Colorado, plans for a 4,800-square-foot convenience store and gas station across the street from a high school raised concerns among neighbors and school officials. Traffic, noise and crime were among the issues on neighbors' minds.

"We were a little uncomfortable just because it's right across the street. Our primary concern was the increase in traffic,"  Jennifer Carter, director of Southwest Open School said.

The property was appropriately zoned and plans met city requirements. The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval but asked that the company, Utah-based Maverik, meet with neighbors and the school. 

The city organized a meeting at the high school with Maverik, neighbors and school and city officials. Building and Planning Director Kirsten Sackett presided at the meeting, logging the issues raised on large sheets of paper stuck to the wall. Next the group prioritized concerns and worked on resolutions.

There was back and forth, said Todd Meyers, Maverik permit manager and former city planner who attended the meeting. For example:

  • A two-rail fence was installed instead of a 6-foot fence because of concerns about security;
  • A sidewalk was added so that students could easily and safely walk to the store;
  • Extra picnic tables were added for students;
  • A flashing light and school zone signs were installed by the city, something the school had long advocated.

When it came time for the public hearing and city council vote a few weeks later, neither neighbors nor school officials spoke in opposition. The neighborhood meeting proved to be good business even before the store opened, Meyers said.

 "We have a positive image going in to it as we open our doors. We haven't stepped on anybody's toes as we could have if we hadn't had that process," Meyers said.

Sackett hopes requiring developers to meet with neighbors becomes a standard part of the approval process.

 "I envision that as the way weíll do business from now on, where we change our Land Use Code to require these neighborhood meetings instead of just posting a little notice in the paper that nobody reads," she said.