Heart & Soul Method

“When a community takes the time to get to know itself,
it gains a sense of identity and purpose
that informs decisions and planning.”

— Lyman Orton, Founder

What’s this all about?

Barn raising - public domain
The Heart & Soul method is a barn-raising approach to community planning and development designed to increase participation in local decision-making and empower residents to shape the future of their communities in a way that upholds the unique character of each place.

Heart & Soul reconnects people with what they love most about their town, and translates those personal connections into a blueprint that serves as the foundation for future community decisions.

“Just as one can’t build a durable house on a foundation of shifting sands,” says Lyman Orton, “a town can’t expect to build an enduring and prosperous future unless its residents have laid down their own emotional and cultural foundation.”

That is what we mean by “heart and soul”—the things that make a place feel like home. When these attributes are acknowledged and valued collectively, people feel more connected to their communities, and also more inspired to get involved so those connections will be protected for the long haul. Communities that are loved thrive.


The Knight Foundation teamed up with Gallup in 2010 to investigate what draws people to live in communities, and whether communities whose residents care deeply about them are better off. After extensive study, they issued the Soul of the Community Report, which found that “…three main qualities attach people to place: social offerings, such as entertainment venues and places to meet; openness (how welcoming a place is); and the area’s aesthetics (its physical beauty and green spaces).” The study also shows that communities whose residents have the highest level of attachment also have the highest rates of GDP growth.

For close to a decade, the Orton Family Foundation has been developing its Heart & Soul method based on this idea that emotional connections are the real drivers for citizen engagement in community planning and development. Emotional connections can ultimately drive action for the public good when people begin to see themselves and their personal stories as part of a larger community narrative. What’s more, they begin to see themselves as the creators of that narrative.

Our approach is rooted here, in the fundamental belief that the strength of a community lies in the hands, and the hearts, of its citizens. What we’ve done is to recognize that, honor it, and provide the tools to unlock that built-in potential.

“The more a community does to enhance its distinctive identity,” says Ed McMahon, Orton Trustee and Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute, “the more reasons there are to visit and invest there.”

It’s a positive feedback loop: the more distinctive the character of a place, the more enjoyable it is to live there. The more enjoyable—and thus sought-after—the more economically resilient it becomes.

Heart & Soul is the spark for this positive feedback loop, a way for citizens to plan wisely, and meaningfully, for the future of their towns.

How does it work?

H&S Framework

In LAY THE GROUNDWORK you will build your foundation by identifying partners and leaders, spreading the word, and developing a road map for a successful Heart & Soul engagement process.

In EXPLORE YOUR COMMUNITY you will gather personal stories to identify shared community values and understand how those values are affected by community trends and conditions.

In CHOOSE YOUR FUTURE you will identify options for the future and base decisions on what best enhances and preserves your community’s heart and soul.

In WALK THE TALK partners commit to action and residents take ownership of ongoing engagement, decision-making and celebration of progress. Heart & Soul values and principles are applied to future community efforts.

Why should I care?

Either you decide your community’s future, or someone else will.

And because these guys say so:

Ed McMahon knows a thing or two about resilient communities.
Here’s what he has to say about why America needs H&S now.
Director of Midcoast Maine Jane Lafleur talks about how
Heart & Soul has become the way she does business.

Why H&S Now? from Orton Family Foundation on Vimeo.

H&S Champion Jane Lafleur from Orton Family Foundation on Vimeo.

Tell me more...

  1. Want to learn more about our methodology and how it could help your town? Read the early chapters of our Heart & Soul Community Handbook.
  2. Ready to take action on the ground? Use our Heart & Soul Implementation Guides to get started.
  3. In a browsing mood? Explore our bank of Resources.
  4. Curious about the belief system behind Heart & Soul? Read the Heart & Soul Principles.

This is great! I want to stay in touch.