What Is Community Heart & Soul?

“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

Barn raising - public domain

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

The Orton Family Foundation believes that the strength of a community lies in the hands and the hearts of the people who live there, and that the community’s heart and soul is the common cause that they will rally around. Communities that acknowledge and value their heart and soul are able to take action to strengthen it.

We believe that there’s something special about every town—the old downtown, the pastures or woodlands, a get-it-done spirit, or an everyone-is-welcome ethic.

Whether they are places, traditions, or attitudes, these community characteristics are the things that really matter to people. They draw people to a place and make them care about where they live. Such characteristics are a community’s heart and soul.

Emotional Attachment = Stronger Economy



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.


Heart & Soul® Principles

Community Heart & Soul rests on three key principles:

1. Involve Everyone

Community Heart & Soul emphasizes the wisdom that can be found in local experience and diverse perspectives. The Heart & Soul approach calls for hearing all voices in the community, not just property owners or voters, so it deliberately seeks to have all groups represented in the process. This means that the Heart & Soul process connects with, listens to, and includes everyone who lives, works, learns, or plays in the community, including those who are hard to reach or underrepresented. MORE >>

2. Focus on What Matters

Heart & Soul brings people together around a common cause by identifying the shared interests and values of community members. Community values represent what is most important to residents and include those things that distinguish a community or make it a good place to live. By having conversations about these values, participants can immediately relate to things they care about most and better understand how decisions they make will affect those things. Best of all, participants who care about the result of a decision will stay involved as action is taken. MORE >>

3. Play the Long Game

Heart & Soul is focused on long-term success. To ensure that plans or ideas don’t just sit on the shelf, Heart & Soul focuses heavily on building ownership for and commitment to the results. This means that current and potential leaders and any organizations or departments responsible for following through on plans and ideas are engaged throughout the process, especially in making decisions.

The Community Heart & Soul process cultivates a permanent shift toward more effective and participatory decision making. It anticipates this shift by including leadership development and skill building in each activity. MORE >>

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 MAKE DECISIONS you will identify options for the future and base decisions on what best enhances and preserves your community’s heart and soul.

In TAKE ACTION 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.
 Jane Lafleur, Executive Director of Friends of Midcoast Maine, talks about how
Commuinity Heart & Soul is the way she does business.


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