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Tools You Can Use

Three Keys to Being an Effective Community Leader

The Community Leadership Handbook

Three Core Competencies for Community Leadership
    • Framing ideas
    • Building and using social capital
    • Mobilizing resources
Combining the Competencies

Further Information


From Vince Hyman, former Publishing Director, Fieldstone Alliance:

I KNOW FROM CONVERSATIONS with many of you—at conferences, via phone, and by e-mail—that there is great concern in our sector about the state of democratic action. Many of you are involved in organizations that are increasing their level of community involvement via advocating for your missions and constituents at local, county, and state levels, or through coalitions and collaborations. People I talk with may couch their concerns in political terms, but the overarching concern is that

  • we lack public involvement in decisions;
  • we have fewer leaders sincerely concerned with the job of helping community members reach consensus; and
  • these deficits expose our communities to manipulation by groups that don't have the community's interests as a goal.

Cover of The Community Leadership HandbookSo, I'm especially excited about our most recent publication, The Community Leadership Handbook: Framing Ideas, Building Relationships, and Mobilizing Resources, by James F. Krile of the Blandin Foundation. For the past 20 years Blandin Foundation of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, has been training community members in leadership skills. The book is refreshing in its can-do spirit and faith in the positive outcomes when people join together to address common challenges. Politically, it is not of the left, of the right, or even of the center. It is, rather, "of the people."

This issue of Tools You Can Use is excerpted and adapted from part one of the book, pages 1-171. If your nonprofit work does not directly involve some aspect of community leadership, please keep reading. The leadership principles described here are useful whether you are galvanizing your staff, your organization, a collaborative, or an interstate coalition.

Three Core Competencies for Community Leadership
Community leaders need three competencies. These are the capacities to

  • Frame ideas—the capacity to define opportunities and issues in ways that lead to effective action. Through framing, a group understands and decides what needs to be done, how it is to be done, and why it is important to do.
  • Build social capital—the capacity to develop and maintain relationships that allow people to work together and share resources.
  • Mobilize resources—the capacity to organize and engage enough people, financial resources, votes, and organizations to make the project a reality.

These competencies and the way they relate to community leadership can be compared to what happens when you build a fire. Fuel, oxygen, and a spark are necessary ingredients for a fire. But by themselves, they are not sufficient. It is when these three interact that you get combustion.

So it is with the three core competencies. Each is essential for effective leadership. Yet desired results happen only when the competencies are combined.

The relationship among these three competencies is illustrated below.

Diagram of 3 Core Competencies of Community Leadership

Every community change effort, whether it succeeds or fails, can be viewed through this three-part model: framing—social capital—mobilization. Initiatives that succeed do so because

  • The issue or opportunity is framed in such a way that people are motivated to act.
  • There are enough people involved who are linked to others through direct relationships or networks, creating a critical mass of resources.
  • Action plans are developed and implemented in such a way that activities are focused and coordinated.

In contrast, initiatives that fail often do so because

  • The opportunity or issue was ill-defined, making it almost impossible to take action.
  • There were not enough people involved who had networks that gave them access to additional resources.
  • There were no clear plans, or people were not motivated to act on existing plans.

Framing ideas
Framing means helping a group or community recognize and define its opportunities and issues in ways that result in effective action. Framing helps the group or community decide what needs to be done, why it is important that it be done, and how it is to be done—and to communicate that in clear and compelling ways.

Framing is a key competency for community leadership. It is also something we do in our daily lives. We are constantly framing opportunities or issues so we can do something about them.

For example, say that your television stops working. You take it to the store and discover that the cost of repairing it is more than buying a new one. You believe that a television is an important source of news and entertainment for you and your household. So, you set aside some time and, using the Internet, research the quality of different models and then visit several stores to compare prices. After all this, you make a purchase.

What did you do? In short

  • You defined reality: the television is not working
  • You decided what needed to be done: buy a new one rather than repair the old one
  • You determined why it was important to have a television: television provides entertainment and information
  • You figured out how you would find a new one: through Internet research and comparison shopping

All these are examples of framing.

Framing might become more complex and require you to work with a greater number of people. But framing in any form still means determining the what, why, and how that directs action and produces results.

There are three important things to remember about framing and community leadership:

  • How an issue is framed influences what gets done. For example, an influx of people from cultures new to the community can be framed as a liability (disrupting the community and costing tax dollars) or an asset (introducing new economic opportunity and improving cultural resources).
  • Framing is complex, linking factual analysis, values and motivation, vision, and strategy. As a leader, this means you need to help surface accurate information (not just opinions) about what is happening. You've got to help people express the values that will guide their decisions and the reasons why they should take action. Then you've got to help them to determine their vision—what the new reality will look like. And finally, of course, you are guiding the creation of strategies that will make the vision real.
  • Framing creates focus. Framing is like taking a photograph. The way you frame the image directs the viewers attention. In the same way, how a leader frames an issue focuses the attention and choices of the community.

Building and using social capital
Building social capital is the leadership competency of developing and maintaining the relationships that allow people to work together and share resources across their differences. These relationships can be among individuals, between an individual and a group, and among groups. Relationships that constitute strong social capital are based on trust, reciprocity, and durability.

As a practical matter for community leaders, however, there are three key ideas to keep in mind:

  • Community action takes place through human relationships. This means that you've got to build relationships in order to lead people. Social capital is like financial capital. You can draw on your account only if you have deposited something into it. Our ability to work together tomorrow depends a lot on how we treat each other today. Wise investors do not take their financial capital for granted. In the same way, wise community leaders do not take their social capital for granted.
  • Social capital flows through networks. The communities and larger organizations consist of multiple subgroups, or networks. The more extensive and diverse your networks are, the more you will be able to tap community resources to which you have no direct access. Imagine that you need agreement and support from an individual or organization with whom you have no connection. You can use your social capital with people you do know to get them to influence that individual or organization.
  • Social capital comes in two forms—bonding and bridging2. Bonding social capital holds groups together. It is most often found in groups that interact relatively frequently and that are based on similarities, such as shared interests, gender, or ethnicity. Members of these groups tend to know a lot about each other's lives. They trust each other and know they will "be there" for each other a when the need arises. They are allies for the long term, even if personal antagonism arises.

Bridging social capital connects or "bridges" diverse individuals and groups, making it possible for them to work together. Bridging social capital reduces the time and effort it takes to bring different groups together around an issue—an essential resource for getting things done in our complex communities.

Here's a shortcut for remembering the distinction between these two forms of social capital: Bonding social capital develops among friends and allies. Bridging social capital develops between acquaintances.

Mobilizing resources
Mobilizing resources is the leadership competency of engaging a critical mass in taking action to achieve a specific outcome or set of outcomes. A critical mass is achieved when community leaders bring together enough people and resources to do what the community wants done. From a leadership perspective, mobilization is also about strategic, planned, purposeful activity to achieve clearly defined outcomes.

Almost anyone can get resources moving. It takes leadership to get enough of the right resources moving toward the same target. And, the number of interests that you involve can be just as important as the number of people that you mobilize.

Mobilizing a critical mass requires strategic thinking, clear outcomes, and workable action plans. Four general strategies can be used to guide mobilization efforts in your community:

  • Move others to speak and act in support of the goals. This means more than persuading some individuals. Successful mobilization requires that leaders stimulate conversations that move others to speak and act in support of the leaders' goals.
  • Engage people who have access to key networks. The successful leader needs to determine which networks will deliver the best (or most) resources for the effort involved. Then, the leader needs to ask, do we have the right person to tap this network—is this person credible with this network, or will he or she actually make it less likely that the resources in the network will be mobilized?
  • Directly involve large numbers of people throughout the community. Most efforts require work, and the successful leader will line up people willing to do the work that produces the desired results.
  • Attend to the different points at which people adopt new ideas. There are early, middle, and late adopters for any new idea. Many leaders are innovators who must motivate the early adopter group. The first task of such leaders is to identify and recruit the right early adopters . These are people with enough bonding social capital to energize the groups they belong to and enough bridging social capital to bring in other groups. These connections should involve the early majority, which can give you the needed critical mass.

Effective mobilization does not stop with an early majority. A community change can be implemented by the early adopters and the early majority. However, sustainable change means getting the broad base of support that is provided by the middle and late adopters.

Combining the Competencies
Like fuel, oxygen, and a spark, the three core competencies do not really ignite a community to get things done until they interact with each other. The effectiveness of one competency may depend on how the other competencies have been employed. Here are some ways in which they interact.

  • Social capital helps people manage differences in framing. So, having a diverse representation can help frame issues in ways that appeal to all groups.
  • Similarly, framing can increase or decrease social capital. If people feel excluded from the process of framing, they may find it hard to accept the framing or trust the intent of those doing the framing. Worse yet, people can be included in the process but feel that they are not being heard and their concerns are not being taken into account. In that case, they quickly lose the characteristics of trust, reciprocity, and durability in their relationship to those leading the framing.
  • Social capital is required to mobilize resources. Outcomes depend on webs of relationships that make it possible for people to act together on a common problem.

Understanding the interplay of framing, mobilization, and social capital can help you think through problems. If you are having trouble in one area, look to one of the other competencies for an answer. Having trouble with framing? Check to see if enough social capital has been built—that people trust each other enough to develop a common definition of the problem. Having trouble with mobilization? Check to see if the framing of the issue or strategy is clear enough so that people can respond.

Further Information
For more information on Blandin's Community Leadership Program, contact Blandin Foundation at 218-326-0523.

Fieldstone Alliance consulting services include facilitating comprehensive community initiatives and related community-building activities. For more information on these services, contact Sandy Jacobsen at


Vince Hyman
Publishing Director
Fieldstone Alliance

February 8, 2006

1 Copyright 2006 Blandin Foundation. Published by Fieldstone Alliance, Inc.
2 R. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).


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