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Leadership Winston-Salem focuses on diversity, community

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Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — One team of volunteers created a toolkit designed to help neighborhood associations coordinated by the city of Winston-Salem improve their recruiting and communications, and operate more efficiently.

And to help Big Brothers Big Sisters in Winston-Salem attract more volunteers, a second team developed a plan to raise awareness of volunteer opportunities, and produced a video clip the agency has posted on its website.

The two teams were among nine fielded by Leadership Winston-Salem as part of a new strategy it adopted three years ago to revive its leadership-development program by better addressing changing community needs.

Formed in 1984 to engage and connect the city’s senior-level leaders at a time of mounting economic problems, Leadership Winston-Salem attracted 40 to 45 leaders a year to a program of monthly sessions addressing broad issues like education and health care.

But as the region’s economy rebounded and its population became more diverse, the leadership program initially did not adjust to the changes and saw a decline in financial support and enrollment.

“As the community continued to evolve, Leadership Winston-Salem fell behind in terms of understanding those market forces and how the community had changed,” says Ron Drago, president and CEO of United Way of Forsyth County and an outgoing member of the board of Leadership Winston-Salem.

Rather than scrubbing it, Drago says, the board in 2004 put the program on hold for a year and, with the help of a consultant, studied how to improve and sustain it.

Key to the reengineered program, launched in 2005, were focusing on a more diverse market and hands-on change, says Jo Ellen Carson, a former senior vice president at
Wachovia responsible for work-life initiatives and employee assistance programs who was hired as executive director to relaunch Leadership Winston-Salem.

In addition to established leaders, the organization has recruited emerging community leaders, aiming to connect all those leaders and help them develop skills for community leadership.

And, departing from the approach it used during its first 20 years of encouraging participants to get involved in a community project at the end of their program, Leadership Winston-Salem integrated hands-on projects into the entire program, and organized participants into small teams to apply the leadership skills they were learning.

“We work on authentic community dilemmas,” says Carson.

The organization, which also reduced the length of the program to nine months from 10 months, and let participants know they were expected to begin volunteering in the community by the time the program ended, solicits project proposals from nonprofits, the city and other partners.

With an annual budget totaling $158,000, Leadership Winston-Salem in 2005 reduced tuition from $2,500 to $2,000, although it will increase this fall to $2,100.

Tuition, mainly paid by corporations, covers two-thirds of annual operating costs, with  corporate sponsorships of monthly sessions, and alumni events, covering
remaining costs.

Key sponsors have been Reynolds American and BB&T.

Scholarships also are available, thanks in part to a volunteer project initiated by a member of the most recently class who recruited class member to organizational invitational golf tournament April 11 that raised $2,500.

The new business model has proved it’s not just a survivor but it’s really playing an important role as Winston-Salem continues to evolve, with Leadership Winston-Salem being a big aspect of that,” says Drago.

“The community is a lot more diverse today than it was 25 years ago,” he says. “And leadership isn’t as centric as it was. It’s much more dispersed. We don’t have the same
corporate structure here any longer.” Eric Aft, vice president of community planning at United Way of Forsyth County and a member of the most recent class, says the experience helped him develop relationships with emerging leaders “in a setting that is not typical of all of our regular business interactions.”

“You get to know people and get to develop relationships on a more personal basis,” says Aft, who is joining the board of Leadership Winston-Salem. “It also strengthens overall community bonds.”

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