In south Georgia, rural Berrien County found it difficult to start a leadership program, while neighboring Cook County felt its leadership program needed an update.

With the help of a leadership initiative through the University of Georgia, the two counties have teamed up to build leaders in both communities through an innovative new program.

The counties received support from the UGA J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development through the institute’s Innovations in Community Leadership Initiative to develop the Leadership in Neighboring Communities program.

In the program, adults from Cook and Berrien counties come together to develop their personal leadership skills and further strengthen networks between the already closely aligned communities.

“We struggled to find the resources to support a yearly program in our county alone, so this was a natural course of events for us to start a unified program,” said Lisa Smart, executive director of the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce.

Cook County faced similar challenges with its existing program, said Heather Green, executive director of the Adel-Cook County Chamber of Commerce.

“We used the Fanning Institute’s curriculum for years but decided we needed to update the curriculum, so we reached out to UGA and spoke with Lisa about joining forces,” Green said. “It’s great for our participants to see what each community offers, but to partner with the university is a huge benefit.”

Launched in 2020 by the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, the Innovations in Community Leadership Initiative provides technical expertise and resources to support communities and organizations in starting or enhancing leadership development programming.

Partnering with the UGA Fanning Institute makes a difference in multiple ways, Green said.

“Using Fanning faculty to facilitate and guide the program takes it to the next level for us,” Green said. “When you say that you have professionals from UGA coming in to lead the program, people in the community take a second look and it piques interest. I feel like we have had people participate in the program who would not have if the Fanning Institute was not facilitating.”

Working together on the leadership program has also built stronger relationships between the two counties.

“We already work well together as neighboring communities, but it has created unique partnerships that I believe would never have formed without having this program,” Smart said.

In addition, participants are taking on leadership roles, such as serving on the chamber board or starting a business, Smart said.

The Leadership in Neighboring Communities program represents exactly the type of program the Innovations in Community Leadership Initiative sets out to support, said Matt Bishop, director of the UGA Fanning Institute.

“Successful communities need leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors inspired and empowered to engage in order to solve problems and pursue opportunities,” Bishop said. “Developing such leaders requires resources. The initiative allows UGA to invest Fanning Institute resources like time and personnel into communities that may face financial or other obstacles.”

In its first four years, the UGA Fanning Institute has helped more than 25 organizations representing almost 30 communities develop or update leadership programs through the initiative.

Program ideas include starting a new adult or youth leadership program, updating an existing program’s curriculum, or providing leadership development programming for a specific audience within a community or organization.

“We will collaborate with you to develop and adapt your idea to best accomplish the goals your organization has set out to achieve,” said Brittany Adams-Pope, UGA Fanning Institute public service faculty member. “Our goal is to help recipients of the initiative build a strong, sustainable leadership program that positions people and communities to succeed.”

Organizations can apply for the 2024 Innovations in Community Leadership Initiative through April 15. The UGA Fanning Institute will announce recipients in the summer.

An online webinar to answer questions about the initiative will take place March 15 from 1-2:30 p.m. Sign up for the webinar here.

To find the application or learn more information about the initiative, click here.

Writer:             Charlie Bauder; 706-542-7039;
Contact:           Brittany Adams-Pope; 706-542-7044;