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Virginia Cooperative Extension specialists in Community Viability work with Extension agents, campus-based faculty, organizational partners, communities, and individuals to further opportunity and build capacity in five program areas:   

Examples of our work include training county elected officials, educating entrepreneurs, facilitating collaborative projects, supporting the growth of community food systems and local economies, enhancing agent skills and community capacity in facilitation and leadership, conducting problem-driven research, and creating publications and tools that address critical community needs.

Both Virginia Cooperative Extension and the national Cooperative Extension System have a long history of engaging agents and specialists with a focus on community development.  In 2005 and 2006, Extension Specialists in Community Viability were placed in each of the Commonwealth’s six extension districts.  While no longer district based, Extension Specialists in Community Viability continue to function as state-wide team in developing research-based programming that responds to local needs while drawing from the knowledge and resources of Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, and other institutions and organizations.

We invite you to explore our web-site and contact one of our specialists to discuss ways in which we might help in building strong and sustainable Virginia communities.

Community enterprise development is a major vehicle for local economic prosperity and community flourishing. A community enterprise may be either for-profit or non-profit. They include any entity started or operated in a place or region and which demonstrates a strong commitment to one or more of these conditions:   local ownership, community loyalty, community usefulness, and a contribution to community well-being and prosperity. 

Extension’s Community Viability initiatives support community enterprise development and sustainability in many ways, including: 

  • Food-based business assistance
  • Resources for non-profit organization development

Community resiliency and capacity refers to efforts to support places in enhancing their strengths, knowledge, and capabilities in order to withstand challenges, shocks, and adversities.  

Extension’s Community Viability initiatives support community resiliency and capacity-building in a number of ways. Some experts refer to this as  “soft infrastructure” of communities. This includes civic engagement and community deliberation initiatives, technical assistance for capacity building, and leadership development.

To learn more about Community Viability programs and assistance concerning community enterprise and resiliency, Ask an Expert.



Conaway B. Haskins III
Economic Development Specialist
Virginia Cooperative Extension
Virginia Tech Dept. of Agricultural & Applied Economics
2810 North Parham Road, Suite 300
Henrico, VA 23294

Fresh Perspectives: A Community Viability Newsletter

A food system includes the production, processing, distribution, sales, purchasing, preparation, consumption, and waste disposal pathways of food. Community food systems seek to make transactions between these pathways more localized (versus global).  Increasing direct connections with producers and consumers is a sound asset-based social and economic development strategy for rural and urban communities. From an economic perspective, encouraging the buying and consumption of local foods can have a positive impact on the local economy by recirculating and reinvesting dollars in local independent businesses.

Marketing the virtues of locally grown food to consumers can potentially increase consumption of fruits and veggies. Health and nutrition professionals have emphasized that diets rich in fruits and vegetables can optimize good health and significantly reduce the rate of diet-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and the overall incidence of cancer by 20 percent, and result in reduced health care costs and increased life expectancy. 

A vision to reintroduce Virginians to agriculture and fresh nutritious foods as part of a vibrant innovative community-based food system can help address these societal issues and complement the work of health and nutrition professionals. This vision to reintroduce consumers to agriculture and link health, food, and farming for a sustainable future will require the leadership and dedication of entrepreneurial farmers, food business owners, community-based work groups, government officials, and the research and education community at local, regional, and state levels.  

 Key components of a vibrant, innovative community food system include the following:

  • A compelling vision with specific goals and a strategic plan that builds on history, a sense of place, local identity, and community values
  • Social, ecological, farmland, and financial resources
  • Communication and community collaboration
  • A diverse network of committed producers and farms to meet local and regional needs;
  • Multiple markets and farm-to-table infrastructure
  • Education, research assistance, and informational support for producers and consumers
  • Supportive public policies of food and farm innovation to benefit rural and urban communities and economies

The Community Viability program supports community food systems and has worked to facilitate conversations with stakeholders across the state.  These conversations have given rise to community-based projects that are helping keep agriculture profitable and consumers healthy.

To learn more about Community Viability programs and assistance concerning community food systems, consult the resources available in the Community Food System Resource Directory or Ask an Expert.


  • Eric Bendfeldt
  • Extension Specialist, Community Viability
  • 540-432-6029
  • 2322 Blue Stone Hills Drive Suite 140 
    Harrisonburg, VA 22801

Rapid economic, demographic, and environmental changes are opening exciting opportunities across the Commonwealth. Community Viability works with local leaders and entrepreneurs to respond to these changes.

To learn more about Community Viability programs and assistance concerning emerging community issues, Ask an Expert.

Save Our Towns

A monthly Internet video series offered by Virginia Tech's Outreach and International Affairs to guide and inspire leaders throughout Appalachia who are working hard to create prosperity in their towns. Watch >>


Community leaders understand the skills and characteristics needed to serve their communities and that community growth and prosperity are linked to a strong leadership network.  Developed by Virginia Cooperative Extension, Innovative Leadership: Building Community Connections teaches the language and process of leadership and provides participants with the opportunity to a) build their leadership skills; b) increase their awareness of community issues; c) network with other leaders; and d) become more engaged in community, civic, and governmental activities.

Innovative Leadership Curriculum 

Innovative Leadership: Building Community Connections is composed of six modules of leadership lessons. Which of the modules will be taught (some or all) is determined in concert with a locally developed management team.  For more information about the program and how we might work together to bring this training program to your area, contact Dr. Megan Seibel, or your local Community Viability specialist

Community Connections

Module 1:  Leadership Traits
  • Characteristics of effective leaders
  • Leadership styles
  • Role of power
Module 2:  Effective Communication & Presentation Skills
  • Communication skills
  • Communicating across cultures
  • Collaboration and partnership building
  • Communicating through conflict
Module 3: The Leadership Team
  • The Leadership Team
  • Group dynamics
  • Motivating others
  • Facilitating the Team Meeting

Planning Connections

Module 4: The Vision & Goals
  • Visioning and setting goals
  • Community dialogue: Deliberative democracy
  • Assessment tools: Asset-based community development
Module 5: Community Planning
  • Understanding and utilizing data
  • Setting community goals

Boards and Organizational Connections

Module 6: Working and Communicating with Elected, Appointed, Volunteer Boards and Organizations
  • Virginia government
  • Working with local government
  • The public servant:  Election campaign

Graduation & Recognition

  • Graduation planned by the Leadership Guiding Team and the Program Trainers
  • Each team will present the team project proposals
  • Class members are recognized for their accomplishment

References used with permission: 

  • Initiative for the Future of Rural Oklahoma Leadership Program, Oklahoma State University, developed by Renee A. Daugherty and Sue E. Williams.
  • Building Connections:  Community Leadership Program, Texas Cooperative Extension at The Texas A&M University System, developed by Chris Boleman, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, and Greg Taylor, Professor and Associate Extension Director-Community Programs.

Have you ever been in a group and then were asked to lead it—and produce results?  Did you know how to engage group members in a dialogue? 

Were you frustrated or discouraged by the lack of participation?  Were you able to lead the group to make a decision?

Leading a group is less stressful when you know how to a) engage people in discussion and b) coordinate well organized meetings that get great results. But this type of work isn’t easy.

Strengthening Your Facilitation Skills (SYFS) is a five-part, 15-hour training series designed to help local citizens learn how to get work done more effectively and efficiently in group meetings. SYFS will help you learn the best practices of facilitation, observe facilitation challenges, practice facilitation skills in an experiential setting, and receive feedback in a safe environment.

Participants in Strengthening Your Facilitation Skills will:

  • Learn effective facilitation skills;
  • Observe facilitation challenges, such as constant change, competing priorities, changing team members, limited time and carefully guarded resources;
  • Practice skills in an experiential setting and receive feedback in a safe environment;
  • Receive a resource notebook; and
  • Commit to building the community leadership resources by donating facilitation time to local groups.

Virginia Cooperative Extension offers SYFS in local communities and provides experienced trainers for each class. 

Your community or organization may sponsor this training by contacting your local Extension Office or calling 434-766-6761. 

Registration costs are nominal with each person receiving 15 hours of training and a comprehensive resource notebook.

Strengthening Your Facilitation Skills (PDF | 1MB)


Megan M. Seibel, Ph.D.
Director, VALOR
Associate Director, Center for Cooperative Problem Solving
Extension Specialist, Leadership and Decision Making



Community Viability is helping train and support community leaders and county elected officials through the Virginia Certified County Supervisor Program. The program, developed in partnership with the Virginia Association of Counties (VaCo) and Virginia Tech Professor Emeritus, Mike Chandler, has been cited as one of the most intensive and comprehensive certification programs in the country for county elected officials.  

VaCo President-elect and program graduate, Phillip Bradshaw, had this to say, “This program is very beneficial for any supervisor whether they have just begun or if they are a seasoned veteran. The tools and resources that are provided cannot be attained anywhere else in the state and they are very valuable for supervisors to use in managing their county not only for today, but for tomorrow.”

Over fifty local elected officials have completed at least one of the program’s courses or electives. Participant feedback reveals that participants were able to translate course content and learning into more effective personal performance, enhanced board effectiveness, and enhanced county government effectiveness. 

Eric Bendfeldt
Extension Specialist

Crystal Tyler-Mackey
Extension Specialist

Conaway Haskins
Extension Specialist


For questions regarding community and leadership tips, advice, and research, please contact a Community Viability specialist, contact your county's unit office, or browse through the Community & Leadership topics for specific contact information.