Rural Voices Evaluation – Some Detailed Lessons

We’ve now officially closed our Rural Voices grant from the Blandin Foundation and thought we’d share the full 10 page evaluation with you. Our four rural Minnesota forums continue as all volunteer local enterprises within our 15+ community network.

Below are some excerpts to give you a sense of what is in the Word, PDF, or Open Doc format versions of our report.

Your further input and comment welcome.

For additional insights see our 15 rural voices related blog posts and in terms of where we are going next, see new efforts.

Steven Clift

A couple of excerpts …

1. Please restate the goals of your grant.

Promote the voice of rural Minnesotans through the Internet within their local communities…by creating meaningful connections among local people using online tools.

2. What progress have you made toward these goals?

  1. with local volunteers helped launch four local Issues Forums in rural Minnesota successfully:
  • Three directly supported by the grant in Bemidji, Cass Lake/Leech Lake, and Cook County
  • The fourth in Grand Rapids in conjunction with KAXE’s Northern Community Internet Project
  1. We demonstrated the value of in-person outreach efforts to reach the 100 members required for successful start-up. This included the effective use of paper sign-up sheets to recruit people for an online forum.
  2. We introduced the use of “citizen media” to raise rural voices through our regional in-person citizen media outreach meetings/events in Fergus Falls, Winona, Bemidji, Cass Lake, and Grand Rapids. Attendance varied from 5 to 20. Ironically, the smallest event in Cass Lake/Leech Lake led to the most successful forum launch.
  3. We hosted a citizen media/Issues Forum webinar with over 30 attendees.
  1. We leveraged project outreach to include Issues Forum volunteers in the Blandin-sponsored Minnesota Voices Unconference:
  2. Bemidji and Cass Lake received second site visits in fall 2009 that included volunteer interviews, “information seeking” training, and forum picnics.
  3. Issues Forums are creating meaningful connections that are opening up and influencing the direction of local public life – although it is important to note that these forums are in their early days. As these are designed to last for years at a low actual cost, we expect that future research, and evaluation of the long-term results of this rural expansion and the full Issues Forum network and experience will be extremely useful.

… skipped a bunch …

F. Lessons Learned

1. What lessons have you drawn? What helped or hindered your efforts?

    Many of our lessons are interspersed above. Below are a few additional reflections:

    • Support for the local Forum Manager is what matters most. Local committees mostly function as start-up teams. The resources to establish them as something more like “service clubs” are more effort than is required for a basic start-up. We are streamlining our model to allow just one person to take charge of this idea locally while focusing the local team on start-up. This new approach is detailed here. While we would like to invest in full local committee activities, during these economic times we do not see the support emerging for that level of effort.
    • The tepid response from rural elected officials is the most dramatic difference from our urban experience. Grey-area questions generated by general legal advisories provided by the League of Cities ( are likely part of the cause. Such commentaries lump public online forums with private group e-mail communications, and suggest the exposure of even one elected official’s interactions with the public to a quorum of members could violate the state Open Meeting Law. With future launches, we recommend making brief presentations to elected bodies and encouraging resolutions that support such online efforts in their community. At various times our forums have been linked to by local government websites and in one case a forum start-up with directly sponsored by a city government as part of its community visioning effort; those kinds of connections should be sought again.
    • While not specific to this project, we remain bullish on the value of Issues Forums hosted by, but are considering ways to better train and educate others on how to adapt our lessons and techniques to build other types of forums in their own communities. To further our mission, we are exploring a relationship with the site hosted by to promote local online communities, as well as hosting a peer-to-peer learning space for all local forum managers ( 90% of the actual cost of Issues Forums is covered through volunteer capacity, the continued necessary subsidy of the other 10% for 25+ forums across 15 communities must be addressed before we can expand aggressively to new communities. We do not yet have the capital required to experiment with business models that generate sufficient revenue, even $5 per participant per year, through sponsorship, advertising, or participant donations.We are experimenting with a volunteer-built service called Neighborly, at, which would allow people to connect privately in small groups with those who live nearest them. We see this working in rural areas as well. This service would connect people into public issues forums where they exist, but going to scale would require a path for local sponsorship and advertising combined with the ability to serve people without needing volunteer teams to get started (you could support them later).

    Forum Manager Interviews – Audio

    Update: We’ve added the Cook County Conversations interview with Jim Boyd below.

    The other week with our community visits to Bemidji and Cass Lake, I sat down with our volunteer forum managers for one on one interviews.The audio is below.

    These are part of our final evaluation for our Blandin Foundation Rural Voices initiative to help interested greater Minnesota communities start Issues Forums. We led off efforts with a citizen media online outreach tour (webinar version) which also connects to the Minnesota Voices online community and April’s Unconference.


    I first sat down with Jeff Ueland in Bemidji and then Dan LeClaire (pictured above on right) with our Cass Lake Leech Lake forum. I discovered how difficult it is to edit a MP4 HD video over 1GB in size on the web, so for now here are the audio files in easy to use MP3 audio. This is the list of questions I used in my interview (thanks for the feedback).

    Celebrating in Bemidji and Cass Lake – Rural Voices Check-in

    As we wind up the final activities in our Rural Voices effort supported by the Blandin Foundation we will be visiting our new Issues Forum communities to celebrate online participation efforts thus far and to gather lessons and input for what is next.

    Fighting to Keep a Chicken Permit in Bemidji

    Issues Forums evolve over time. After initial start-up, they can benefit significantly from periodic in-person recruitment (the paper sign-ups we promote) and discussion seeding/announcement sharing. Because we don’t rely on web traffic (e-mail delivery is the default), what is most important is a compelling reason for someone to use the forum be it saving your chicken permit in Bemidji or fighting the tar sands pipeline which is proposed to go near Cass Lake from Canada. For weeks a forum may seem almost dormant, particularly during the summer, then one e-mail and bang back in business. Prior to the picnics we will be sharing tips on “information seeking and discussion seeding” to help you keep your forums active and continue to grow members.

    If the drive isn’t too far and you want to learn about Issues Forums from actual participants, we have two parties planned as well as the mini-trainings. Ed Davis and I may also have time to meet on the side. So join us.

    Wed. Sep 23 – Bemidji: EVite

    Thu. Sep 24 – Cass Lake: EVite

    We haven’t set our Cook County, MN visit yet and while Grand Rapids is funded as part a different project, we plan to connect with that community as well.

    Going forward, all of our local Issues Forums (except the Frogtown and Cedar Riverside neighborhood forums) are in what we call “all volunteer” mode where the local communities are in the lead position when it comes to their destiny. Participant technical support (Ed’s help for members) and hosting is also supported by donations (and/or future sponsorship and advertising).

    Steven Clift

    Good. Great. Fantastic. – Cass Lake Leech Lake Finds a Voice Online

    Local volunteers recently launched the Cass Lake Leech Lake Issues Forum. It is the first of four new local online Issues Forums opening acrorss rural Minnesota communities as part of E-Democracy.Org’s network with the support of the Blandin Foundation. The Cass Lake area has a majority Native American population and is part of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation (forum participants are also represented by multiple counties and most of the area is also within a national forest).

    “Since the initial recruitment drive, a variety of people have been saying, ‘We’ve been waiting for something like this for a long time,” LeClaire said. “It’s very encouraging to see member’s enthusiasm and imaginative, well-worded posts. I’m looking forward to devoting more time to managing the threads and cultivating more wide-spread participation among the membership.”, said Daniel LeClaire, the volunteer Forum Manager and reporter for the Cass Lake Times.

    Enjoy this video montage by Cass Lake volunteers … the first bit has some background noise, but it gets better. It ends with the simple participant comment when asked how the forum is going she simply says, “Good. Great. Fantastic.”

    Issues Forums are a unique model for building agenda-setting dialogue online. Participants use their real names and agree to engage on another in a civil and respectful manner – something quite rare on the Internet – on local issues. E-Democracy.Org, based in Minnesota, now hosts Issues Forums in 15 communities across three countries. Based on local interest, forums are organized at the neighborhood, community-wide, and regional level.

    Cass Lake Leech Lake, like Bemidji in recent weeks, launched with the required 100 members. Today over 150 participants are registered generating each month an average 57 posts with over 20 unique authors. Aggressive outreach efforts included paper sign-up forms at the post office, food shelf, and other locations as well as direct recruitment of high school students in civics classes. A forum launch party “movie night” in December and a grass roots Presidential inaugural party (non-partisan) where the whole community was invited to come in “their best blue jeans” emerged from forum discussions. New forums for the Grand Rapids area and Cook County are in the recruitment phase. The first three are being developed in collaboration with KAXE radio’s Northern Community Internet project and in Cook County the community team includes folks from WTIP North Shore community radio and the Cook County News Herald demonstrating the power of community partnerships in launching new forums.

    Cass Lake Leech Lake Inaugural Party
    Cass Lake Leech Lake Inaugural Party

    Daniel LeClaire, noted “the forum has made possible a more frank and open discussion of the influence of race/history on perceptions of current issues, from a fairly diverse group while making the effort to remain civil. More engagement here so far than I’ve witnessed at any other gatherings or events around the area.”

    Some Cass Lake Leech Lake topics generating considerable interest include:

    More from the Cass Lake Leech Lake Inaugural Party
    More from the non-partisan Cass Lake Leech Lake Inaugural Party

    Citizen Media and Online Engagement Webinar – Thu Feb 5 2009 – RSVP Now

    E-Democracy.Org is hosting “webinar” on citizen media and online engagement in local communities.

    This is the text from our wiki page (where you can RSVP and access links):

    For the fifth in our series of Rural Voices outreach events, this live and interactive presentation will be “everywhere.”

    Participate via telephone access for audio and use your computer to view slides and live web demonstrations. Click on “Test Your Computer” under “join a meeting” on ReadyTalk to make sure you can access the web portion for you before the event.

    * Part One – Citizen Media and Online Engagement Introduction – 45 Minutes
    * Part Two – Online Issues Forums for Local Participation – 45 Minutes

    Time: 2:00 p.m. Central Or (Or 8:00 p.m. UK, 9:00 a.m. Fri morn in New Zealand)

    Date: Thursday, February 5, 2009

    Place: ReadyTalk

    RSVP by Monday, Feb. 2: with “Webinar RSVP” in the subject to receive call-in/login details, please also add your name below

    Cost: Free for those in Greater Minnesota. If you are outside Greater Minnesota, please make a donation of any amount before you RSVP.

    More details:

    Participation is free for those who live in Greater Minnesota (thanks to our Rural Voices grant from the Blandin Foundation). Those who live in the Twin Cities and outside of Minnesota are asked to make a donation of any amount before the event. These are some of the slides we will be adapting. Those calling in for audio may have long-distance charges.

    Please join the new Minnesota Voices online community to be informed of any webinar updates. If you have questions, contact us.

    I plan to attend (from the wiki)

    To “reserve” your space now, [ please add your name, city, state/country and organization, blog/org link, etc. here – press edit]:

    1. Steven Clift, Minneapolis, MN, E-Democracy.Org,
    2. Ross Williams, Grand Rapids, MN, Northern Community Internet,
    3. Dan Thiede, St. Paul, MN, The Minnesota Project ( & CERTs (
    4. Persephone Miel, Boston MA
    5. Elizabeth McLean, Washington DC, non-profit web tools advocate
    6. Nancy LaRoche, Minneapolis, MN Non-profit Web site volunteer
    7. Danna MacKenzie, Grand Marais, MN Cook County IT and Boreal Access
    8. Lars Hasselblad Torres, MIT and Vermont
    9. Lynne Steele, Member of Parliament’s Office, Ottawa, Canada
    10. Dr. Carolyn Bennett, MP, Ottawa, Canada
    11. Taylor Willingham, Salado, TX, US Texas Forums & University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign,
    12. Steve Magruder, Louisville, KY, Louisville History & Issues,
    13. Paul Johnston, Internet Business Solutions Group, cisco
    14. Jennifer Imsande, Masters Program in Advocacy and Political Leadership, University of Minnesota Duluth
    15. Zeno Swijtink, Sonoma State University and SonomaWildlife

    Thank you. Your expression of interest will help us select the best tools to use for this live online gathering.

    Join Minnesota Voices – Greater Minnesotans Building Community with Web 2.0

    Minnesota in the world

    Do you blog? Or …

    Do you contribute to Wikipedia?

    Do you share photos on Flickr or upload videos to YouTube?

    Do you host an online forum or e-mail group?

    Do you gather links on Delicious?

    Do you develop “Web 2.0” software or websites?

    Do you work for an online news site promoting user-generated content and citizen journalism?

    Do you work online for an organization seeking to engage Minnesotans across the entire state?


    Are you passionate about your local community in Minnesota?

    Let’s mix those two areas of interest.

    E-Democracy.Org is teaming up with the Blandin Foundation to launch a new online community for you called Minnesota Voices Online. Opening in January, it will be a go to place for exchanging links, lessons, and announcements at the cross roads of Web 2.0 (user generated content, interactivity, mashable stuff, etc.) and local community with a focus on rural/Greater Minnesota.

    Join from:

    Our Outreach Coordinator, Jennifer Armstrong is leading the way with efforts to spread the word. Below is an announcement to share far and wide. The talented Ann Treacy will be the online groups host and help seed the exchange.

    Minnesota Voices Online

    A discussion forum for Minnesotans sharing their voices in the Internet age

    The Blandin Foundation and E-Democracy.Org have partnered to offer “Minnesota Voices Online,” an online forum for Minnesotans using new media technologies to build community – particularly across Greater Minnesota.

    Join from

    Are you telling local stories through new medias or using e-tools to engage your local community? If so, this is our space to share advice, tips, tools, and compare notes.

    “Whether it be through a blog, online forum, or a wiki, using audio, text, photos, video or mapping, more rural Minnesotans are using the Internet to tell the stories of their communities, their communities of interest or of Minnesota itself,” said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy at the Blandin Foundation. “Minnesota Voices Online is a space for these Internet age communicators to connect to each other, share lessons, ask questions and talk about the topics that most interest them”.

    The issues raised and topics discussed on Minnesota Voices Online will inform the planning of a Minnesota Rural Voices Unconference, scheduled for April 2009. An “Unconference” is a facilitated, participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose. The theme of the April 2009 unconference is Minnesota Voices Online Unconference: Connecting rural Minnesotans with new media so every place can share its voice in the Internet age.

    Questions? Contact Jennifer Armstrong at or 218-290-8020.

    Sharing Photographs and Videos the E-Democratic Way

    The summary:

    • Attach any size picture to your Issues Forum post via e-mail or the web. We do the rest – resize, present on web, etc.
    • Paste a link to a YouTube video in a post. We do the rest – the video player is displayed for all via your Issues Forum’s web view.

    At E-Democracy.Org we believe in leveraging what people actually do in private life online and work to pull that behavior into public life.

    Imagine that you are an everyday Internet user. You spend lots of time in your e-mail, visit a few regular websites, and you just barely figured out how to get your pictures off your digital camera on to your computer. While many use photo sharing services like Flickr, the vast majority share pictures via e-mail with friends and family.

    Voting in Minneapolis

    Say you are waiting in line to vote and you want to share a picture of that civic experience (either when you get home to an Internet connection or if your mobile has a camera and e-mail) or perhaps you spotted a critter you just have to share with your neighbors. To share a photo you simply need to attach it (them) to an e-mail or upload via the web. You don’t even need to resize your original photo. We do that automatically. We also place the image on the website so you don’t need to worry about overloading those with dial-up or slow connections.

    Possums in Minneapolis

    One other trick is that pictures attached to different posts on the same topic (subject line) form a manual slide show of sorts. Click on previous or next (don’t worry the post explains that the possum is playing dead.)

    Video too!

    With video, we’ve taken another track. We can’t do that any better or at least cost-effectively as using YouTube. So to share a video, simply cut and paste the standard link to a YouTube video in your post. When visiting a video on YouTube itself, it is the link on the right under the video description text labelled simply “URL.” Here is an example link (URL):

    Those visiting the website can then watch the video without having the leave the forum. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see a live example from the St. Paul Issues Forum during the Republican National Convention.

    A big thanks goes out to OnlineGroups.Net for implementing this new feature in the GPL open source GroupServer platform we use. Funding for these new features (and some more to promote) was provided by pooled resources from the Blandin Foundation, the MSNet Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation, and from a technical assistance grant from Ashoka.

    Issues Forum Presentation Slides, Bemidji and Cass Lake Leech Lake Say Yes

    Steve Kranz and I had a great time in Bemidji and Cass LakeLeech Lake Indian Reservation last week. We had about 20 people total across our two Your Voice. Your Community presentations highlighting some citizen media trends and digging into online civic engagement with Issues Forums.

    Below are our slides, and here is a short video from Cass Lake just outside the Leech Lake Tribal College.

    Volunteers from both Bemidji and Cass Lake have already followed up with strong interest and their local steering committees and forums are now being developed. Steve Kranz will be helping coach their start-up efforts.

    Sign up now to reserve your space in the Bemidji Area Issues Forum or the Cass Lake Leech Lake Issues Forum. If you’d like to participate in the local steering committee for either forum, drop us a note. We even have paper sign-up forms for Bemidji and Cass Lake Leech Lake available to download and print for in-person use. In addition to recruitment at key in-person events, planning for “virtual door knocking” will be required.

    The slides to preview or download (see our about Issues Forum section for our guidebook, etc.):

    Rural Voices Update – Your Voice. Your Community Online. Events in Bemidji and Cass Lake, Minnesota – 13-14 Aug 2008

    Work on our Rural Voices project is in full swing with Steve Kranz from Winona joining our team. In addition to joining this event tour, Steve is assisting Fergus Falls with the launch of an Issues Forum and working to identify a southern Minnesota town for another Issues Forum. Efforts are underway for a potential “citizen media and online engagement” event in Hutchinson, Minnesota as well. Our fifth and final outreach event will happen toward the end of the project as a telephone/Internet-based webinar.

    If you know folks in Bemidji or Cass Lake (including the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe), please pass on the announcement below.

    Steven Clift

    Your Voice. Your Community Online.

    Discover exciting online opportunities and tools you can use to improve your local community and increase citizen participation. Explore E-Democracy.Org’s Issues Forum model in-depth and learn about related citizen media tools in a free workshop in Bemidji on August 13 or Cass Lake on August 14.

    This session, presented by Steven Clift, Founder of E-Democracy.Org and international public speaker, and Steve Kranz, leader of the Winona Online Democracy chapter and former Winona school board chair, will help your community create the capacity for agenda-setting, civil, and darn useful online public engagement that matters.

    Time: 6:00 – 8:00 PM
    Date: Wednesday, August 13, 2008
    Place: Northwest Technical College
    RSVP requested, not required to: KAXE, 1-800-662-5799
    Snacks and Refreshments will be provided

    Time: 10:00 AM
    Date: Thursday, August 14, 2008
    Place: Leech Lake Tribal College
    RSVP requested (not required) to: KAXE, 1-800-662-5799
    An informal conversation with the presenters and a light lunch will follow the presentation.

    This presentation is sponsored by KAXE – Northern Community Radio and with funding from the Blandin Foundation

    If you cannot attend, but would like to help start an Issues Forum for our area, please contact Dennis Montgomery at:

    For example Issues Forums see:
    Guidebook and more: