When Coleen West became executive director of the Howard County Arts Council eight years ago, she needed to familiarize herself with how things worked in the county. At the recommendation of one of her board members, West applied for training with Leadership Howard County.
"Leadership Howard County gave me a deeper understanding as to what's happening in the nonprofit world," said West. "It also provided a network of professionals I could call upon for help."
Empowering Howard's business and community leaders to become better volunteers has been the mission of Leadership Howard County for two decades. The program equips participants with the knowledge of the how things work in the county and fosters the necessary relationships and team-building skills to get things done.
In the course of 10 months each year, the 40-plus men and women who participate make site visits, conduct role plays, research issues and sit in classes taught by government leaders at the county and state levels.
"The people who are doing this have to be committed to the community," said Stacie Hunt Irish, executive director for the past three years and previously regional director of the United Way Campaign in Howard County.
Leaderhip Howard County was established in 1984, part of a movement nationally by local chambers of commerce to offer leadership development, said Shirley Burrill, who had led the group until she was succeeded by Irish. The group has operated as independent nonprofit for 18 years, and its graduates have helped hundreds of organizations over the years.
The program is funded mostly through tuition of $3,600. A scholarship fund is available. Applicants are required to have demonstrated leadership in accordance with their age and professional level.
Many participants are sponsored partially by their businesses or nonprofits. Many apply because a friend or co-worker is a graduate, or by personal invitation from Irish or one of the group's committee members.
Bill Munn, president and chief executive officer of BGE Home Products and Services, graduated from Leadership's 1988 class. Since then, he has been president of its alumni committee and chaired the boards of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and the United Way in Howard County.
Munn, who chairs the board of trustees of Howard County General Hospital and July 1 will become the new chairman of the board of directors of the county's Economic Development Authority, credits Leadership Howard County training with giving him opportunities to improve his interpersonal skills.
"You'll be a better board member. You'll be able to contribute more, sooner," said Munn.
Leadership Howard County has been working to broaden the diversity of its trainees, reaching deeper into faith communities and other nonprofit groups and expanding the mix of professions, ages and leadership potential of participants.
"Ten years ago, we could have predicted what businesses would have people in Leadership Howard County," said Irish. "Now 87 percent of county businesses are small businesses."
That fact, combined with the changing ethnic makeup of the residents, presents challenges.
"There is an expectation of the community that we reflect the community, but it's hard to do," said Irish. "It can take years of networking."
Irish is committed to changing any reputation the organization may have for being elitist. She is asking alumni to identify new groups and new areas in the business community to expand the base of potential applicants. In 1995, the program expanded to include high school juniors.
The group is also broadening its marketing strategy.
"We want to be selective but not unapproachable," Irish said.
And as the county's volunteer base ages, there is concern about who will step into those volunteers jobs. "That is our purpose at Leadership Howard County," Irish said, "to make sure there are people to replace them."