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Enterprise Facilitation in Northeast Oregon
by Peter Donovan

(Excerpted from a longer essay. The complete text is available at the website:http://www.managingwholes.com


As a young volunteer for the Italian government in Zambia in 1971, Ernesto Sirolli saw that the top-down method of economic development was deeply flawed, and that it was irresponsible to try to turn hunter-gatherers into agriculturalists, or to help people in ways that they did not want to be helped. Though some development professionals have suspected this for some time, the extent to which Sirolli acted on his ideas, tested them and developed them, is radical and unprecedented.

Ernesto Sirolli’s book, .Ripples from the Zambezi has a gripping description of how, in Esperance, Western Australia—an isolated rural community of 10,000 people—he pioneered the bottom-up, responsive facilitation model that he now teaches to interested communities. Brian Willoughby, the facilitator in Esperance since Sirolli trained him in 1986, has helped self-motivated people start almost 500 new businesses, most of which are still in business…

The key ideas behind the method are:

1. Never initiate projects or motivate people. Instead, be available for free and in confidence, to give competent one-on-one management coaching to people who are self-motivated, who already possess the commitment to turn their idea into a viable business…

2. No single person is likely to be adept and committed at marketing, financial management, and production, all three of which are required for success . Facilitation must be able to link the passionate entrepreneur with people who love to do what he or she hates—in other words, to build a complementary team for the task. The committee of local civic leaders, which stands behind the facilitator, helps find people and resources.

Invitation to Oregon

In 1999, Ernesto Sirolli was invited to Wallowa and Baker counties to present his Enterprise Facilitation method. Though government entities became involved early on… the motivation came primarily from citizens. In each county, a volunteer committee coalesced around the idea, raised funds with the help of government organizations, got an overview of how to run a bottom-up entrepreneurial development effort, hired a full-time Enterprise Facilitator who was then trained by Sirolli, and then began to act as a live local network for the facilitator, helping to find people and resources for those who come to the facilitator and are serious about turning their ideas into viable new or expanded businesses.

In each county it was the seriousness and commitment of volunteers who wanted to make facilitation available in their community, that created pathways for the new approach…

Baker County

Baker County’s program, called BEGIN (Baker County Enterprise Growth Initiative), hired Ruth Townsend as their facilitator in June 2000. A grandmother, Ruth has a background in small business—her family has an orchard, and for many years she did the marketing. BEGIN’s initial funding has come from Baker City, Baker County, and state and federal government sources.

Jean O’Brien began sewing and selling synthetic fleece garments when she lived in Joseph for Deve Wolfe, proprietor of Wolfe Fleece. Jean and her husband now live near Baker, and they have six kids. She wanted to open her own business, and heard about Ruth Townsend from some friends who also had a business.

“She came out. We talked,” said Jean. “She’s really helped me a lot, seeing where I’m at now, and where I’d like to be. How to branch out and go to the next steps. Ruth talked about the three legs of business [production, marketing, and financial management]. I like to make and sell the product, and I decided not to try to do the financial. Now I have a bookkeeper, and I trade her jackets, and make stuff for her grandkids.”

Jean designs and sews for her Arctic Fleece label—most of which she wholesales—and several people sew for her on a piecework or contract basis. “It’s grown pretty fast. I tend to want to just do it. Ruth has helped me pull back a little, and put the business into bite-sized chunks for me.”

Ruth helped her with a business plan that got O’Brien a line of operating credit from a local credit union to buy materials and pay the people who sew for her. “It’s people helping people. I think that’s really important in a small community…”

Randall Coots worked at the prison in Baker. “My wife and I loved used books and wanted to open a used bookstore”—which Baker lacked. A co-worker gave him one of Ruth Townsend’s business cards. “We met three times. She gave us all sorts of information. It was a huge help and it was all free.”

After finding figures and making projections, Randy and Sharla decided not to proceed. “Even with the most optimistic financial projections, it didn’t look good.” They would have had to re-mortgage their recently purchased house, and one of them would still have to work outside the bookstore.

“It is hard to find someone who’s realistic,” says Randy. “It’s easy to find yea or nay opinions, but it’s hard to find balanced opinions. We’re grateful to Ruth, who helped us get some solid information. She was trustworthy and fair…”

BEGIN’s monthly board meetings are an opportunity for Ruth to network with her board on behalf of her clients. She says, “we’re becoming a point of contact about small business. There is a free flow of requests, of information.” At a recent meeting, somebody was looking for a building at least 75 feet long to assemble wiring harnesses. A board member offered to help clients read profit and loss statements for businesses they are considering buying. There was discussion on how to help the new farmer’s market achieve success …

Wallowa County

Wallowa County’s program… hired Myron Kirkpatrick as facilitator. He began work in January 2001. Myron has been chief financial officer of some large corporations, has taught accounting and done small-business accounting, and has been involved in small business.

One example of facilitation in this county: Julie Andersen in the town of Enterprise used Myron’s help in opening her store selling natural herbs, essential oils, and natural cleaning supplies. “The biggest problem in small business is that you don’t know how to get from A to B, and you’re afraid of what you don’t know.” Julie was doing the bookkeeping herself, and had made a mess of things. Myron referred her to an experienced financial professional who was able to give Julie some affordable coaching in how to set up and structure her accounting system. “Myron didn’t fix my problem, but he told me where to go. He was absolutely the most helpful person…”

National Recognition

The two northeast Oregon efforts have received national recognition. In June 2001, the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District… serving Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, was selected by the National Association of Development Organizations as one of the top three winners of its prestigious Pioneer Award for Leadership… The District received the award for supporting BEGIN and the enterprise facilitation group in Wallowa County.

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