Southern Bancorp has the mission to revitalize struggling rural communities in Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta. For years, Southern Bancorp invested millions of dollars to mitigate poverty in these communities, but the effort failed to have a significant impact on reducing poverty. Southern’s innovative strategy is to build long-term partnerships with residents, local leaders, the business community, nonprofits, and other stakeholders to establish community goals, build capacity to achieve them, and maintain momentum until the goals are achieved and the community begins to turn around. As communities are reinvigorated by this approach, not only are their residents’ lives improved, but the communities become engines that drive revitalization in nearby towns. By making the bank the driver for comprehensive revitalization in struggling communities and Southern’s ability to leverage extensive financial and social capital to support revitalization efforts with a 20-year horizon rather than the typical short-term funding cycle.
Assess: Southern’s strategic planning process in Phillips County (its hallmark community) assessed local needs through over 60 community meetings held during a year-long planning process. Community members were invited to attend planning sessions on economic development, housing, education, leadership, and healthcare. More than 300 area residents contributed their skills, time, and institutional knowledge over an 18-month process to develop their plan for a revitalized Phillips County. The plan was unanimously endorsed by the community, civic, business, and government organizations locally and throughout the State of Arkansas. Southern’s local full-time community development staff took a lead role in pushing this assessment phase forward by assisting with logistics, identifying local resources, documenting feedback, and encouraging community-wide support and action. In 2010, over 600 local residents assisted in updating and revising the goals and objectives for the next ten years. The increased involvement and ongoing commitment of local residents speaks to the strategy’s success.
Plan: Southern’s mission is to revitalize struggling rural communities in Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta. Southern believes that by decreasing unemployment and poverty rates by 50 percent and increasing high school graduation rates by 50 percent over a twenty-year period, communities will be fundamentally changed. Southern is committed to achieving these goals in targeted rural communities and has pledged a long-term commitment to the region. Southern recognizes that local ownership of development priorities is essential to the successful development of an effective revitalization plan. In Phillips County, Southern hired local full-time community development staff to establish relationships with residents, civic groups, businesses, and government officials in order to build support for a revitalization plan. Although Southern played a key role in organizing planning efforts, over 600 local residents were responsible for developing and implementing a vision for their community through strategic goals, called the Delta Bridge Project (www.deltabridgeproject.com).
Act: The implementation of a comprehensive plan for revitalization requires the full support of local residents. Southern engages the community by soliciting their assistance on local committees that work to develop and then implement objectives of the strategic plan and monitor the overall progress of activities. Southern’s community development staff provide daily support and technical assistance to local committees and helped the community move forward and accomplish goals of the community’s strategic plan. Once the community has made significant progress toward achieving their initial goals, Southern facilitates the involvement of local residents to recognize their progress and challenges and to revise their community plans for the next steps. In Phillips County, the initial planning process involved over 300 local residents. Many more joined the ranks as residents worked to implement the goals of the Delta Bridge Project plan. Over 600 residents were involved in the recent process to revise the plan.
Evaluate: Southern’s community-driven strategic planning process and leveraged investments in Phillips County produced tangible, visible results in a relatively short time-frame. Southern expanded this innovative model into Clark County, Arkansas with equal success. In Mississippi, Southern recently launched its process in Coahoma County and is expanding revitalization efforts in Sunflower County. Southern initiated a social metrics division to track relevant data and evaluate the progress of revitalization efforts on its long-term goals of decreasing poverty and unemployment by 50 percent and increasing high school graduation by 50 percent. Southern is working closely with Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, who has encouraged communities across the state to adopt elements of Southern’s model. Southern named one of America’s top social entrepreneurs in 2010 by Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek and has been recognized as an innovation leader by banking and the philanthropic sectors with numerous awards, such as the Council on Foundation’s Critical Impact Award.
Sustain: Southern’s strategic planning process in Phillips County is an ongoing initiative; accomplishing the historic change envisioned by residents in the plan will likely be a multi-generational effort. Southern has made a long-term commitment to see the process through to completion, as symbolized by Southern’s community bank. By signaling a long-term commitment to the community; engaging residents in a visioning and planning process; and providing targeted grants and loans, daily support, and assistance in leverage outside funding, Southern is able to mobilize rural communities like Phillips County to take charge of their own futures. Southern’s leadership is fully committed to this effort; most of its shareholders have unanimously agreed to have dividends reinvested into revitalizing rural communities—an unprecedented commitment. Southern also strives to ensure the company’s financial strength, which helped it to become the nation’s largest rural development bank at a time when other banks have struggled and even failed.
Southern’s comprehensive and geographically-targeted community-development approach touches most every community resident. In Phillips County alone, Southern’s work has generated $74 million in investment. Specific results include:
Southern’s activities have helped leverage over $120 million throughout Phillips County and other targeted communities in various stages of comprehensive change, reaching thousands of families in America’s largest and most persistently distressed region.
Southern Bancorp Website: www.banksouthern.com