Celebrating 50 Years of Achieving Human Gain Through Individuals & Innovation.
After World War I, Laura Talmage, the wife of Frank Huyck, Jr., began to bring noted leaders in education, economics, labor relations, and history to Rensselaerville to meet with outstanding college students from the United States and abroad. These meetings, the Country Forums on Human Relations, laid the foundation for The Rensselaerville Institute. Everett and Winifred Clinchy, Lee Elmore, and Katharine Huyck Elmore (daughter of Francis Jr. and Laura Huyck) met here as young people and formed a lifelong friendship built on common interests.
In the early 1960s, the Elmores inherited Stonecrop and the Clinchys bought the Edmund Huyck house. Along with many of their influential friends, they then formed the Rensselaerville Institute, to which the Elmores and Clichys donated their Rensselaerville homes and the 100 acres of surrounding land.
The Years of Man and Science - the 1960s to the early 1980s
In 1963, The Rensselaerville Institute became The Institute on Man and Science. The Elmores and Clinchys brought notable figures to Rensselaerville, including United Nations Secretary General U Thant, ambassadors to the United Nations, as well as experts on space, science, history, philosophy, and medicine.
The first overnight guesthouse on the Institute’s new campus was The Ford Residence, built in 1968 and named in honor of Father George B. Ford, a colleague of Everett Clinchy. The Straus Guest Residence opened in 1969; it is named after Gladys Guggenheim Straus, President of the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation, and her husband Roger Straus. Oscar Straus served as first chairman of the Rensselaerville Institute Board of Trustees for many years and continues to this day as honorary chairman.
The Conference Center
In 1970, the newly appointed Program Director Hal Williams, a graduate of Stanford University and previous Program Director of the Aspen Institute, opened The Rensselaerville Institute to the public as a summer conference center. After the retirement of Everett Clinchy in 1972, Hal became President of the Institute.
Institute Development and Pivotal Programs
The dedication of The Guggenheim Pavilion in the summer of 1971 included an extraordinary program called “The Trial of Technology”. The aim of the Trial was to investigate the control and direction of technology at a time that was later recognized as the dawn of the computer age. Famed attorney Louis Nizer presided as judge at this mock trial.
A 1972 program, “Man in the Media”, featured three influential women -- Lenore Hershey, Duncan McDonald, and actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. Because of their strong objections to Institute’s emphasis on “Man”, the name was changed in 1983 to simply “The Rensselaerville Institute”. The program attracted world-renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov to Rensselaerville. He was so taken with the village and the Institute that he returned every summer until his death in 1992.
Self-help, Innovation and Guiding Principles
In 1973, the New York Times advertised the sale of a dying company town called Stump Creek in Western Pennsylvania. An intrigued and entrepreneurial Institute Board of Trustees approved the purchase for $125,000. Their purpose was to restore the small town in the spirit of Louis Mumford, an influential 20th century urban planner. It was also the beginning of the Institute’s current focus on “human effort leading to human gain”. Through its actions over the next ten years, the Institute learned first hand how self-help can restore a community, both physically and psychologically.
In 1977, the Institute purchased and facilitated self-help rehabilitation efforts in a second dying town- Corbett, New York. The Corbett experience attracted the attention of Charles Kuralt who featured the project on CBS’ Sunday Morning program in 1977.
As a result, in 1981 the Institute began a self-help collaboration program with the small Cherokee town of Bell, Oklahoma. Using the self-help program developed by the Institute in Stump Creek and Corbett, residents in the town of Bell built a 16-mile waterline, bringing water to their own homes for the first time. Their success inspired other such communities within Oklahoma, resulting in the self-help community building of over 100 miles of waterlines in that state.
In 1986 the Institute published The Self-Help Handbook, written by STEP Director, Jane Schautz. This book has become the bible for community self-help projects across the US. STEP received three national environmental awards from Renew America, a coalition of pro-environment organizations - one in 1990 for Drinking Water Improvement, another in 1996 for Improved Public Health and in 2000 for Environmental Sustainability.
Leading Innovation in Government
The experience with innovation at these self-help programs convinced the Institute that what worked in distressed communities could be applied elsewhere. As a result, in the mid-1980s the Institute began to test its guiding principles on improving the results of non-profit organizations and government through innovation. It first successfully collaborated with the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities and Arthur Webb, its Commissioner at the time.
Webb was so impressed with the results that he took a leave of absence from his job to work with the Institute on applying its guiding innovation principles to other government agencies. At the end of the 1980s, the Institute established the Innovation Group based on the set of principles developed from its self-help programs. Bill Phillips, who came to The Institute from the New York State Department of Social Services where he served as Director of Program Development, became the head of this group.
Two Institute publications grew out of this focus on Innovation. In 1990, Hal Williams created a quarterly journal called INNOVATING with articles about leading change. In 1991, Arthur Webb, Bill Phillips, and Hal Williams published the book entitled Outcome Funding, A New Approach to Targeted Grantmaking. This book takes the approach that grantmakers are investors who track the value of their investments through specific results achieved with their money. In 2004, Robert Penna and William Phillips wrote Outcome Frameworks, which provides an overview for nonprofits and community organizations on how to apply outcome thinking.
A Mature Institute
By the year 2000, The Institute's outcome focused programs had grown into an international network of staff and consultants working with a variety of products and programs. The programs focus on improving outcomes for foundations, governments and individual donors and educating individual nonprofit and community organizations to more effectively set and track targets. As throughout The Rensselaerville Institute's history the emphasis remained on the people who spark change in these sectors.
It also began to make its mark in the educational community, turning around low-performing schools with a signature program called “School Turnaround”. This program was designed, prototyped and developed under the leadership of Gillian Williams. In addition, the Institute’s work in communities has expanded from water and wastewater self-help programs to economic and civic development. Recognized for their hands-on approach that results in real change, the Institute became known as “the think tank with muddy boots.”
The Institute Today
In spring 2010 the Board of Trustees appointed Gillian Williams as President of The Rensselaerville Institute based on her decade of successful work leading School Turnaround. Under her leadership The Rensselaerville Institute was reorganized into its current structure of interrelated groups. The purpose of the new structure was to cluster staff and initiatives to create a greater degree of innovative thinking and collaboration. That now takes place with each group. The new structure has also led to an increase in synergy between various initiatives and programs.
In 2011, The Institute acquired The Center for What Works, a successful small non-profit with a base in Chicago. The Center for What Works expertise in research related to the use of outcome frameworks for other non-profits is an excellent fit with The Institute and is now an integral part of the organization.