I just returned from a dynamic two-day meeting hosted by the Centers for Disease Control highlighting their new work on racial/ethnic rural disparities and featuring the efforts of various Offices of Rural Health around the country actively responding in creative ways to these long term disparities. This meeting comes on the heels of the release of the Southeastern Council of Foundation’s/MDC Passing Gears report and the Third Chapter of the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy’s “As the South Grows” series. All of this new, well-researched focus on philanthropy and its potential to assist with long term rural community support is well worth digesting and making part of your daily discourse.
However, I do wonder how much any accumulation of facts and stories can really shift the direction of the field to incorporate and embrace the best of rural philanthropy and the best outcomes for rural communities. Think of some of the barriers:
- Tension within funders about the value of rural work given the smaller scale, the shortage of obvious grantees and partners, and the sense that maybe all this attention given to rural will diminish support for urban.
- The dearth of foundation leaders with a personal or professional rural background—or the will to use philanthropy as a risk-taking agent of change.
- The widely varying quality of consulting provided to funders trying to be better rural learners.
- The frequent disconnect between the social and political views of foundation staff and sectors of rural leadership.
- The reliance on too many intermediaries with little rural sensibility.
- Processes and practices that signal to rural communities that they might not be welcome at the table.
- The fact that rural communities are simply too far from our urban office settings.
Thankfully, there are many funders who have found ways to not only address these barriers but to render them irrelevant (see Rural woRx #1 & Rural woRx #2). We will hear from many of these foundation leaders over the coming months. Importantly, let’s keep in mind that rural philanthropy could and should be exhilarating and soul sustaining. Now is not the time to engage in the kind of self-reflective angst and self-doubt that seems to be plaguing the field. Spend some time and find ways to move the internal funder world to support the everyday real-time challenges of rural viability. It can be a really mutually supportive experience.