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Director’s Blog 7.0

Closing Out This Phase and Moving Forward with Urgency and Commitment

As the Rural Health Analysis Project winds down its first generation of work, Director Allen Smart reflects on what to expect going forward for the project and the rural philanthropic field.

It’s a gray, rainy, winter day here in rural North Carolina and I am reminded of how deceptive the term “rural” can be. While we here in Buies Creek watch the Triangle sprawl getting closer and closer, other rural parts of the country are losing population, while still others are magnets for immigrants, retirees, and those looking for a more engaged way of life. It’s this complexity and nuance that has often proven elusive to the world of philanthropy. Thankfully, the interest and activity in rural philanthropy has never been greater — even without the public commitment of large national funders like we saw in the 1980s and 1990s.

In March, the currently funded work of the Rural Philanthropic Analysis (RPA) project housed here at Campbell University will conclude, as anticipated. We are eternally grateful to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for their support throughout the effort as well as Campbell University leadership. None of this would have been possible without them.

Happily, the graduate assistants for the project — currently Kanesha Bonner and Parrish Holmes — will stay with us. Campbell will also begin the process of wrapping together a number of their important rural initiatives from the Public Health Program, Divinity School and Law School (to name just a few) under a common web page home that better describes the interconnectedness of much of this work. RPA will have an ongoing presence with that work.

We will continue to curate blogs and social media that reflect both the challenges and the vision for a strong and engaged rural America, generally from the philanthropic lens. You will likely see less original material (we produced more than 25 blogs and articles in 2018) but we will continue to be present in the national philanthropic discussion about the connection between rural America and philanthropic strategy and best practice. There are still a number of pieces of work that we haven’t made public yet and hope to finish up during the coming year.

Soon you will see an important and beautifully designed set of pieces coming from Campbell that document the series of RPA field visits we conducted last summer and fall. Betsey Russell, longtime communications strategist and writer for philanthropy, and Kim Moore, recently retired president of the United Methodist Healthcare Ministries Foundation, took a tour of rural philanthropy and community engagement from Maine to Washington, south to New Mexico and then back to Iowa. These narrative reports combine philanthropic and community perspectives on rural innovation, and we know they will be a source of learning and reference for the field. We are excited to share them.

As we wrap up this phase of work, we are testing our ideas about sustainable rural philanthropic networks with our National Advisory Committee as well as beginning the process of convening some national and regional funder groups that have expressed interest in being part of a developmental path. Funding, of course, is always part of the equation and we hope we can find some allies and partners interested in providing some initial support.

As for myself, I will continue to write, present, and provoke the field as opportunities arise. My consulting side (philanthropworx.com) will become more visible and active during 2019 and I hope to continue work with funders, funder groups, and nonprofits that have interests in advancing their work on rural, program officer role reinvention, risk profiles or general philanthropic and nonprofit performance and engagement. Some of you reading this will undoubtedly hear from me as prospective project and thought partners.

As I have said many times over the past 20 months, it has been a blessing to work across the country with such optimistic, talented, and committed people. We are in a unique time in the history of philanthropy in which many in our field are seriously questioning foundations’ very core reasons for being. Self-reflection is always good, but after 20+ years in the field, I remain a firm believer that philanthropy can be one of the best supporters of real change in communities.

Thanks so much to everyone,
Allen