Engaging in Successful Rural Philanthropy

It’s a critical time for Rural America, but what do we know about it? There are 60 million rural people in the United States, roughly 19 percent of the nation’s population. Yet, the level of (under)investment by philanthropy in rural communities is still staggering—at less than 7% of all grantmaking.

The rewards of rural philanthropy for both communities and funders can be transformative in ways that are both attributable and sustaining. No funder is too small to help rural communities pursue their hopes and dreams, and no funder is too large to contribute to the nation’s rural landscape—with a bit of thoughtfulness and rescaling, anyone can make an impact in Rural America.

There are funders who have been practicing rural philanthropy for some time, or who have entered this arena with impressive focus, energy, and innovation. In addition, there are assets in all rural communities that refute the tired clichés (lack of infrastructure, lack of leadership, outdated ideas) that are pervasive in national philanthropic rhetoric. Rural funders are embracing rural communities in ways that draw on the best of community engagement, embedded assets, and a common vision. These funders understand the contextual history of specific rural people and places and present communities with opportunities to engage on a personal and professional level.

So how can you better understand the rural context? While funders should certainly have a solid grasp of their own goals and strategies when entering rural philanthropy, it’s also critical to understand that rural communities are very different from urban ones — and very different from one another. It’s important to initially develop a common understanding of what you consider “rural”. While there are official definitions from both government agencies and some philanthropic groups, in my experience rural is best defined by people in the communities themselves. Even within the rural landscape, the definition may vary, and strategies that are effective in communities of 5,000 may not be transferable to regional rural hubs of 25,000.

Size is not the only differentiating factor. Rural communities are incredibly diverse — including many different groups representing a broad diversity of geography, race, and history. Equity comes in many dimensions in Rural America, including issues of race and ethnicity, economics and infrastructure, and equity of voice. Similarly, there is a wide range of political and value differences within rural communities.  Contrary to popular belief, faith institutions may or may not be influential in community life and leadership in smaller rural communities may be more informal than formal and come from unexpected places. All these factors create a context that can be very different from one rural community to the next —and require lots of funder flexibility.

Therefore, funders interested in doing effective rural work must commit themselves to a more hands-on interaction that embraces a broad range of ideas, people, nonprofits and the communities at large. There is often not a ready-made philanthropy-responsive sector to engage in a traditional transactional manner. Instead, the opportunities for real sustainable change are all in the working closely with people who are truly invested in just not their needs or gaps but in the deeply held conviction that their communities can move forward.

What does a successful rural engagement look like for a well-intentioned philanthropy?

  1. It’s broadly rooted in the place. In rural philanthropy, place—rather than a funder’s particular interest areas—should drive strategy. Single issue funders (such as those funding only education or environment) miss myriad opportunities for sustainability if they do not engage those outside of the traditional silos (e.g. school systems or conservation groups). Even the language funders use should reflect the lexicon of the community, rather than philanthropy jargon. For example, Healthcare Georgia Foundation’s Two Georgias Initiative supports independent community partnerships in 11 rural counties as they define their own paths to better health care access for residents. In addition, the foundation hired a communications professional to help the 11 counties communicate more effectively about their work with their own residents, in language that resonates locally.   
  2. It’s invested in existing assets that likely look different from urban ones. Strengthen what is already there. Consider general operating support for valued partners, and compensate them for their time and wisdom as they help you get to know their community. Grantees in rural places often will look and feel differently than grantees in urban philanthropy in size, scope, and structure. You may not find a non-profit with 50 staff holding graduate-level degrees to be a grantee. You may find, however, a group of unlikely partners who willing and able to cross traditional boundaries. When I worked at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, we saw this happen many times as part of our Healthy Places NC initiative. In rural Halifax County, for example, staff from the Chamber of Commerce, the county Parks & Recreation Department, and a community activist joined together to elevate physical activity in Halifax and created the first-ever county-wide parks plan that focused on equity.
  3. It’s open to new interpretations of success. Very little evidence-based or best-practice work has been developed or tested in rural communities. Pushing communities to pursue work based on urban models is thus not only ineffective, but may actually produce frustration and erode trust rather than achieve impact. You might share urban models as a means to spark discussion or offer them for rural adaptations, but be mindful before imposing urban models on rural communities. 
  4. Work doesn’t happen from behind a desk. Rural investments also often require staffing models that place foundation staff within rural communities or even hire from those same communities. For example, The Colorado Trust redesigned its staff in 2015 to replace traditional program officers with Community Partners who are expected to spend the majority of their time actively engaged on the ground in rural communities, building relationships, making connections, convening different community groups, and helping to further conversations around community-driven solutions. All are residents of the rural regions they serve.

All in all, rural philanthropy can be an exciting and dynamic new frontier. Just remember that you have access to the wisdom of experienced funders—and you can learn from their mistakes and successes. No matter where you begin, think of your rural investment as a journey full of small wins that will ultimately deliver a meaningful payoff.

This article originally appeared on Grantcraft blog in September 2018.