Leveraging Deep Community Ties: Rural Funders Tackle COVID-19

The philanthropic response to COVID-19 has been dominated by three separate but interconnected themes: (1) Relaxation of standard reporting requirements, programmatic restrictions and timelines, (2) Advocacy for funders to extend themselves past standard 5% payout spending policies and (3) Creation of emergency funding pools or other rapid response structures. While all are worthy of consideration, these trends are not groundbreaking for place-based family funders who have deep connectivity to their communities in ways that extend past grantee relationships. Moreover, place-serving funders with a rural base typically have an even closer relationship with their communities as these funders are often the sole large-staffed philanthropic enterprise in their county or region. While the national philanthropic media might overlook rural America, these rural family funders have been here along. Consequently, there isn’t much of a need for family funders to reach out or pivot to respond to community crisis. It is the kind of thing that’s second nature.

So, in the midst of COVID-19, what does rural family philanthropy look like? We spoke with four rural family foundations during the period of April 13-22, 2020. Each foundation represents a distinct rural geography, grantmaking focus, and family history.

Here are snapshots of each foundation: their responses to COVID-19, the outlook for the future, and current and potential challenges.

Rasmuson Foundation

Rasmuson Foundation is Alaska’s largest funder and serves as a legacy of the Rasmuson family’s long heritage in the region going back to the early 1900s. Alaska hasn’t been hit hard yet by COVID-19 (314 cases as of April 21, 2020) but the Rasmuson Foundation has been preparing for new grantmaking demands since March when the Mayor of Anchorage enacted a stay-at-home order. With a reduced endowment due to the stock market downturn and a policy of sticking closely to a 5% payout, the foundation has been reducing expenses and temporarily transitioned to an invitation-only grantmaking structure. The foundation has also set aside $2 million specifically for COVID-19 relief efforts. Concurrently, Alaska is in the midst of multiple converging negative economic forces: the sinking price of oil, cancellation of the summer tourist season, the bankruptcy of the major commuter airline, and diminished fishing revenue due to quarantine requirements and other pandemic-related issues.

Diane Kaplan is the President and CEO of the Foundation. “I am making calls every day to leaders around the state asking, ‘What do you need and what do we need to know.’ We are a high-touch funder; Board members know the state and know our grantees. Rasmuson convened leaders to create the statewide Alaska COVID-19 response fund in partnership with the Alaska Community Foundation and the United Way of Anchorage. Our support allowed 100% of the public’s donations to be used for direct non-profit support.”

Importantly, Rasmuson is supporting weekly newspapers and public radio to help ensure the dissemination of accurate COVID-19 news in the midst of plummeting advertising and sponsorship revenue. A PPE purchasing consortia for non-hospital health and human services organizations has been established by the foundation, university, state government, and a major hospital system. “Everything hitting at once has been devastating for our communities. Much time has been spent talking with elected officials—from the Congressional delegation to the Governor’s office to Mayors to ensure that nonprofits are included in all aid packages. This is very personal for our family members on the Board.”

T.L.L. Temple Foundation

Dr. Wynn Rosser is President and CEO of the T.L.L. Temple Foundation serving 23 rural counties in deep east Texas. The Temple Foundation is the only foundation of size headquartered in the region and focuses on jobs, education, food, and rural broadband access. “Given high rates of poverty and few funding partners, we already have to make hard choices, so COVID-19 is no different. We are doing essentially what everyone else has done with existing grants (e.g. flexible deadlines) but nothing is a new priority. Food insecurity and other basic needs are something we’ve supported for decades. I have been given additional grantmaking authority, but the longer the economic impact extends, we will be filling in around the edges in comparison to state and federal support.”

Although the foundation’s board includes community trustees, family board members are dispersed and no lineal descendent of the foundation’s namesake lives in these rural counties. For that reason, Rosser and the foundation staff have to make sure they are able to update the board on local conditions that span an area larger than some of the 50 states. “We have spent lots of time thinking about what our role should be in response to COVID-19 and came around to supporting our current grantees that are able to execute their mission—especially on basic needs. The fact that the family has had a role in the region for such a long time does create expectations and the family considers those expectations an important part of its legacy.”

Within the philanthropic community, Rosser has been disappointed at the lack of discussion around rural philanthropy during COVID-19. “We don’t have, for example, a large funder pool to engage. We are the only funder focused specifically on this region. The funder group calls that I have been part of don’t seem to have any rural considerations as part of the work.”

JF Maddox Foundation

Bob Reid is the CEO of the JF Maddox Foundation in Hobbs, New Mexico. Maddox is the largest funder in New Mexico while still focusing its work almost entirely within Lea County, New Mexico. Notably, Lea County is currently the single largest oil producing county in the United States.

JF Maddox has family members that are distributed across the United States. With only one local non-family board member, Reid and his staff have needed to constantly update the board on local conditions—for example, sending them local press clippings on a routine basis. Because of this effort, the Foundation board remains deeply concerned about and dialed into challenges arising in its grant area. The double whammy of oil prices at record lows along with anticipated COVID-19 impacts have hit the region hard. There have been major layoffs and unprecedented food safety net demands. Newly homeless residents are now being housed in local hotels for shelter.

In response, Maddox has acted quickly. “We are more relational than procedural and are equipped to respond rapidly to changing circumstances. We are here to help our nonprofits as they respond to needs. They are not looking for direction from us. In some cases, convening may be as helpful as checks but we have made an emergency grant to the local food bank, are working with Salvation Army on emergency housing, and our management team has been granted additional discretionary grantmaking authority by the board to make sure we can respond quickly,” observed Reid. While some funders are venturing into new areas, Maddox is focused on supporting its existing work. “We have stress tested all our grantees and we know their situations really well. We will continue to do much more listening than talking.” For JF Maddox, the choice has been to support existing grantees, rather than chart new courses.

The Lumpkin Family Foundation

The Lumpkin Family Foundation is located in Coles County, Illinois. Coles County has not yet been hit hard by COVID-19—22 cases as of May 4, 2020,—but the foundation is preparing for the economic impact on grantees, while trying not to jump too fast. Bruce Karmazin, Executive Director, stated, “I want to make sure that the board is prepared prior to COVID-19 hitting our region hard. We have committed $125,000 to a local community foundation fund while at the same time continuing to support our long-term strategic work on food systems and climate change. We will likely end up going over our standard 5% payout as part of our response and are redoing our grant application and other requirements to help pave the way.”

Karmazin has a broader system-level engagement around rural COVID-19 response as a committee member of the statewide Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund. “I am actively representing the needs of rural communities on that committee.”

What Have We Learned?

For many foundations serving rural populations, the effect of COVID-19 has been delayed. The virus has yet to spread through rural communities in the way that densely populated urban areas have seen. Yet rural funders have already made grantmaking responses or been in deep conversation with their boards, grantees, and local community representatives to decide on a strategy and put a plan for recovery in motion. There has also been an acknowledgement that place-based funders will still have to contend with the specific challenges of their communities during COVID-19—the economic downturn was present before the crisis, and will be further worsened as the virus spreads. Rural funders will be challenged to address pre-existing inequities alongside a pandemic, and oftentimes there is a lack of philanthropic partners to work with.

The funders interviewed are all dedicated to their rural work and consider their rural strategies, communities and family legacies to be inextricably intertwined. Family philanthropy in their communities often preceded the formal establishments of the foundations. After the crisis passes—and the attention of government and national funders has moved elsewhere— these rural funders will be working with their communities for the post-COVID 19 recovery and continuing on with the long-term strategies established prior to COVID-19. This type of active, continuous relationship-building is one of the hallmarks of rural-based family funders that distinguishes itself as a distinct branch of philanthropy. And when the next crisis erupts, these family funders will be the first in line to support the community response.

This article originally appeared on The National Center for Family Philanthropy blog in May 2020.

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