Rural woRx – First Impressions

The Rural Philanthropic Analysis (RPA) Project, housed at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC, is a taking a deep look at rural foundation work around the country with the intent of elevating effective practice, aligning related efforts and promoting promising models of rural philanthropy for broader audiences. We will be presenting our work via various blogs, writings, presentations and on our website at www.campbell.edu/rpa. This work is supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.*

We are three months into our project to help bring together a knowledge base about what is working well in rural philanthropy. To date, this has included over 60 phone interviews with health foundations, grant makers’ networks and affinity groups. By the end of November, our team will have participated in 10 national or statewide annual meetings like those hosted by Philanthropy Northwest, Environmental Grantmakers Association, Grantmakers for Education and the Philanthropy Southwest Rural Funders Group. Next up will be explorations with national and regional rural groups representing non-healthcare constituencies like transportation, K-12 education and food systems. Then, the site visits will begin!

All this inquiry is meant to answer some fundamental questions:

  • How can governmental, national and local funders best work together towards aligned outcomes in rural regions of the United States?
  • Where are the natural synergies across content areas? For example, how can rural education and health funders be working more closely towards improving a culture of health and well-being?
  • What are the natural regional alliances that could be partners for national funders? What should those partnerships look like?
  • What rural philanthropic efforts are incorporating equity considerations?
  • What does effective rural leadership and capacity building look like?

Going forward, Blog posts will capture thematic findings, as well as present some compelling stories of rural problem-solving where philanthropy has helped local communities confront fundamental issues impacting community well-being. You will also hear from our team members as they reflect on various conferences, meetings and site visits.

For our initial Blog however, lets report on a few overarching themes we are digesting based upon our work to date:

Effective rural philanthropy is “local”

With no prompting, the last three in-depth conversations I have had with local and statewide funders have quickly moved to a discussion about the necessity for funders to connect their rural work with local people and organizations. There is a sense that far too often funders are taking the easy way out and making grants that are somehow organically supposed to be transferable across states and from urban to rural. One frustrated state funder we heard from described how nationally funded advocacy groups often descend on her state without any established local networks and strongly distract from the longer term advocacy efforts that are being locally funded. Or as one other funder put it, “What happens in Richmond doesn’t mean anything to people here.”

“Rural” and “equity” aren’t always aligned in philanthropy

I have been a long term advocate for philanthropy to better understand that rural work doesn’t mean supporting one homogenous single block of people who look and talk the same. Any simple mapping exercise should make that clear. Interestingly, some of our interviewees have been caught off guard a bit by us asking about how equity is part of their rural work. Their perception was that equity wasn’t an issue because of the demographic homogeneity of their regions. The equity considerations that we are trying to learn about are those that take into account the tremendous wealth and educational disparities that exist in some rural communities as well as histories of class separation. In other words, is philanthropy supporting the same social structure and decision-making processes that impede inclusion?

“Best practice” and “evidence-based” in rural philanthropy might mean variation

A number of our interviewees made sure that we were aware that the demands of government and foundations pressing a best practice and evidence-based implementation agenda were poor fits for their rural communities given the lack of implementation infrastructure and support. Funders were creatively melding components of rural change strategies together and were looking for partners to help document, test and place into the philanthropic field.

As promised, stay tuned for more blogs coming soon. Go to our website at: www.campbell.edu/rpa for the latest information on resources, writings and letting us know where you are finding innovation and energy regarding rural philanthropy.