Rural woRx – News from the Rural Road

Early travels lead to the discovery of many examples of effective work as we prepare to celebrate National Rural Health Day.

We continue to be busy with advancing the rural philanthropic message at national and regional funder gatherings by collecting and sharing our ongoing discoveries of innovative funder practice. We’ve also committed ourselves to helping to apply a rural funder lens to the aftermath from recent hurricanes, focusing on rural older adults quality of life issues, and featuring the bigger-than-ever National Rural Health Day celebrations on November 16th.

Reports from funder meetings. In September, Lisa Fisher of The Giving Practice did a great job in capturing some of the rural-centric highlights of the 30th Anniversary Fall Retreat of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. We will hear more from Lisa in the coming months but wanted to note some of the energizing work that she highlighted during her time with EGA such as: 1) one national environmental funder, the CrossCurrents Foundation, working across multiple sectors in rural communities to support and increase civic engagement, 2) one long-term environmental advocacy group that has demonstrated strong capacity-building aided by small grants that is working in the rural south, Center for Health, Environment and Justice, and 3) the Alaska Conservation Foundation, the state’s largest public charity supporting grassroots community capacity building in Alaska. All have commitments to building the ability of rural communities to represent themselves in community-relevant and sustainable ways and importantly are combining big picture rural advocacy work with on-the-ground action.

Lisa also highlighted the University of Michigan Environmental Fellows Program, which is intentionally embedding graduate students interested in philanthropy within the walls of funders. While few of the Fellows in recent years have come from rural backgrounds, it would be a great opportunity for some rural-interested funders to expand this program or similar programs to engage Fellows with personal and professional rural interests. Like many components of the culture of health, environmental issues disproportionately impact rural communities.

A few weeks later, Brian Meyers from the Empire Health Foundation hosted a roundtable at Philanthropy Northwest’s annual conference with the provocative question of, “How could a national funder be most helpful to rural funders and rural communities?” Clearly this is a relationship where local and regional funders want to be involved. These four threads emerged: 1) National and large state funders need to accompany experienced rural funders on listening and learning tours; 2) Regional and statewide advocacy networks are under resourced to do deep rural community building work – expand funding for these networks; 3) National funders can invest in long-term planning and developmental paths in ways that local funders can’t; 4) Invest in promising practice for new and sustainable ideas around project development and grantwriting support.

National Funders Working Locally. The Orton Family Foundation and its Community Heart and Soul Program® is rapidly growing its communities and partners with active programs in 15 states by the end of 2017. Community Heart and Soul brings a set of community building tools and sensibilities to help all voices be heard in service to building local ownership over long-term transformational change. Results to date are extremely encouraging, particularly given the longstanding challenges in many of its rural partner communities.

The Helmsley Charitable Trust is a national funder that has developed a portfolio of work in seven upper midwestern states that looks like the work of a local funder, but is backed by the financial and human capital of a national funder. Working in the changing environment of rural healthcare, Helmsley is working at scaling projects that mix in rural innovation, service delivery, and workforce. Helmsley’s approach informs what local, regional, and national funder partnerships might look like with respect to connectivity to rural institutions.

Rural Philanthropy Days. Although it began in 1991, Rural Philanthropy Days of Colorado has been mentioned a number of times in our interviews as something new to prospective rural funders around the country. Urban Colorado funders participate in two rural-based conferences with local funders and non-profits as well as take part in two listening tours each year. This exposes the urban funders to places they may have only known as a town on a grant application and allows local people to better understand the practice of larger funders. A similar program has begun in West Texas and you will see similar efforts popping up around the country. This structure is also a great way for national funders to connect with local and regional funders –and each other.

Field Building. I wanted to recognize the work of the Endowment for Health in New Hampshire. The Endowment explicitly organizes its five areas of work – child behavioral health, early childhood, health equity, elder health and health policy – through a field building strategy that intentionally reaches even the most rural parts of an intensely rural state. While funders casually talk about “contributions to the field,” the Endowment for Health has long-term and explicit commitments to the rural residents of the state and goes into the work with strong recognition of generations-old rural equity considerations. This system co-creation has long-term implications for foundation behavior, but even more so for rural philanthropy where the attention span needs to be longer and actions more deliberate.

CDC/MMWR. We are expecting an important report this month from the CDC focusing on health outcomes for rural people of color. Foundations considering rural work should be particularly interested in these data. Please consider presenting to your local and state boards and other policymakers as you develop your rural philanthropic strategy.

2020 POC map

National Rural Health Day. National Rural Health Day is November 16th. Easily adaptable materials are available from the National Office of State Offices of Rural Health. It’s a great opportunity for the philanthropic community to highlight the assets and challenges that are impacting the health of our rural residents.

Our Advisory Council. We are grateful to the contributions of the members of our Advisory Council to the project and to the health and well-being of rural communities. You will be hearing from them as they share their thoughts on both the importance of rural philanthropy and the opportunities for doing better.

Please let us know what you would like us to cover in these Blogs, and we welcome contributions, tips, and insights. Soon we will start featuring in-depth pieces on innovative rural philanthropy from around the country.

Hope to hear from you and see you sometime soon as we all work towards sharpening the practice of rural philanthropy.