It’s been well documented that rural America represents 97% of the land in the United States; 19% of the people, and some of the fastest (and slowest) growing places in the country. Rural economies that were founded on natural resources have changed and might now be similarly dependent on healthcare or government employment. Many rural communities are now caused to reflect on a past of wealth and opportunity being held by a relatively small number of community members and looking towards a future that is equity-based across multiple dimensions of race/ethnicity, social class, and ownership of economic opportunity. Coupled with competition for human and financial resources with bigger suburban and urban places, the need for effective philanthropic support has never been greater.

But to truly “move the needle,” donors must consider how their approach will impact people, places, and issues that are deeply interconnected.

An ongoing thread of philanthropy going back to the early 20th century is a focus on specific issues. Today, we often refer to funders as, for example, “health funders” or “in the education space.” Rural philanthropy, in contrast, often doesn’t have the luxury of a focus solely on a single issue or single outcome. Instead, effective rural funders are concurrently bringing together people and organizations from multiple issue sectors to solve problems and pursue opportunities for rural community vitality and sustenance in ways that reflect a new commitment to equity.

Why does multiple issue engagement make sense for rural work? Think about the multiple roles that rural anchor institutions and rural leaders play. The school principal may also be on the county planning commission and pastor a church. The Agricultural Extension agent may also be the area’s biggest advocate for broadband. Similarly, the local dentist might be the area’s most visible early childhood champion.

The best rural investors recognize that any civil or social sector change work isn’t taking place in a laboratory, it is happening in real places. The best intervention around third grade reading scores, as an example, has little chance of being successful without considering a history of underinvestment and inequitable distribution of related resources. The advantage of being a rural investor is that the historical pathway is often traceable in ways not possible in an urban environment — where societal shifts can happen at a pace and with a volume that doesn’t allow an individual or family investor to understand context.

While funders around the country have embraced work on the social determinants of health that underpin the opportunity for an individual to live a healthy life, deeply committed rural funders have been working that way all along with the understanding that the same local folks impacted by poor rental housing also don’t have access to on-line learning and affordable childcare, for example. For the new rural investor, this takes working with savvy local groups that truly have deep local knowledge about how all these systems interact. And can bring together rural people together in ways that effectively challenge class and race distinctions.

Not all effective rural philanthropic investors are embedded in rural places. Many are urban dwellers reflecting the history of their families or perhaps the geographic spread of their business interests. These investors have a number of opportunities available to them to support rural places without being place-based experts. Examples might include:

  • Advocating for more investment — of all kinds — in the rural place or region of interest.
  • Supporting independent local media that does the kind of reporting that allows local rural people to make more informed decisions.
  • Participating in (or forming) donor learning groups focused on specific rural places.
  • Helping connect local leaders with decision makers at state and federal levels.
  • Supporting structures that bring people together across issues.

Supporting narrow single issue efforts might seem like a focused approach to get results, but in many cases it leaves out the best opportunities to gain traction and support from other rural sector leaders. This doesn’t demand being a funder across issues where you may not have experience or interest. Nothing wrong with staying in your lane for grantmaking. What It does mean is recognizing and reaching out to other sectors to help sustain the work and surface even more ways where some of the historic inequities in the rural community can be addressed. Rural America just doesn’t have the kind of deep roster of those employed to think and act on single social sector issues. What rural America does have are locally embedded people with deep commitments to the place — and the people who live there.

This article originally appeared on the Giving Compass website in March 2021.
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