A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Much More Than Money – The Impact of Small Rural Foundations

When most people think of foundations, they think of deep pockets. That’s understandable, since the popular public perception of philanthropy has been shaped by the creation of multimillion-dollar foundations by titans of old, and enforced by the glamour of new foundations launched to much fanfare by today’s billionaires.

In rural communities, the creation of big-dollar health conversion foundations garners media attention and sparks public awareness. But as with their mammoth cousins, these foundations represent a small fraction of overall foundation assets and giving in rural communities.

Quite frequently, it’s the rural funders with modest financial means that make the biggest on-the-ground impact.

How do they do it? Certainly not by infusing massive amounts of money to create change. Instead, successful small foundations in rural areas leverage a number of non-financial assets to improve the lives of those they serve. They focus on meeting each community’s own vision of success by exploring the strategic possibilities that are well beyond the realm of check-writing.

Here are five strategic roles that small rural funders play with great success:

Put issues on the table

Rural communities, because of their history and leadership structures, often lack a voice to raise difficult and challenging questions. Sometimes these may be issues of broad public concern (like health hazards caused by area agribusinesses), and sometimes they can be issues that primarily affect those historically without voice (like entrenched practices that perpetuate systemic racism). With little expenditure of funds but plenty of leadership, smaller funders can write op-eds to the local newspaper, commission objective studies, and otherwise elevate issues of concern, opening a door for local people to engage in discussions that previously were off the table.

Educate the community

Foundations with few financial resources can provide easy-to-understand, in-depth public education on issues that are important to the community. For example, Medicaid expansion and the opioid crisis are pressing problems in many rural communities, yet information about both issues is complex and confusing to many community members. In addition, information is rarely reflective of specific, local conditions. Foundations are in a perfect position to present and share data, information, and even opinion that put communities in a better position to understand and address complex issues in a local context.

Build local infrastructure

Smaller foundations can provide technical help to nonprofits that need to partner, merge, or create greater efficiency and impact in other ways. For example, a funder might catalyze or support the creation of jointly owned back-office support services to spread the cost of specialty staff. It might also serve as a broker to help nonprofits create a shared space arrangement, which might include providing a loan guarantee, or an initial investment in the space by the foundation that eventually becomes the responsibility of the nonprofit partners. In addition, foundations can leverage their own connections to provide local nonprofits with access to national thinkers and resources.

Leverage fundraising capacity

Small rural foundations can support the kind of preparation necessary for nonprofits to seek major grants from state, regional, and national sources, both public and private. For example, The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) just released a potentially game-changing RFP for opioid-impacted communities. Seventy-five planning grants of $200,000 each will be awarded around the country, and success during this planning phase makes it likely that winning communities with be more competitive for future federal DHHS opioid funding.

These are sophisticated applications, however, and it is very possible that the neediest communities who are committed to turning their opioid crises around won’t be able to compete because they don’t have access to experienced federal grantwriters conversant with the opioid issue. This is a perfect opportunity for funders with limited financial resources to step in with connections and technical assistance to guide their communities through the application process. This would not only strengthen nonprofit capacity, but potentially deliver a huge immediate return on a small funder’s investment.

Grow local voices

Small foundations can train and mentor residents to speak out for their community. This effort might begin by training people to speak to their elected officials, county managers, and county planners. It might quickly grow to include training and support for local residents who wish to go to the state capital and testify about a wide range of issues that affect a number of rural communities, such as the state of broadband access or the ability to secure safety net clinical care.

Whereas all the above tactics can be used effectively, it’s important to inform these strategic efforts with an appropriately scaled sense of what is achievable. On the flipside, it’s also important that funders understand the power of their own influence to move an issue forward. One of the most underused tools of philanthropy is the ability of a funder to make a phone call that opens a door for a local community member. That’s an example of social capital that most funders take for granted. In overlooking it—and the roles above—funders miss the opportunity to leverage some of their greatest assets.

Allen Smart will be at Exponent Philanthropy’s 2018 National Conference in Philadelphia on Saturday, September 29 with more examples of how smaller funders can multiply their financial resources.

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