Rural philanthropy requires a different kind of thinking and creativity from urban philanthropy. It stands to reason, then, that the networks rural funders build will look different from those that traditionally attract more urban-focused foundations.
In my work researching and building rural philanthropy, I’ve seen two main types of foundations that describe themselves as “rural funders.” These include statewide or regional foundations that invest in rural and urban communities, and smaller, place-based family or corporate foundations that are specifically rooted in individual rural communities.
Many of these rural funders feel that they are working in isolation. The statewide or regional funders may have peers in national affinity groups, but most members of those groups are urban funders. The smaller, place-based funders are quite literally the only foundation in town.
These two types of funders represent two extremes—the lonely voice in a crowd, or the voice that’s just plain lonely. But the good news for rural funders of all sizes is that allies and partners are closer than you think. You just need to understand who you’re looking for and where to find them.
Just as change in rural communities is dependent as much or more on networks as it is on money, so is rural philanthropy. Foundations in rural communities need networks that aren’t necessarily centered around other foundations, but rather around others who bring a shared interest that you can leverage not only for additional funding, but for broad-based advocacy, education, community will-building, and more.
With this in mind, it pays to get to know the many government agencies and organizations that bring both money and expertise to the table in the rural communities you serve. The list of potential network connections is long and can include, for example:
- State offices of rural health, transportation, education, or rural development
- Federal regional offices for affordable housing, water, or education
- County cooperative extension services
- Statewide community foundations
- Local and regional religious groups or congregations
- Local school district education funds and PTAs
- State representatives of national rural groups like the National Rural Education Association and the National Association of Rural Community Colleges
- Chambers of commerce
In addition to agencies and organizations like these, many rural communities have anchor institutions such as regional colleges and universities or hospitals that can lend both funding and considerable expertise and clout to community engagement and improvement efforts. The key here is to think beyond the office of the university president or the hospital CEO. At a university, talk with professors in disciplines like sociology, environmental science, or community planning. At a hospital, explore conversations with those in departments of community health, public outreach, or specialty centers for diabetes, maternal health, or other issues that affect your community. Chances are, the university or hospital is already doing something that aligns with your own mission and goals, and can become a valuable partner and ally.
Of course, rural nonprofit organizations can and should be a part of your funder network. Whether you provide grants to them or not, they can help inform and add value to your own thinking, and identify opportunities where others might leverage the investments you’re making.
Once you start putting out feelers to rural partners, don’t be surprised if the network grows quickly. One thing that makes rural work so unique is that residents are often involved in multiple systems within the community, such as education, health, and economic development, and relationships and information flow freely between systems, unlike in their siloed urban counterparts. That means good ideas and opportunities (like the ability to network) travel quickly.
Building a network of like-minded partners and funders of all stripes is likely to fill the void and end the isolation that many rural foundations experience. But even so, I do understand the value of having a network that is made up of private, community, and corporate foundations that share many of the same challenges you face as a funder.
National, regional, and state associations of nonprofits often hold rural affinity groups within their membership. If no rural funder group exists in your state, talk to your state or regional association about starting one! It should require a minimal outlay of money and will provide a great deal of valuable conversation and connection with other foundations.
The bottom line is that rural philanthropy requires a different kind of thinking and creativity from urban philanthropy. It stands to reason, then, that the networks rural funders build will look different from those that traditionally attract more urban-focused foundations. By focusing on the allies and partners at hand and building a truly rural-centric network, funders will find themselves accomplishing much more than they could by searching for rural needles in an urban haystack.
Allen Smart is a consultant to funders on rural and philanthropic strategy. He currently directs a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded project at Campbell University, Buies Creek, NC, that is exploring effective rural philanthropic practices taking place around the country. Prior to this role, Allen led the Kate B. Reynolds Trust in Winston-Salem, NC to become a premier rural funder in the South, serving as vice president of programs and interim president.