A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Making a Little Go Far: How We Spark Economic Renewal in Our Rural Community

Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash

Our small foundation is among the few private funders in our rural area of Northeastern Colorado. We look for ways to make the most of our dollars, relationships and knowledge to serve our community. For example, we support local economic development directly by giving grants to and partnering with our local economic development agency. And we participate in several communitywide collaborations. We try to make every dollar go a long way.

Our founder, William “Willie” Stretesky, was a frugal farmer who gradually acquired and accumulated land. At the time of his death in 2002, Willie left an estate of over 11,000 acres located in two Colorado and three Nebraska counties. The foundation’s revenues for operations and grantmaking come from leasing his land each year to farmers, who raise wheat and corn, pinto beans, soybeans, sunflowers and sugar beets. Alfalfa and sorghum are grown for livestock.

Willie was one of a kind, and loved his community dearly. Through his foresight, his foundation has awarded over $7 million in local grant dollars. Our board of three award grants on a monthly basis.

Like many rural areas, our region’s economy is struggling. Centered in Julesburg in Sedgwick County, our community has about 2,300 people, 22% of which are 65 years or older.

These are among our most successful and popular projects and partnerships:

Business improvement projects: We offer local businesses 75% of the costs for signage and 90% for façade improvements, with the business covering the remaining cost. Applications are accepted and approved through our County Economic Development Office.

Support to local businesses for winter utility costs: For three months, we made COVID-related grants for this program, also through our County Economic Development Office, of $30,000, $30,000, and $11,000; during the last month, another local business joined in contributing. Large businesses could apply for $1,000, while small businesses could apply for $500, with size based on number of employees.

Annual Pay-It-Forward Program: Businesses can apply for utility credit assistance in return for a small donation or item to be raffled through ticket sales. We made about $25,000 available, with $1,000 for large businesses and $500 for small businesses. Over 40 businesses have participated. Raffle proceeds are divided between local schools and nonprofit organizations within our county, to be used as grantees desire.

2020 Youth Corp Program: Our foundation collaborated with the town to provide job opportunities for area youth during COVID-related closures. The town redirected funds allocated for summer pool employment (closed due to COVID) and provided materials for projects. We provided half the needed funding, $50,000 in total. The program hired 16 area young people to paint curbs and buildings, pick up branches following storms, weed, help with library story hours provided at the park, and perform other services under the leadership of two adult supervisors, who were also paid through the program.

Supporting our local movie theater: Foundation grants totaling $10,000 offer free movie admission to our community during the month of December to promote attendance and create additional revenue for the theater.

Fundraising support: We provide financial support for our local nonprofits so that their fundraising event proceeds can go toward projects, rather than event expenses.

Bucks

Holiday Season Shop-at-Home Campaign: Diverse partners in the community come together to provide a financial incentive to buy local, boosting our merchants. The town governments, the Chamber of Commerce, a local bank, individuals and County Commissioners fund 50% of the incentive, which is then matched by the Stretesky Foundation. This allows residents to purchase $500 of local currency called “Bucks” for $450. Bucks are available in denominations from $5 to $100; up to $2,000 can be purchased per day, but there is no limit on spending per day! Shoppers can use Bucks the same as cash at participating businesses within the county. Bucks have been used for vehicle purchases, town utility payments and church donations. Several county businesses use them for employee holiday bonuses. Last year’s “spend at home” campaign netted $115,000 for the local economy. The program has grown over the past 10 years, and was also offered last summer to promote local support for businesses experiencing COVID-restrictions and related hardships.

We would love to learn how other small foundations in small towns and rural communities use their creativity and relationships to spark community projects and spur development. We look forward to hearing about your work and ideas.


Kimberly Orth, Executive Director of the William Stretesky Foundation, has been a lifelong citizen of Sedgwick County and taught at the local elementary for 32 years while raising her family. She works for the local theater and the foundation to enhance and enrich her community however and whenever possible.

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