The vast majority (93%) of US grantmaking is focused on urban communities. Rural America seems all but forgotten, yet rural areas are the places that make urban life possible. They provide the energy to power urban buildings, food for millions of urban residents, forestlands to combat urban carbon emissions, places where city dwellers go to “get away,” and much more. In addition, Rural America is home to significant political capital and influence that can add considerable muscle to national policy and advocacy efforts.
Rural places also can be ideal testing and proving grounds for the citizen-led systems changes that so many funders want to see. In our recent rural work, we’ve seen small communities develop their own systems for welcoming immigrant communities, improving nutrition and food access, addressing mental health, and more.
But if there’s one thing we know about successful rural philanthropy, it’s that it is inherently place-based. Locally generated energy and ideas have proven more effective than arm’s length funding practices that often come with restrictive rules and requirements. So, unless you’re an urban funder who’s willing to simply supply unrestricted general operating support to rural organizations (which they sorely need and would gladly welcome), direct grantmaking sometimes can do more harm than good. Indeed, money often isn’t the be-all and end-all answer to rural challenges. Often it’s the other roles that funders play that deliver more value to rural communities: convening and connecting, advocating, sharing knowledge, or providing training and technical assistance.
So how can funders who aren’t yet ready to be “place-based” and work on the ground in rural communities still engage in rural philanthropy? Here are eight ways:
Learn genuinely. If you want to learn about rural issues, don’t be content to surround yourself with national-level association leaders or policy wonks. Hear from rural residents themselves, who have their own expertise and lessons to share. Plan a visit that allows you to spend enough time with people who live and work there to understand the culture. You may bring considerable subject-matter expertise to the equation, but you need the local expertise about the place to round it out.
Work regionally. Single communities may not have all the assets required for philanthropic traction, and because of that, it’s very likely that rural communities have worked with other communities in their region. Rural communities know who their allies and partners are, and these relationships may not be immediately apparent to funders. Further, rural “regions” are often defined by relationships, not lines on maps, so rather than assuming towns or counties in a certain area consider themselves a region, investigate if and how residents define it. Then, think about how to draw upon and reflect that natural confluence of rural communities.
Partner with smaller funders. Smaller funders who already serve specific regions can be valuable allies to larger funders with a statewide or national scope. They have likely already established relationships and understand the local culture, challenges, opportunities, and leaders that exist. You can use the authentic convening and partnering power of local funders to seamlessly channel a larger investment into smaller, yet meaningful, grants that won’t overwhelm local institutions.
Engage through issue-based or state/regional philanthropy serving organizations (PSOs). Many funder affinity groups now recognize rural programs and members, and you can help these groups elevate the rural philanthropic agenda. You can also leverage state-based and regional PSOs (most of which have stronger track records of supporting rural agendas) to make the connections to smaller funders, too.
Develop new rural tools and metrics. There are many areas in which philanthropy needs to develop better methods for rural work. Standard evaluation models that depend on scale and adherence to strict implementation models don’t often work. Large urban and national foundations can support learning about how to better measure the success of philanthropic-rural community partnerships, and a good place to start is by asking local actors what they see as successes.
Understand and share the rural story. Even if your foundation doesn’t fund rural places, you can engage regularly with those who do. Sharing lessons and ideas (even the ones listed here) with peers can help further your own work and the field! Help bridge the artificial divides that keep rural and urban funders and communities working separately on issues that may very well be best solved together.
Consider the 1%. Currently, rural funding is approximately 7% of all grantmaking in the US, but about 20% of our population resides in rural areas. If just a handful of national or statewide funders shifted just 1% of their grantmaking to rural communities, we could close that gap significantly. Examine your funding strategy to see if there’s room to tie in funding to rural communities. Perhaps there’s a way this intersects with an initiative you are already working on.
Include the rural voice. Rural organizations, rural funders, and rural individuals from across the country can and should feed ideas into any national funder’s agenda. Make sure they are included in your “inner circle” – in meetings, on advisory groups, or in other roles — to help enrich your understanding of the places you serve.
While funders don’t have to become rural experts or direct place-based grantmakers to make a difference in rural places, they do need to embrace the important role that rural engagement plays in addressing a full spectrum of social issues — from racial equity to affordable housing, to food security, to education, and more. Neither rural nor urban areas operate in a vacuum – they are dependent upon the viability of one another. What’s strong in rural America feeds the strength of urban America. When funders embrace this notion, they help to bridge the rural-urban divide and build connections across philanthropy that ultimately help us all.