As I have sought funding for our work, I have often been told that we are “too rural” and our scale is “too small.” As the Council on Foundations gets ready to host its Rural Conference next week, it is heartening to see rural philanthropy on the rise.
When people ask what philanthropy means for rural areas, they don’t have to look any farther than West Virginia to see what it’s all about. Often overlooked by national funding initiatives due to the state’s rural character, small institutional scale, and young intermediaries, West Virginia has typically had to dig deeper to make a difference for its citizens.
Parkersburg Area Community Foundation and Regional Affiliates (PACF), for example, has done several things to increase its own grantmaking while encouraging broad growth in philanthropy and engagement of local donors. The results show just how far rural philanthropy can take a community in only a decade.
In 1999, our organization held $7.6 million in permanently endowed assets and awarded $341,967. In that same year, we launched purposeful conversations with community leaders from across our 11-county service region. These conversations culminated in a program to stimulate philanthropy using an affiliate model that allowed county-level organizations to be nurtured within PACF, and to grow resources dedicated for their own communities.
By 2005, our collective net assets more than doubled to $18,057,517 but more significantly, our grantmaking increased to $704,099. By 2010, despite two periods of recession, net assets had grown to $22,911,835, making grants of $1,482,779 possible. For our most recent fiscal year ending June 30, assets are nearly $30 million, and our grantmaking is approaching $2 million. In just over 10 years, we increased our community grantmaking more than five-fold. That’s making a difference!
During this period, we significantly broadened our regional leadership base as well. In 1999, our leadership body included 20 members, with all but one from the same general locale, and functional committees (grants, scholarships) engaged an additional 20 volunteers.
Today, we have one regional leadership body with 24 members, from various communities throughout our region, and the group is much more diverse and representative. Our advisory boards in the six-county affiliate communities engage another 75 citizens in leadership roles at the local level as well as through a variety of other committee and project-level efforts. Overall, we now have more than 250 volunteers serving their communities. We’re building an incredible pipeline for good, forever, for our part of West Virginia.
This is just one snapshot of the success that philanthropy is achieving in rural America, but it’s a model that can be replicated elsewhere. As someone who believes in rural places and their futures, it’s important to keep in mind that long-term results in low-wealth areas require long-term commitment and investment from many, many sources. Much work remains to be done if we are to reach the goal of successfully increasing rural philanthropy. That is why it is vital to continue to share our stories and learn from each other, funder to funder, through the conference and networking opportunities provided by the Council.
Judy Sjostedt is executive director of the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation and Regional Affiliates.