In today’s age of austerity, political gridlock, cynicism, diminishing government resources, and intractable problems, collaboration is essential to get good work done and make it stick, especially in rural America. The challenge we face in most of Nebraska is outmigration, especially of middle-class youth. The consolidation of production agriculture and the lack of diversity in our rural economy has resulted in fewer career opportunities and severe underemployment.
To help resolve this problem, the Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF) uses a collaborative model that relies on the intelligence and integrity of community leaders. Sustainable solutions for community renewal must be led by community members. Outside experts should not impose their values or strategies on the community; they should focus on educating, facilitating, providing technical expertise, and helping the community move to strategy and action faster.
People are most likely to act when asked by someone they know and trust. Our model therefore relies on local fund leaders asking friends and neighbors to invest in the future of their hometown. Our hope is that donors who are in the habit of giving annually to their hometown are much more likely to include their hometown as a beneficiary of their estate, thereby keeping a portion of the transfer of wealth local, even if the heirs to the estate live elsewhere.
Further, we believe that decisions about local priorities should be determined locally. All grantmaking decisions for an affiliated fund are therefore made by the local fund leaders. NCF acts as a value-added partner for its affiliated funds. We do not replace existing community capacity; we enhance it with education, training, and technical assistance.
NCF has 1,800 community leaders serving as fund leaders. Our decentralized approach-asking community leaders to engage their neighbors-is working. Last year, 7,794 gifts were made to 139 affiliated funds. In the past five years, 36,353 gifts have been made and more than $70 million has been reinvested in Nebraska through NCF-affiliated funds.
More importantly, community outcomes demonstrate that our collaborative approach works. Distressed rural communities are making grants that are creating new economic opportunities, helping community members acquire new skills, building community facilities, and helping former residents return home to raise their families and build their careers.
The model is just one of several working in rural America that will be the topic of conversation during the morning plenary on July 26 at the Council on Foundations’ Rural Conference. Attendees will have the opportunity to hear directly from other funders on “Keeping the Transfer of Wealth at Home in Rural America.” The session will help participants understand which model will work best for their communities and how to achieve long-term results in rural America.
Jeff Yost is president and CEO of the Nebraska Community Foundation.