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The Resiliency of Rural America

by Council, posted August 18th, 2009 at 8:42 am
The View from Here

Jeff Pryor and Alexandria MitchellBy: Jeff Pryor and Alexandra Mitchell

Is “rural” undervalued? Apparently, yes. Yet, our collective lives depend greatly on rural regions. Our food security, fiber, energy, minerals, water, oxygen, and many other essential materials are embedded in rural environments—as well as many of our world’s most majestic places.

As we are thus rooted, providing support for rural communities merely for the sake of girding rural communities is a miscalculation. Rather, we need to take a more comprehensive approach, one that enhances the interplays between nonprofits, philanthropy, government, economic interests, and education. No single sector alone can create vibrancy in rural communities.

Surely, rural communities should learn to live by the proverb, “You either make your future, or it will be made for you.”And rural people must be much more deliberate in articulating their worth by telling a better story—and having a better story to tell. But is it only for our rural neighbors to carry this burden? No. Grantmakers, too, should consider how they can deepen their understanding of rural issues and realize opportunities. They can do that by working with rural agencies, elected officials, and community leaders to develop a shared strategy—and collaborative advantage. Whatever steps we take to enhance leadership, governance, access to resources, advocacy, media coverage, political responsiveness, and civic engagement will result in positive outcomes—for all.

So how can grantmakers effectively champion rural vibrancy? One way is by offering capacity-building support: building knowledge and skills in areas such as strategic planning, governance, personnel management, resource development, cultural competency, communications, and evaluation. Certainly, one-time workshops and webinars have value. But there is greater advantage in making a longer-term commitment to ongoing coaching and consultation. Grantmakers could contract individuals who work well with various populations and who can provide customized assistance to grantees and/or rural collaboratives.

Grantmakers could also help by developing appropriate resources. For example, adapt existing training materials—many of which reflect a metropolitan focus—and ground them in the realities of rural communities. As one rural colleague noted, generic communications training materials often encouraged nonprofits to develop their “elevator speech.” With tongue-in-cheek, our colleague asked, “How appropriate is this image to a rural community? Grain elevators may not be the best location to make a pitch…”

Southeast Colorado has proven that such an approach can reap big benefits. This region of Colorado received the least amount of grants in the state—less than one percent of all grants made in Colorado. Despite sporadic fundraising and governance trainings, nonprofits in the region experienced little success in producing more grants. All that changed once we took a robust regional approach. Grantmakers and nonprofits worked together to build a regional vision and agenda, assert rural value, and expand relationships and trust. Nonprofits in the region are now skilled at capturing funding opportunities, resulting in a substantial infusion of grants from public, private, regional, and national sources.

At the heart of this achievement is Rural Philanthropy Days. Begun 20 years ago in Colorado, this bi-annual event is a result of a partnership that drew together the state’s 12 largest foundations, state government, the Community Resource Center, and rural nonprofits. It brings together thousands of people for the purpose of educating grantmakers about rural issues and opportunities. It has also established and integrated a mechanism for long-term communication, capacity-building, and collaboration. Rural organizations that did not know that each other existed are now building strategic partnerships. Old rivalries based upon years of competitive history are being replaced with deliberate regional partnerships addressing, housing, transportation, health, workforce development, land use, and other important topics.

You are welcome to join us for the Northwest Rural Philanthropy Days on September 16–18 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Please visit or contact

Jeff Pryor is the executive director of the Colorado-based Anschutz Family Foundation.

Alexandra Mitchell is the founder and president of Pathfinder Solutions, Inc. The firm provides research, evaluation, organizational development, training, and consulting services to foundations, non-profits, and government agencies.

By Linetta Gilbert

What is the state of rural philanthropy today?  The answer, of course, depends on whether you’re looking at the issue from a local, regional, or national perspective. I’d like to offer some thoughts from the national perspective, gleaned from my years as a senior program officer at the Ford Foundation.

One of the central truths is that large global and national foundations have recently reduced their role in seeding local, rural institutional philanthropies in the United States. About 15 years ago, Ford began investing heavily in catalyzing community-based organizations in rural areas. We also heightened awareness of public and private investment opportunities in rural development. At the heart of this work is the belief that local leaders must play a central role in determining the future of their communities.

One of the Ford Foundation’s most successful strategies has involved working with community foundations to develop resources aimed at strengthening rural, community-based organizations in the United States. In turn, we used the lessons learned to help improve the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable and poor throughout the world.

Our work in rural America has sought to:

  • Identify local community-led organizations and strengthen leadership and organizational capacities to ensure their effectiveness;
  • Recognize and provide resources to innovative rural leaders who could enhance social and economic outcomes for low-wealth communities;
  • Invest in the development of critical research centers with data and knowledge about rural communities in the 21st century;
  • Amplify voices from rural communities by facilitating opportunities to share successes and challenges with elected officials at all levels of government, business leaders and with the field of philanthropy;
  • Work in collaboration and partnership with other funders to leverage additional private and public resources to share knowledge about systemic barriers to social and economic progress and use knowledge to influence policy for social change;
  • Invest in tools and methods to facilitate community-building efforts in rural places as more people of color have moved into rural communities; and
  • Provide a voice at the national levels about the important linkage between rural and urban strategies in reducing inequity in the United States.

The result is that rural America is now better positioned to set the agenda for its future and to generate local resources to support these goals.

Over the years, the Ford Foundation has learned that when we work at the community level, we can never simply replicate a good idea. Instead, it is necessary to take great care in adapting that idea to the specifics of place, economy, and culture. Even so, there is the potential to develop a “rural lens.” To effectively apply this lens, we need to:

  • Encourage more joint learning and collaborative priority setting among communities, philanthropy (individual and institutional donors), and local and state government. This will shorten the time needed to accomplish outcomes;
  • Sustain regional and local institutions in communities by linking them to discretionary wealth in their communities;
  • Convince local funders to invest in their own social entrepreneurs;
  • Strengthen and add to the information base of regional associations of grant makers and wealth advisors regarding rural needs; and
  • Build additional rural liaisons to engage with foundations from all parts of a rural area.

Given today’s realities, how do we approach scale in a local, rather than a national context?

Going to scale locally will require more outreach to communities. We must hear concerns, identify opportunities, ensure ongoing access to decision makers, and most importantly, broaden the leadership base throughout the community or region.

We must create scalable solutions that work across the diversity of rural America. This will require us to develop flexible frameworks for thinking and action that rural communities can adapt locally with the help of rural philanthropy. Once the frameworks are in place, funders—both government and philanthropy—should devolve control to those closest to the issues to apply resources within these frameworks. Already some communities have such frameworks in place. They can serve as a guidepost for making effective, scalable investments in rural places. Again, the important point to remember is that we must allow those at the local level who are closest to the problems to direct resources to the most effective solutions for their communities.

Community philanthropic institutions—including community foundations and other public charities committed to improving lives locally—are uniquely positioned to ensure that investments in rural America have the intended impact. No other single group of institutions has access to such a diverse set of local leaders.

It’s time to spread the word throughout the foundation sector that rural communities offer a rich opportunity to invest in rural America. The successes we encounter there can serve as a guide to finding scalable solutions for the complex challenges facing our world.

For those who fund in the environmental and energy arenas, I would emphasize that virtually all solutions to the planet’s energy and environment problems have a rural component.  Rural areas have the biggest opportunities for wind, solar, biomass, geo-thermal, and extractive energy development. Most large-scale energy development will occur in rural areas because that is where the land is available and the resources (and the stewardship expertise and capacity) lie.

America’s greatness is firmly rooted in its rural beginnings. Public and private investments in rural America will pay enormous dividends—now and long into the future.

One Response to “The Resiliency of Rural America”

  1. Johanna Hendricks Says:

    I have read your emails and are really interested to learn more because we are in the rural West Coast Region of the Western Cape Province of South Africa. We have the Khoisan decendants in our area and development is slow because transport is too expensive. Most of the people in our region have seasonal work and earn less than $125 per month. Assisting rural projects with personal development is almost non existant in our area. the Foundation tries to support these project to the best of its ability. We have a a website where you will see our region that we cover. this year we were not able to give grants to our projects. We have now adveritsed for a marketer in our area to assist us to run our Give As You Earn campaign. At the same time we are busy with endowment building and have acumalated at least $10750. I will appreciate it if there is a manner in which i can obtain more material on personal development from the COF website. We have an Annual Non Profit Conference where at 60 leaders are able to come together every year to learn and discuss with government representatives and service providers about the regions issues. the West Coast Community Foundation started in 2001 and is registered as Non Profit Organisation.I like to learn more and rupdate myself with current issues. It will be interesting to see what we in South Africa can learn form Rural America. Everybody is always focussing on the big cities. It is so true that some information that is developed for urban areas does not always apply to rural areas. Johanna Hendricks, CEO of the West Coast Community Foundation, South Africa

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