Message from the President
In the midst of the economic crisis this past spring, I started a conversation with the planning committee for the 2009 Rural Philanthropy Conference with one question: Faced with restricted travel budgets, should we simply cancel the event? After a thorough discussion, we agreed to move forward with planning a small-scale gathering of 40 rural philanthropic leaders who would use the time as a working session to offer some thoughts on growing rural philanthropy.
By now you know that over 150 of our rural philanthropic colleagues took part in the Little Rock-based conference. The end result was a gathering defined by its content and outcomes, as well as the enthusiasm and commitment of its attendees.
What made this conference a success? To be honest, I am not 100 percent sure, but I suspect at least four ingredients were at play:
- Our powerful agenda combined four tracks on four priority topics, allowing attendees to dive deep into a specific content area. On the last day of the conference, participants in the four working groups produced a set of strategies and recommendations for each of the tracks. Thus, substance, continuity, and outcomes were unknown before one arrived but displayed at the time everyone left.
- Excellent and relevant plenary and session speakers offered their insights and knowledge, addressing the specific needs of rural philanthropy. Former President Bill Clinton gave an incredible speech on rural philanthropy, then extended his time for a longer conversation with those in attendance.
- Our site visits were a key part of the program providing us with two excellent examples of rural philanthropy’s work in rural Arkansas.
- The William J. Clinton Presidential Center served as both a great location and host. The opportunity to gather at the Clinton Presidential Center and in Arkansas contributed to both the incentive to attend and the quality of our programming.
As a child growing up in rural Wisconsin, I learned something about rural folks many years ago that held true for this conference: We are survivors. It is part of our genetic make-up. Rural folks are accustomed to managing through unanticipated challenges like the weather, commodity prices, and a lack of resources. The economic crisis of the past two years was just another chapter, but it was not one that would define our work or our focus on the future. In Little Rock, I noticed 150 people who had almost no interest in mourning the loss of philanthropic endowments over the past year. Instead, they wanted to learn from the past and move forward.
In this edition of T>A>I, you will see highlights of the recommendations from the four working groups, along with many other insights from those who participated in this conference. This conference was not convened to create another list of “to-do” items for the Council, the National Rural Funders Collaborative (our co-sponsor for this event), or even the government. Rather, we sought to identify the steps that all of us—collectively and as individual foundations or rural regions—could use to advance rural philanthropy.
A final thought: Rural philanthropy doesn’t spend time convening and talking about what others should do for us. Rather, we seek to find common strategies that can increase our collective impact. From transfer-of-wealth studies, we know that time is of the essence if we hope to capture even a small part of this transfer into philanthropy, particularly in rural America. Of course, time is always a concern in rural America. That may really explain why 150 people showed up for a conference designed as a small conversation among 40.