Greater Good Blog

How Philanthropy Can Strengthen Rural Communities

Jeremy Gregg
How Philanthropy Can Strengthen Rural Communities

Funders who are serious about tackling systemic inequities may find they can increase their impact by broadening their reach to include the many, often-neglected rural communities across the United States. Although one in five Americans live in a rural area, only 6 percent of foundation grants target such communities. Rural areas also tend to be overlooked by funders seeking to tackle systemic racism and advance more equitable outcomes for all, despite the fact that immigrants and people of color comprise nearly one-fourth of rural populations.

The need for increased rural philanthropy is especially acute in the health sector, where funders can play a powerful role in tackling challenges related to accessibility and affordability of care. Even before the pandemic, the scarcity of rural health care providers and the comparative weakness of rural health infrastructure presented challenges for the residents of non-urban communities. COVID-19 has dramatically heightened these problems, as the crisis has forced dozens of hospitals to close their doors due to dwindling revenue and other challenges.

Even funders who do not specifically focus on health have important roles to play in assisting rural communities with comprehensively addressing the pandemic and its consequences. Beyond health care, many factors influence community and individual wellness; known as the social determinants of health, these factors include such things as access to safe and affordable housing, reliable childcare, clean air, and safe drinking water. Thus, funders with a wide range of focus areas, from education to the environment, may find meaningful opportunities to increase their impact by directing a portion of their resources towards rural communities.

Arabella Advisors recently hosted a webinar to explore how health funders can better support rural areas. During this conversation, it became clear that many of the best practices for supporting rural health are broadly applicable to philanthropy as a whole. The webinar explored case studies that are instructive for funders interested in how they can effectively partner with rural populations.

Top takeaways include:

  • Non-local funders should approach partnerships with rural communities as learners, not experts. Rural communities, like anywhere else, have vibrant—and perhaps overlooked—opportunities and assets. It is vital for funders to enter such communities with humility and emphasize listening to local leaders, many of whom have dedicated their lives to these communities. Even though rural areas share many of the same characteristics, they’re not all the same, and funders must take care to avoid treating them as such. Rural challenges tend to be hyper-local and specific to a given region, so the first step in effective philanthropy is listening to longstanding community members and organizations to understand the nuances, and involving those groups in a participatory, trust-based process. (For a great example of trust-based philanthropy, check out this recent blog post on the Kataly Foundation’s approach to pandemic-response giving.)
  • Philanthropists looking for new and additional ways to support BIPOC communities should consider funding rural communities. One of our panelists, Allen Smart, a national expert on rural philanthropy and the founder of PhilanthropywoRx, pointed out that, of the 60 million people who live in rural areas, 13 million are people of color and 2 million are immigrants. Additionally, 54 percent of Native American and Alaska Native people live in rural communities. Yet most philanthropy targets urban areas, and funders themselves tend to be based in urban areas. As philanthropy increasingly acknowledges that it needs to step up in bigger and bolder ways to dismantle systemic racism and structural inequities, it is vital that funders do not overlook marginalized and/or underserved individuals who don’t live in metropolitan areas.
  • Grantees—and the types of grants awarded—may look different than they do in urban areas. Allen also shared that rural leaders tend not to be professional staff at nonprofits, but civic leaders or highly networked community members affiliated with libraries; agricultural extensions and other state offices; or locally owned banks, utilities, and media companies. They may be county managers, school district superintendents, community college administrators, or church leaders. Additionally, Allen shared that evidence-based interventions often aren’t available in rural areas for funders to support. Instead, volunteers often deliver social services, with a focus on community building rather than producing specific, easily measurable outcomes. As a result, funders might need to amend their giving policies to be able to support entities other than traditional 501(c)(3) nonprofits, while also loosening their grant reporting requirements, as strict criteria could potentially disqualify the most viable options for real impact in rural communities.
  • Funding is essential, but funders can bring other assets that may be even more valuable. Lisa Madry, the director of community engagement for the Episcopal Health Foundation (EHF), shared success stories of collaborations with faith communities to address the social determinants of health. As part of EHF’s effort to promote #HealthNotJustHealthcare, the foundation has engaged with 88 congregations across 57 counties to offer mental health workshops, poverty learning sessions, racial reconciliation trainings, and civic engagement or community organizing events. Lisa shared how these collaborations have significantly amplified the impact of the foundation’s $48 million annual budget. In this way, EHF models how to step into these communities as a long-term ally rather than a short-term funder. To replicate this effort, philanthropists need an array of tools beyond their checkbook: hosting convenings, facilitating conversations, offering trainings, and engaging rural leaders as thought partners. These are essential ways that funders can validate local efforts while bringing in outside expertise and best practices.
  • Fiscal sponsorship offers an elegant solution for deploying capital in rural communities that lack significant social-sector infrastructure. Krista Batey, the director of grant making and compliance at Arabella, explained that funders can use fiscal sponsorship to support charitable activities in communities that lack a strong array of traditional grantees. She cited examples such as the Colorado River Sustainability Campaign and IllumiNative (both of which are hosted at independent fiscal sponsors that Arabella supports). By setting up a fund, funders can hire local experts, fund nontraditional grantees, and engage residents in a participatory grant-making process to determine where to best allocate funding in their communities. (For a great example of participatory grant making, check out the Fund to Build Grassroots Power, established by the JPB Foundation.)

The case for expanding philanthropy in rural communities is clear. For more information about specific ways you can better support rural communities, please contact Jeremy Gregg.

Click here to watch the full webinar, or here to download the presentation and additional resources.

For additional information about funding in rural communities, we suggest the following resources:

Jeremy Gregg, CAP®, is Arabella’s managing director for Texas. A fourth-generation Texan with two decades of leadership in the social sector, Jeremy is based in Dallas.

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