Rural Funders Urge Philanthropies to Let Communities Lead the Way

Philanthropies that focus on rural communities in Colorado, Oregon and Texas say they work more through organizers and “embedded staff” and less through gatekeeping program officers. “We no longer have program officers; we have community partners,” says one foundation official.

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Philanthropists who want to help rural communities thrive need to get out from behind their desks and out into community, according to three executives of foundations that focus on rural projects. 

Dr. Ned Calonge, president and CEO of The Colorado Trust; Anne Kubisch, president and CEO of the Ford Family Foundation in Oregon; and Elena Marks, president and CEO of Episcopal Health Foundation in Houston shared their views during a May 21 panel discussion in an event running up to the National Rural Assembly in Durham, North Carolina. During the preconference session (organized by the Office of Rural Philanthropic Analysis at Campbell University and partially supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) each panelist described his or her approach to investing in rural communities. They concentrated on building relationships and allowing residents to set the pace and the focus of change. 

The Colorado Trust was created in 1985 from the sale of a public healthcare corporation to a private company and now serves the entire state of Colorado. It focuses on health and wellness. For years, it operated much as a traditional grantmaker before rethinking its strategy in recent years to adopt a more resident-led approach.   

“We use traditional community organizing techniques to bring together resident teams who identify and prioritize challenges to health equity in their community,” said Calonge. “Then we allow them decision making around how and what they spend their money on as they prioritize their issues. [Our strategy] really came out of visiting rural communities and realizing that they know what they have, what their problems are, what their assets are, and what they need to make their things better.” 

Likewise, Episcopal Health Foundation, which was created by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas in 2014, engages community organizers to work in communities and, most often, through area coalitions.  

“We cover 57 counties in Texas, 11 million people,” Marks explained. “We’ve decided that our best point of entry is at the coalition level as opposed to personally doing the grassroots work. In the rural communities we found it frankly easier than in the urban communities.” 

In Oregon, the Ford Family Foundation – a 20-year-old statewide funder created from timber fortunes and dedicated exclusively to rural communities – operates the Ford Institute for Community Building, which partnered with an intermediary organization, Rural Development Initiatives, to deliver leadership development classes in rural communities in Oregon and Northern California over a 13-year period.  

“Over the course of 12 years we trained over 6,000 people in rural communities,” says Kubisch. “Which really means that in almost any community that you go to we know people. We do a lot of direct relationship building and, as a result, try and keep track of what’s going on in each community and figure out how to be responsive to that.”  

Dr. Ned Calonge, president and CEO of The Colorado Trust, and Elena Marks, president and CEO of Episcopal Health Foundation in Houston, participate in a panel at a rural funders’ meeting in Durham, North Carolina. Anne Kubisch, president and CEO of the Ford Family Foundation in Oregon, was also part of the panel (Photo By Shawn Poynter | Daily Yonder)

Being engaged in rural areas means embedding staff deeply within them, the panelists said.  

Instead of traditional program officers who serve as grantmaking gatekeepers, the Ford Family Foundation uses field coordinators who live and work within rural areas and focus on serving as regional community builders. Over the past two years, the number of field coordinators has doubled, from four to eight, with more increases anticipated in the future.  

“We have people stationed around Oregon and living and working in their own communities,” said Kubisch.  

“We no longer have program officers; we have community partners,” said Calonge. “The skill set for a community partner isn’t a program officer skill set, it’s a community organizing skill set. It’s a requirement that they actually live in the regions they’re serving. To be able to go to a community and say, ‘I’m not from Denver,’ changes the dialog.” 

Ultimately, successful rural engagement for funders comes down to shifting the power into the hands of communities, allowing them to define their own destiny and pilot their own course — a notion that resonates across the political spectrum and appeals to both funders (who can trend progressive) and community residents (who may be more conservative).  

“You can come at it from a liberal perspective or a conservative perspective but it comes together in this community building umbrella concept of people taking control of their own future,” said Kubisch.   

“These three panelists and the foundations they represent are a great example of funders who understand that the work of philanthropy in rural communities is different in many ways from urban philanthropy,” said Allen Smart, director of the Office of Rural Philanthropic Analysis. “They are taking a very placed-based, ground-up approach rather than one of traditional grant cycles and top-down, foundation-driven priorities. We are seeing a growing interest in rural America among many regional and national funders, so the lessons shared by foundations like these are incredibly timely. I’m hopeful that more funders will be inspired to join the work and invest more in rural communities.” 

Betsey Russell is a writer and philanthropy consultant who is assisting the Office of Rural Philanthropic Analysis, the event’s organizer. 

 

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