The Barry Community Foundation in Michigan builds all kinds of assets – not just financial ones. Creating stronger communities means investing in relationships and ideas, taking calculated risks and creatively challenging the status quo.
When Bonnie Hildreth talks about her community, her hands track her excitement.
They begin to move slowly, up and down, as she talks about the Barry Community Foundation’s work organizing young people to become philanthropists. But they really get going, spinning one around the other like a windmill, when she talks about youth taking charge themselves.
One boy, Eli, calls once a month. He started with a grant to make garden stones and now writes grant requests for his Boy Scout troop.
The work of the Barry Community Foundation in Michigan is an example of how a foundation’s role extends beyond grantmaking to becoming a community convener, capacity builder and policy advocate. With national foundations reducing their support for rural areas, Hildreth and her colleagues have found a way to change the community direction.
“We’re creating a giving community,” she says. “We’re creating a culture of loving where you live.”
Barry is a county of 60,000, sandwiched between the cities of Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Lansing, where most Barry residents work. Hildreth, president of the foundation, brags that there is not a spot in Barry County that’s more than 10 miles from a lake. (Editor’s Note: Barry County is what the Daily Yonder classifies as an “exurban” county, one that falls within a federally designated metropolitan area but that has a sizable population that lives in Census tracts that are rural.)
Last month, Hildreth and I spoke in Dallas at the Rural Policy Leadership Institute, where rural advocates, practitioners and leaders from around the country gathered to construct short-term action plans on issues like broadband Internet access, rural philanthropy and rural entrepreneurship.
(The institute was one of the final activities of the Rural Policy Action Partnership, a partnership among MDC, a nonprofit that helps communities overcome the barriers to educational and economic opportunity; Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder; the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University; INC/Network Impact, which helps build networks and develop social innovations; and networks of rural organizations around the country.)
In the rural philanthropy group, we spoke about the movement of national foundations away from rural development and the concentration of assets in urban areas. From 2004 and 2008, philanthropic support for rural areas declined from $92.7 million to $89.5 at a time when total foundation giving increased by 43.4 percent, according to Rick Cohen, whose reports on rural philanthropy have been published by the Daily Yonder and Nonprofit Quarterly. Cohen is continuing to show that dramatic trend and will release a new analysis at this year’s National Rural Assembly.
As national foundations change priorities, rural philanthropy will have even more reason to play a role that extends beyond money.
James Joseph, former president of the Council on Foundations and chairman emeritus of the MDC board of directors (where I work), suggests that philanthropy should use five forms of capital, and only one involves money: social capital, moral capital, intellectual capital and reputational capital, as well as financial capital. All these forms of capital are on display at the Barry Community Foundation.
Social capital. With social capital, foundations can use their unique networks and relationships to make important connections and create new space for collaboration.
Barry Community Foundation’s office is in a converted church at the corner of the county square. Since the foundation only needs part of the church, they’ve opened up the space to community nonprofits, which pay a small rent.
“We’ve created place,” Hildreth says.
Intellectual capital. Joseph describes intellectual capital as the ability of foundations to bring new information and resources to “help people ground their passion in persuasive evidence,” as he said in a 2009 speech.
For Barry Community Foundation, that means creating a community conversation each year around a different opportunity. Recently, the staff noticed a lack of people wanting to run for local offices, so they worked to create job descriptions for each of the elected positions.
“If you want to have civic engagement, people need to know how to engage,” Hildreth says.
Reputational capital. Joseph describes reputational capital as foundations’ ability to highlight areas of need to leaders or take risks on those who would normally have no connections.
Early in Hildreth’s time at the foundation, the local library needed a new location and picked a controversial spot away from downtown that would result in the closure of a key road. The library had raised money for the new building but was forced to use some of that to pay legal bills.
The project appeared to be on the ropes, with the reputation of key players damaged and no alternative location.
“I have to find a way that these people can have some dignity in changing their minds” about decisions on where to site the new library, a donor said to Hildreth, coming to the foundation for help.
In Barry, as in many rural places, the library’s importance extends beyond books to a place where people can gather or use the Internet.
The Barry Community Foundation convened the board of the library and the government agency charged with downtown development and proposed an alternative: locating the library at the end of Main Street, near the edge of the industrial district and next to City Hall. In doing so, they believed, the library would not only have a prime spot but also spur economic development in the less dense area of downtown.
Finally, the foundation offered to help raise the money, promising donors that every dollar would go to “brick and mortar.” The library and city came to an agreement on that proposal, and the money was raised within 18 months.
Moral capital. Foundations have the moral capital, Joseph says, to take positions that run contrary to the usual community expectations.
In The Power of Rural Philanthropy, Alan McGregor and Bethany Chaney write that rural communities often build philanthropy by acknowledging that “everyone is a prospective donor, and everyone is a beneficiary.” Barry Community Foundation uses its moral capital by changing who is in the conversation on philanthropy.
For years, like rural communities around the country, Barry County has worried about the exodus of young adults from the community to places with greater job opportunities. Through the Youth Advisory Council, young adults write grants, select grantees and enter positions in local leadership.
The high school students go to elementary schools to teach grant making. At one school, there was no way to know what time it was or the temperature outside, so the students solicited $110.76 to put clocks and thermometers on the wall. The grant limit was $100, so they promised to raise $10.76 in matching funds.
When the council received a proposal to build a soccer field, written by adults, they turned it down on the spot.
Financial capital. All foundations know financial capital, where they start and too often where they end.
Barry Community Foundation has about 200 funds that made up more than $18 million in assets in 2011. An endowment for staff and administrative costs allows all new funds to go toward the community.
When deciding which issues to target for priority grantmaking, the foundation begins by asking, “What does our community need and want?” Hildreth says.
In Barry County, like many communities around the country, job creation is a priority for financial capital. While Barry County has a higher median income and lower unemployment rate than Michigan as a whole, the weakening of the auto industry hurt the two manufacturers where many residents worked. In one response, the foundation has begun a partnership with a local bank that will result in loans to community businesses and start-ups.
Hildreth began her career as a nursing aide before a back injury forced her to change professions. She took the job of founding executive director at the community foundation in 1995, at that time also playing the lead role for the United Way, after turns in medical billing and newspaper sales.
Eighteen years later, Hildreth and the Barry Community Foundation provide lessons in how today’s rural philanthropy can offset falling external funding with enthusiastic deployment of other forms of capital.
Max Rose is a program associate at MDC in Durham, N.C. Through its Passing Gear Philanthropy program, MDC helps foundations deploy capital in all its forms to advance well-being and long-term vitality in the regions they serve. More information on Bonnie Hildreth and the Barry Community Foundation is available in this this 2010 profile by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship.