Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Philanthropies need to be more invested in rural areas, says Appalachian advocate

Justin Maxson
About 16 percent of the nation's population is rural, but rural areas only received 6 to 7 percent of private foundation grants awarded from 2005 to 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those are numbers that need to change if philanthropies are going to make any progress, Justin Maxson, executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, told Bestey Russell, a writer for the Daily Yonder. "Maxson said one problem is the assertion by some foundations that rural communities lack capacity to put grants to good use," Russell reports. "But that’s often more a matter of perception than reality foundations, he said."

Maxson, who has been in Appalachia for 15 years, previously with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, told Russell: "I think there are a range of civic associations, non-profit organizations, and local leaders who bring skills from their work in all sorts of settings that translate into capacity to support changing those places. It’s hard for foundations to go deep enough to really learn a place. If you look across rural America, it’s a big landscape. It takes settling in a place and building relationships, scratching beneath the surface to understand that capacity, to resource it, to figure out what the needs are, and what the opportunities are in those places."

"It’s not easy," he said. "I don’t want to pretend there’s a Harry Potter spell you can say. It’s not that simple. We spend a lot of time building relationships with partners and communities. We don’t pretend that we can be of a place, but we sure the heck can be authentic. We can ask good questions. We can listen well. We can, through local partners, build the connections that result in a better understanding of the place. We spend a ridiculous amount of time on the road. There is cost in that, to staff. There is cost in that financially. There’s cost in that in terms of our organizational culture, but I think it absolutely improves our grantmaking."

"There aren’t easy bumper stickers about rural capacity," he said. "It’s there, but part of the endeavor is slowing down enough, and sinking into a place enough, and caring enough to scratch that surface. It’s not a matter of finding an easy way of talking about it, or of measuring the right things, or of lifting up the right evidence. I don’t think that’s quite it. I do know that if you want to win statewide on any issue, you can’t forget rural places. I also think there’s a moral argument that says, If people are important, you can’t think about injustice without acknowledging the plight and the opportunity in rural America. There are political arguments, climate arguments, and moral arguments about why rural America is important to creating a healthy country, and we’ve got to do a better job at articulating those."

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