Monday, June 11, 2018

Rural funders urge philanthropists to let communities lead

"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," Betsey Russell reports for The Daily Yonder. Russell is a philanthropy consultant who assists the Office of Rural Philanthropic Analysis at Campbell University in North Carolina.

Ned Calonge speaks as co-panelist Elena Marks listens.
(Photo by Shawn Poynter, Center for Rural Strategies)
The executives discussed rural philanthropy during a May 21 panel discussion held before the latest National Rural Assembly. They included 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.

All three spoke about ways to build relationships between organizations and communities and make sure residents are directing the pace and focus of changes. Kubisch said the Ford Family Foundation, created from timber fortunes, partnered with an intermediary organization, Rural Development Initiatives, to create leadership-development classes in rural Oregon and northern California over 13 years. "We do a lot of direct relationship building and, as a result of that, try and keep track of what's going in each community and figure out how to be responsive to that," Kubisch said. Instead of hiring traditional gatekeepers who distribute grants, the foundation has eight field coordinators who live and work in rural areas and help build their communities. 

Calonge said The Colorado Trust once operated as a traditional grantmaker for health and wellness initiatives, but it has retooled its strategy in recent years to be more resident-led.  "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."

Marks agreed, saying that the most effective way for the Episcopal Health Foundation to cover Texas is to foster coalitions with rural communities instead of doing the grassroots work themselves. Allen Smart, director of the Office of Rural Philanthropic Analysis, praised the panelists's organizations, saying that their ground-up approach is a good example for other organizations that want to invest in rural communities.

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