While there are many shining examples of effective rural philanthropic work, only 7% of private philanthropic investments are associated with a rural-focused initiative. Even fewer of these rural investments are directed towards work addressing issues of equity of race, class, education and economic opportunity. The numbers speak to the lack of a real national basis of understanding of how to invest in rural regions with effective strategy and alignment. Rural funding shortfalls include a variety of tactical challenges and culture-bound barriers.
- Rural regions in the United States have as many differences as similarities, and funders often have a difficult time gathering enough knowledge to understand both dimensions.
- The human, financial, and structural assets of rural communities often look quite different than their urban counterparts. Rural leaders may resist unfamiliar but well-intentioned urban models.
- Rural communities may be skeptical of any long-term commitments from private urban-based funders towards rural community improvement initiatives.
- The presence of significant state and federal resources may make it difficult for out-of-area private funders to align their work with common goals.
- The rural non-profit infrastructure can be sparse, so funders naturally gravitate towards trusted partners that may not be the right kind of leaders for the effort(s).
The Need for Transition
Given the inconsistent history of much of rural philanthropy in the United States, there is a need for transition in rural funder practice; a paradigm shift that is embraced and responds to the ways that rural communities actually function. The culture of health movement initiated by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and embodied in the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps work at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Center provides a significant architecture for this redesign. This shift in practice needs to include:
- Meaningful ongoing relationships with local, state, and regional funders that are demonstrating success with their rural culture of health work.
- Rural non-health networks that have a state or regional focus and are embracing culture of health concepts.
- Deeper knowledge of individual communities that have created important cross-sector initiatives focused on improving the health of their communities.
- Identification of existing under-the-radar successes from the rural regions of the country and technical and financial support for adaptation to other areas.
- Strategies for adaptation of rural work that recognize differences in geography, culture, and history and that also consider rural Native American communities and other specific populations.
- Understanding of the context of initiatives that fundamentally shift the vitality of rural community life such as electrification and broadband access.
- Support for the development of emerging non-traditional leaders to respond to a rapidly aging leadership population that may lack necessary innovation to support development and growth.