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Commentary: Challenging Everything We Know about Funding as a Path to Thriving Rural Communities

For decades, rural communities have been ill-served by governments, foundations, and many large organizations dedicated to advancing community economic development and people’s health and well-being. The causes of that are complex, ranging from systemic racism and classism to structural underinvestment and urban-first bias in our policy and research decision-making. 

The Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, in partnership with practitioners from rural communities, Native Nations, and tribes across the country, has identified critical actions that funders, governments, and other national, regional, and local organizations can take to be more responsive and effective. 

Through our work, we’ve engaged with hundreds of communities that are flipping the script. The residents of Washington’s South Wenatchee community, while far from the only example, encapsulate how adhering to these new principles leads to better outcomes for rural communities and builds the foundations of a thriving and prosperous future. What began as an effort to restore small parks turned into a community-led effort for civic engagement, safer streets, and even access to health care. 

At a moment when our nation is under pressure from rising costs of living and cascading natural disasters, rural communities can’t wait any longer. It is possible to achieve thriving, prosperous rural communities and Native nations where everyone can belong and live with dignity. 

Co-create funding opportunities with communities to collectively define success. Successful measurement and a notion of what progress looks like must be built through a process of co-creation with the communities we seek to serve. Many foundations are starting by building trust and a sense of partnership while creating more effective, responsive measurement goals by walking with rural initiatives to determine what success over the course of a grant or investment will look like and how to measure that success. 

In Wenatchee, community leaders met with members of the Trust for Public Land to do exactly that. After years of receiving empty promises, the Trust stayed present in the community to work directly alongside those with the potential for direct impact to help them define their own priorities and measurements of success. As this approach continues to gain momentum in the nonprofit world, private philanthropy also has a critical role in pushing public funders to embrace such innovative measures. 

Focus on closing divides by race, place, and class. The interaction between race, class, and structural urban biases (placeism) conspire to further put rural communities, Native nations, and tribal communities at a disadvantage. People of color, youth, women, immigrants, and people of low wealth are often underrepresented in rural communities and need support for methods and pilots specifically aimed at assessing equity in rural places. Additionally needed is an understanding of the state of equity in local civic leadership as a bellwether of equity progress. By building strong, trusted partnerships and supporting the efforts of those working to build civic leadership locally we will create a virtuous cycle for gauging progress toward equitable rural prosperity. 

Measure collaboration to support the field. With traditional funding, it’s easy to overlook things that either aren’t or can’t be properly captured in numbers and scales. Collaboration in and of itself can become a powerful asset for funders and grantees alike. Following their engagement in redeveloping the park, local Wenatchee leaders formed their own organization, Parque Padrinos (Park Godparents), and change was part of the new organization’s structure. Upon joining, each member committed to take on a specific contribution, such as hosting an arts class or teaching reading; in the process, many discovered that their skills were relevant to the community. Garnering the resources to collaborate is already challenging for rural initiatives; measuring collaboration and its effectiveness is a step beyond that. Facilitating dialogue, research, and learnings focused on identifying robust indicators of collaboration, all areas where foundations can have a high impact for light investment, would benefit organizations and collaboratives across the country. 

Building momentum and breaking the obsession with misleading notions of “scale.” One of the most pernicious ideas in measurement is the rush to put points on the board, this most easily shows up as a push for raw numbers. This already places an automatic place bias against rural communities and ignores real impact, which is always relative to the starting point and sensitive to the community context. 

Smarter investment with measurement tailored to the local context has even greater potential for impact in rural communities. Aggregating impact across many communities with different baselines can be achieved through frameworks like the ACAP Crisis to Thriving Framework or Whole Family Approach Life Scale. At times, success isn’t realized in the immediate future but can take months or even years to reveal the full scope of progress made. Thanks to the work being done in Wenatchee over six years, residents had built a dense network of community leaders able to respond to the community’s needs. That created a valuable asset in the fight against Covid-19. 

Early in 2020, the pandemic’s presence made itself known, with 80% of cases in the Wenatchee Valley region affecting the Latino community. In partnership, regional hospitals and the Parque Padrinos led a vaccine equity initiative addressing language barriers and helping communities put everything into context. Recognizing and celebrating the small but significant signs of momentum are critical to building community energy. 

The Trust for Public Land realized that communities create momentum by defining their own priorities and marking incremental progress. Cary Simmons, director of community strategies for The Trust for Public Land, saw that this flipped the script for funder and community relations: “We funded community leaders to lead us.” Transforming very visible aspects of these communities can lead to increased optimism among youth, and studies have shown that the perceptions young adults have of their communities are a critical leading indicator of momentum.

Rural communities are deeply woven together, and actions on any one of these issues will promote a virtuous cycle. Similarly, continued acceptance of the status quo will only lead to steeper declines. Funders across the country can play a unique role in changing the narrative on rural communities. It is possible to achieve thriving, prosperous rural communities and Native nations where everyone can belong and live with dignity. 

Bonita Robertson-Hardy is co-executive director of the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group.

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