Since the 2016 election, Americans have suddenly woken up to the importance of “rural America.” Academics are looking to better understand and study populations, reporters are featuring countless stories on people living in rural areas and governments are looking to increase support to these areas.  The populist upsurge forced our attention away from the heavily populated urban centers, that often receive the most attention, to diffusely populated where needs run high, yet resources and opportunities are minimal.  With the realization that there are significant needs in rural America, philanthropists have also begun to turn an eye towards more rural areas. However, working in rural areas can present its own set of very unique challenges that are very different from the comparatively resource-rich urban centers.

For the past two years, I have been working on several projects in a rural New England community alongside a local community foundation. The foundation is well-established in the community, well-versed in rural dynamics and thoughtful about how it applies funding trends to its rural constituency.  The projects have had some incredible successes and there have been places where we have miss-stepped, but we have learned a lot.  Below are a few of things I have learned about funding projects and services in rural areas:

  1. Community Solutions—The greatest successes we have seen in the work have come from solutions that were truly community designed and led. Nobody anywhere wants to be told by outsiders what is best for them. It was challenging to facilitate community conversations and extremely time consuming, but in the end community members came up with the solutions that were most likely to work for them.
  2. Severe funding shortages—We worry about funding streams in urban areas, but many service providers in rural areas are truly worried about keeping the lights on month to month. In general, there are fewer philanthropic and government dollars to go around so organizations provide services on tighter budgets that have little room for error. It is actually quite remarkable what organizations are able to do with very limited budgets.  But it means they have very limited budgets for activities such as capacity building, collaboration, evaluation etc.  Organizations want to participate in these activities, but often simply do not have the resources. Funders that want organizations to participate in these activities need to provide the funding for them to do so.
  3. Organizational capacity—Many organizations do not have the resources to invest in their own skills and capacity such as marketing, social media, financial management, strategy etc. partly because of funding shortages (as mentioned above), but also, because training resources are much more limited. I have worked with many sophisticated organizations in urban areas who have gone through countless skills-building sessions and managerial trainings. Many employees have attended top schools or have sophisticated graduate degrees. In rural areas, these types of trainings and educational experiences are far more limited.  It’s hard to get your MBA at night when the closest graduate school is 80 miles away. As such, training solutions must be more creative, and a funder is often needed to help identify training resources.
  4. Town vs rural—Even within more rural areas there is a difference between the town, where many services are provided, and the diffusely populated areas that might be considered truly “rural.” To reach these truly “rural” areas funders face many of the same “last mile” challenges that development funders face around globe.  Reaching these areas requires a significant investment of upfront time and resources to design specific solutions that can reach far corners of a community.