The Nebraska Community Foundation works with community, organizational and donor-advised affiliated funds serving 255 communities located in 78 counties. NCF and its affiliated funds have reinvested $222.7 million in Nebraska since 1994.
07/26/2011, Rick Cohen, RE:Philanthropy Blog
In the realms of rural philanthropy, the Nebraska Community Foundation’s Jeff Yost is something of the avatar of how community foundations can identify, find, and tap rural philanthropic assets. What are rural philanthropic assets in a part of this nation that some would say has a difficult time attracting and capturing investment capital from government, business, and frequently mainstream philanthropy. Is the purpose simply the generation of more charity and philanthropy, or does the generation of rural philanthropic assets contain both different dimensions of what philanthropic grantmaking in substance and process might mean? How does a philanthropist like Yost conceptualize a kind of philanthropy that takes rural areas in a different direction of process and products compared to traditional philanthropy?
Janet Topolsky of the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group articulates a vision of philanthropy that seems to capture what the Nebraska Community Foundation has been doing for some years now to identify and mobilize rural philanthropic assets–a practice of rural development philanthropy, not just rural philanthropy per se. Her concept-or the concept of the rural philanthropy agenda that her organization and others have worked on together for several years–is that rural development philanthropy seeks rural community transformation, builds a community’s ability to shape a community’s future, and promotes the well-being of all community members. It isn’t hard to hear as the subtext of Topolsky’s conceptual framework of rural development philanthropy as tied to a more small “d” democratic dynamic.
She asks, is it just about the money to build a new playground or about stimulating community people to lead and direct the effort. Rural development philanthropy as opposed to simply rural philanthropy is to bring community people to the table, to create and strengthen community organizations, and to “honor and channel” diverse community voices. It’s probably trite to say that Topolsky’s vision of rural philanthropy is geared to community empowerment, the latter a word long discarded by ideologues of the left and right.
But implicitly, isn’t the standard model of philanthropy, as opposed to some sort of “development philanthropy” disempowering? The concept is fundamentally one of community-controlled philanthropy, with community leaders empowered to think about and make, what Topolsky describes as “transformational” philanthropic investments. Two of the examples that Topolsky used to highlight the distinctiveness of rural development philanthropy contrasted transformational grants with the less transformational notions of donor-directed grants to individual organizations or grants to people in need so that they can access and purchase needed services (such as health and dental services or job training).
It has to be noted that this concept of philanthropic practice has public policy dimensions. The drumbeat in public policy is an individualized kind of support of people in need, making payments to individuals to purchase nonprofit services on the market (including potentially purchasing services from other-than-nonprofits). Some critics might view this as “philanthropic social engineering,” which would be true if Topolsky’s model isn’t as community-based and community-led as the vision she articulates. That may be the real test of rural development philanthropy, not the amounts of money that might be generated for rural endowments, but, as Jeff Yost has indicated in his for “RE: Philanthropy” blog post, the mobilization of community leaders who work together to shape and allocate philanthropic resources in rural areas.
Topolsky asks, if rural areas just had more money, would things just get better? She argues that total assets are less important than the participatory measures of the numbers of donors, new donors, repeat donors, diversity of donors, geographic spread of donors, proportion of population as donors. In some ways, this measure of rural development philanthropy is a philanthropic reflection of basic community organizing principles. She infers that the generation of local participation will lead to, or at least can be measured against, results that “focus on issues ‘critical’ to locals” and lead to “local low-wealth families, firms, and communities doing better.”
Can rural communities really operate on this kind of cooperative model, across social class lines to achieve benefits and results where the first element on Topolsky’s dashboard is the benefit of rural development philanthropy improving the well-being of low-wealth families, presumably a euphemism for the now increasingly unpopular term of families in poverty? Do philanthropic donors become more egalitarian because of their participation in philanthropy when their personal and business activities might not be so focused on social equity?
In this room of somewhat diverse rural philanthropists are people who have indicated their allegiance to various philosophies along the political spectrum, hard to avoid as we talk about rural philanthropy while our nation’s leaders demonstrate an inability to govern and cooperate to avoid a potential U.S. governmental default, there is a shared or perhaps growing commitment to a kind of philanthropy predicted on finding out what communities want to do themselves and giving them access to some resources to help them do it. They may not agree about political ideologies, but they increasingly believe that in rural areas, where outmigration has sometimes led to the departure of not only numbers of people, but people with leadership skills and orientation, mobilizing and building authentic leadership in rural communities is a basic need for rural development-regardless of which direction it might take.
Rick Cohen is a columnist with the NonProfit Quarterly.
View the article online at the RE: Philanthropy Blog at at http://www.cofinteract.org/rephilanthropy/?p=3067