Country road in East Texas. Becky Sheridan/shutterstock

A recent Inside Philanthropy article posed the question: “What’s happening with rural philanthropy and why isn’t there enough of it?” Along with diagnoses as to why the urban-rural philanthropy gap persists, the piece mentioned that the pursuit of finding solutions is “rarely sustained.”

But why isn’t it sustained? As a program officer at a foundation that solely serves rural communities, this is a relentless question. While there is a well-worn trail of people attempting to describe the challenges facing 21st-century rural communities, there’s far less discussion of why philanthropy is relatively absent as a source of solutions. As a point of departure, let’s eliminate the routes that inevitably lead nowhere.

First, let’s fully recognize the implications of philanthropic dollars, offices and staff being disproportionately based in urban areas. Fundamentally, there’s not enough rural philanthropy because the philanthropic sector, in its assumptions, rationales and functions, is non-rural. Philanthropy lives in, comes from, and knows cities. In 2022, as in 1979, when Robert Chambers coined the phrase, it is stubbornly difficult to escape the “rural development tourism” trap, much less find or sustain rural philanthropic solutions. There is a role for major urban philanthropy in reducing the rural philanthropy gap, but it’s a supporting, rather than a leading, role.

Let’s also cut off any shortcuts that promise fast solutions. Here, I’m taken back to graduate school lectures by Ambassador Ryan Crocker about the importance of strategic patience, a concept he most recently employed to describe the collapse of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Regardless of context, whether in rural Herat Province or rural East Texas, strategic patience is essential. To address complex, adaptive social challenges, you must be in it for the long haul. Overcoming decades of rural underinvestment and rural perceptions of being left behind doesn’t align neatly onto logic models, and a willingness to hold on and break through initial inertia, strategic redesigns, and inevitable staffing turnovers is indispensable to long-term success. Strategic patience doesn’t require blindly pushing forward regardless of impact, but it does force us to recognize that effective rural models will demand longer timeframes, measured in decades rather than in years.

Third, we should stay away from paths that obscure rural diversity in favor of a blanket understanding of what is “rural.” During discussions about rural strategies, I sometimes envy biological classifications and their many levels of hierarchical distinction. In the same way that no two animals, plants or ecosystems are alike, the full range of unique, non-metro communities cannot be lumped into a common rural strategy. There has been progress in defining rural areas for development. Yet, nuance is an exception rather than standard philanthropic practice, wherein rural stereotypes continue to serve as decision-making heuristics.

Solutions for ending the rural philanthropy gap will not be urban-derived, short-term or homogenous. By avoiding these dead ends, signposts become visible toward a sustainable rural philanthropy.

Visions of a new rural future

Rural philanthropy can feel like plugging holes in a sinking ship with no one left to steer. We’re trying so hard to hold onto what we have—hospitals, schools, industries, residents—that we have nothing left for charting a new trajectory. But this must change and give way to a new collective narrative. According to a recent report on the topic from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, durable solutions will require a “[s]hift from reactionary measures—such as keeping places ‘afloat,’ which has not worked well in the past,” toward a reconceptualization of what it means for rural communities to thrive in the 21st century. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic if rural communities can recognize and harness emerging trends, including the expansion of broadband infrastructure, the rise in telehealth and virtual learning platforms, the normalization of remote work, the growth of rural innovation hubs and networks, and new, greener ways of capitalizing on natural assets. And it is precisely philanthropy—the sector most able, and ideally, most willing, to take risks, absorb losses, learn, adapt and empower—that is suited to be a catalyst for the current rural moment. Sustainable rural philanthropy must begin with an orientation toward a positive new vision for rural communities.

Know and empower place-based rural institutions

The fundamental unit of action in rural development is the place-based institution, which is referred to by many names, including the anchor, backbone, hub or intermediary. Institutions come first and last. Too much rural philanthropy sputters out because it fails to acknowledge that you can’t just add more responsibility to an already overloaded civic infrastructure. If you have any questions about what this looks like on the ground, then go ask a rural school leader if they are interested in taking on another project and listen to their response.

An initiative will only go as far and for as long as the corresponding capacity of the locally managing institutions, and rural institutional ecosystems have been comprehensively neglected for decades. This dynamic, and its implications, is described well by Janet Topolsky:

Rural communities “must rely on innovative, scrappy, resource-strapped organizations that are cobbling together whatever they can to function as rural development hubs. If we strengthen the capacity and flexible agency of these on-the-ground experts, and build more of them, we will construct a better rural development ecosystem—and a better future for rural people and places, and for the nation as a whole.”

In rural communities, technical challenges cannot be separated from institutional capacity challenges, and both must be addressed simultaneously. Repurposing a well-known concept from the business startup field, rural philanthropy needs an understanding of minimum viable rural ecosystems (MVRE). The motivating question for an MVRE approach would be: “What capacities and arrangement of place-based rural institutions are necessary to initiate and drive positive social change?” The answers to that question would reveal realistic paths for progress within currently exhausted rural ecosystems, which have evolved for decades to survive scarcity rather than structure themselves for growth. As an example of the MVRE approach in action, the T.L.L. Temple Foundation recently assessed a financial services gap in rural East Texas, identified the need for intermediary institutions, and then launched community development financial institutions.

Rural philanthropic partnerships

By understanding rural institutional ecosystems, grantmakers have clarified a few key options for investing in sustainable rural philanthropy: building new capacities within existing intuitions, restructuring existing institutional arrangements, or launching new institutions. Vision and MVRE opens the door for weaving in program and sector-specific strategies led by trusted local institutions. With a long runway and locally led institutional partners, grantmakers can support the clearing of barriers using pragmatic, collaborative processes, such as problem-driven iterative adaptation.

Rural communities have been disproportionately detached from philanthropic support. Yet, there is a consensus building as to what works, and local rural champions are busy generating momentum. Place-based rural hubs are building local civic infrastructure and creating innovative partnership models from the bottom up that national, urban-based philanthropies can plug into, accelerate and support. Future progress will require a meeting in the middle, a merging of philanthropic effort: top-down national and state philanthropies with funds and programmatic expertise collaborating with place-based rural foundations, with local legitimacy, commitment, knowledge and connections. Rural place-based funders that are constantly engaged in vetting new investment opportunities should serve as guides and brokers that bridge the understanding gap between non-rural philanthropies and rural communities. Enduring funder-to-funder collaborations will create and coordinate philanthropic investment opportunities that are well-defined, durable and reinforcing.

By acknowledging and avoiding dead ends, promoting a new vision of what’s possible, and cultivating and nurturing place-based institutions and partnerships, we can avoid having ever to ask again what’s happening with rural philanthropy and why there isn’t enough of it.

Jerry Neal Kenney is program officer for Education and Economic Opportunity with the T.L.L. Temple Foundation.