Along with getting the word out about good rural philanthropy going on around the country – and opportunities to do even more good work – I use this Blog to try and unsettle some of the commonly voiced philanthropy-speak that just seems to persist. At best, it diverts foundations from their potential. At worst, it forces rural communities to chase dollars and neglect their assets.
“The Rural Evidence-Based Ruse”
If one goes to the site for the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy (evidencebasedprograms.org), you will see a summary of 41 domestic social programs that have been rigorously tested and proven effective over the course of some years. Many like the Triple P System and Career Academies have become standards of practice for reversing the prospective negative paths of vulnerable children and adults. Funders love to fund evidence-based work. After all, I have heard foundation leaders on both the staff and board level raise the question, “Why would we grant to projects where the outcome is uncertain? Evidence-based is what makes sense.”
Take a minute to dig into the stories of those 41 programs that have reached the highest level of validation through Randomized Control Trials, and we find something entirely unsurprising but poorly recognized in philanthropic practice. Using some generous counting methods, only 15-20% of the trials represented by these 41 programs took place in rural communities. Few, if any, of the trials provided any additional instruction on rural implementation challenges or adaptation. There are two issues here: 1) There is no evidence base for rural implementation if the evidence- based field is dominantly urban, and 2) There is little available implementation support for rural adaptation. So those sure-thing evidence-based investments become a poorly informed diversion from what might actually work. Recommendation: Funders support rural adaptation for evidence-based work. Importantly, funders support the testing and redefinition of how rural work can meet a similar, yet different, evidence-based threshold.
“The Harlem Children’s Zone Disconnect”
The Harlem Children’s Zone is the most commonly referenced example of a full-on press towards better child and family outcomes. The evidence is very promising although it is incomplete. So how does this translate to a county of 12,000 with few formal social supports, no obvious funders, no researchers, and a part-time person at the school district that has three jobs? Obviously, it doesn’t. Foundations continue, however, to seek guidance and lessons from this major 25-year effort, often without consideration for the context of their own work. A group of determined rural funders could devote time and resources to developing their own replicable rural-centric long-term support for every child and family in a 10-mile radius – why not?!
“Collective Impact and the Funder Romance”
Whatever one’s opinion about “collective impact,” it’s fair to say that funders – big and small – have gone full bore in helping brand, sanction, and extend the reach of CI. Do most funders have a deep understanding of the research base and implementation science that are part of CI? No. Have many funders started using CI as a general concept about people working together towards commonly defined goals? Yes. Are many of the newer health conversion foundations – often in rural communities – vulnerable to letting CI drive how they go about their work? Yes! Rural funders should be on the forefront of refining models of rural community problem solving based upon… (drum roll, please!) …what energizes rural communities towards problem solving action. Rural funders who are refocusing their program staff to be closer to the ground and those, for example, that are trying to refocus relationships with long-time embedded stakeholders like Extension, church, and community colleges are on the right path. Major national funders need to work with local funders on the refinement and promotion of community-based problem solving models that excite local rural people.
And we could talk about “Return on Investment,” “scaling,” “impact investing,” and many of the other foundation tenets often misapplied to rural. For now, let’s celebrate the funders that are willing to risk their reputational and financial capital to do a better job in supporting rural America. At the same time, lets challenge those funders who accept that the any kind of urban intervention can be done in rural – just smaller. That is wrong.