Summary Report to the Field #5: What Does Equity Mean for Rural Philanthropic Work?

Rural town with mountain in thebackground

This is the fifth blog post summarizing findings from the national Rural Philanthropic Analysis (RPA) project housed at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.  Throughout our work, we have observed that “equity” is a consistently expanding theme across many sectors of rural philanthropy.  Historically, common belief has labeled the rural American population as largely homogeneous; but in fact, rural communities are quite demographically diverse.  Facilitating meaningful work in these rural communities calls for a deep understanding of how this diversity is intertwined with inequity.  With this idea in mind, we decided to take a closer look at the ways in which foundations address and apply the concept of equity, in order to contribute to the conversation surrounding how foundations can support high-impact work and equally serve all rural populations.

RPA staff examined the recent rural equity-focused work of 10 foundations across the United States.  We investigated each foundation’s work through journal articles, news articles, websites, reports, publications, and other resources.  Through our research, we Road between two fieldssought to answer the following questions:  How do these foundations define equity?  How do these foundations conceptually approach equity in rural philanthropic work? What methods are used in translating equity goals into action?

We uncovered variation in the foundations’ definitions of equity.  While some broadly defined equity as equal opportunity for all individuals to thrive, others focused their definitions on racial equity or health equity.  However, overall, most conceptually approach equity with an understanding that all societal systems, dynamics, and constructs – for example, socioeconomic status, access to healthcare, educational attainment, culture, historical narrative, emotional well-being, racism, discrimination, policy –  are interdependent and inextricably related.  We found that most of the examined foundations tend to embed equity into their mission statements and strategies, essentially operating through an “equity lens.” One key example is incorporating equitable practice and inclusion into the foundation’s internal structure by using hiring processes that ensure a diverse staff to better support an area of service (i.e., Colorado Trust).

Across the rural equity work we explored, foundations tend to use place-based strategies, which is tied to the idea that systemically ingrained inequity is shaped by a community’s unique history, location, culture, and diverse demography.  In effect, using a place-based approach empowers rural communities to identify and advocate for their specific challenges and needs and allows foundations to support culturally competent – and therefore more effective – services.

In addition to place-based strategies, we observed trends in implementation methods for translating the goal of equity into action. Most foundations support action that tackles upstream inequities with the goal of downstream results; for example, striving to improve social determinants of health like rural housing, transportation, and education environments to ultimately improve health disparities (i.e. California Endowment, Hogg Foundation). We also noticed Watertower against the night skyphilanthropic equity work addressing the fundamental causes of inequity by debunking social stigma and racism that contributes to systemic injustices, with the primary goal of increasing awareness and connection, and less focus on short-term measurable outcomes (i.e., Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation program, W.K. Kellogg Foundation).  Foundations often partner with equity-focused nonprofits to expand their perspectives of equity and gather more knowledge of local rural inequities (i.e., Healthcare Georgia and Partnership for Southern Equity).

This investigation reveals that some foundations view equity as a critical strategic underpinning for all areas of rural work: In order to achieve equity as an outcome, it must also be part of the process.  Throughout the equity-focused rural philanthropic work we studied, place-based strategies are used to address societal inequities and break down the ideological and psychosocial factors at the root of systemic injustices.  The significant scope of equity requires consistent progress, growth, and effort to ensure that effective, sustainable change reaches rural areas in all corners of the United States. The current equity work in rural philanthropy is a major movement in a positive direction; we just need more of it.  For more information regarding RPA’s investigation of equity-focused philanthropic work in rural areas, please reach out to Anna Ault at