Rural-to-rural partnerships: Leveling the playing field to secure federal funding

Published 4:30 pm Friday, June 2, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Kathleen Flanagan and Jerry Neal Kenney

The Daily Yonder

Across the country, communities are competing to access the unprecedented funding approved through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other federal and state programs. Metro areas across the U.S. are engaged in all-hands-on-deck efforts that bring managers, officers, planners, administrators and pretty much every other layer of local bureaucracy into play to pull down every possible dollar their cities may qualify for — as they should.

Email newsletter signup

As has been documented repeatedly, though, the nonprofits and other civic agencies that comprise the much leaner and overburdened civic infrastructure of rural places are at a disadvantage when navigating complex bureaucracies and applying for federal funds. If they’re engaged in the effort at all, rural communities are doing the best they can without the administrative density and specialization required to assess, plan, design, write and manage effective federal grant applications and awards.

Even when funds are earmarked for rural places, they often still fail to reach their intended beneficiaries. Therefore, it remains a priority to strengthen the capacity of rural communities to compete for federal funds and build the mechanisms and technical expertise they require to secure and manage federal awards.

Philanthropy has an obligation and opportunity to spur innovation that addresses these intractable rural challenges. Two of the largest rural-focused private foundations in the U.S., the Ford Family Foundation and the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, are using rural-to-rural collaboration to generate scalable solutions that create a more level playing field for rural communities seeking new development pathways.

Removing Barriers for Communities in Rural Oregon

Concerned that its rural Oregon service area would continue to miss out on federal investment opportunities, the Ford Family Foundation stepped forward to find solutions. The foundation hosted a discussion with federal grant writers, participated in meetings with key partner organizations and retained Sequoia Consulting to conduct in-depth research. According to the report that emerged from those efforts, “Pathways to Securing Rural Federal Funding,” the greatest challenges facing rural-serving entities are limitations in the following:

  • Staffing capacity.
  • Expertise, including the technical knowledge and tools to identify opportunities, confirm eligibility, capture appropriate data and write compelling applications.
  • External resources to satisfy common grant cost share and match requirements.

The report’s findings served as a catalyst, and the Ford Family Foundation and Sequoia Consulting created immediate responses that address these priority barriers. The result was the Pathways to Securing Rural Federal Funding Toolkit, built around a readiness assessment survey for nonprofits, need-based mentoring, a federal funding opportunities prospect list and a federal grant writer roster. Via the Ford Family Foundation’s partnership with the Oregon Economic Development Districts, these rural funding resource tools are now available and regularly updated so that all rural Oregon communities can better navigate, compete for and secure federal funding opportunities.

Bringing the Solutions to Rural Texas

The challenges facing rural communities in Oregon are not unique. Fortunately, neither are the solutions. Yet where are the platforms for exploring place-based rural solutions and disseminating that information to other places? Just as many rural school leaders, small business owners or healthcare providers end up feeling isolated in their work, there are too few dynamic local, regional or national ecosystems for fostering rural-to-rural collaboration and channeling rural innovations. Those sorts of rural-to-rural partnership platforms need to be launched, nurtured and scaled.

Seeking a space to concentrate on rural philanthropy coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the staff of the Ford Family Foundation and the T.L.L. Temple Foundation began participating in regular virtual meetings in 2021 to share philanthropic strategies and ideas focused on their respective rural service areas in Oregon and East Texas. During one of the collaborative sessions, Kathleen Flanagan, director of community economic development at the Ford Family Foundation (and one of the co-authors of this article), presented the rural toolkit developed by Sequoia Consulting. Jerry Kenney, program officer with the T.L.L. Temple Foundation (and this article’s other co-author), recognized that the barriers to securing funding that Kathleen described for Oregon were the same barriers holding back rural East Texas.

Rural Texans needed access to the tools as well, particularly the grant prospecting list — a single-source, regularly updated, sortable database of economic development grant opportunities customized for rural communities – as well as the grant writer roster of vetted consultants with the skills and experience to support small communities that cannot afford full-time development staff.

Kathleen connected Jerry to Sequoia Consulting. After months of collaboration and bringing new partners together, a grant prospecting list and a grant writer roster have been launched for rural communities across Texas hosted by Texas Rural Funders. Reinforcing the catalytic potential of rural-to-rural collaboration, innovation and investment platforms, funders from across rural Texas have stepped forward to support this capacity-building initiative, including Amarillo Area Foundation, Carl B. & Florence E. King Foundation, the Meadows Foundation, Methodist Healthcare Ministries, the Priddy Foundation, Still Water Foundation, St. David’s Foundation and Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation. Now, rural communities across Oregon and Texas have access to a tailored one-stop shop for navigating federal funding opportunities and the grant writers who can help support them in preparing for and developing competitive applications.

Accelerating Future-Focused Rural Capacity-Building

These tools are not enough, however, and more must be done to ensure that resources reach underserved rural communities. The Ford Family Foundation and the T.L.L. Temple Foundation continue to push new ideas to strengthen the capacity of rural residents and institutions. More models are emerging, such as targeted rapid-response teams of experienced professionals and consultants to augment rural development efforts, and investments in intermediary organizations that can help pull in and aggregate diverse public, private and philanthropic funds.

What is clear is that we must support rural communities with better tools to compete in the 21st century. One significant piece of that effort is to help rural communities secure the assistance and resources they need to propel social and economic development. It’s about the power of rural-to-rural collaboration and the potential in creating mechanisms that will allow promising rural innovations to bubble up, be adopted and adapted, and ultimately gain traction across rural America. These types of partnerships are the reason why rural communities across Oregon and Texas now have access to the tools they need to better compete for federal funding. It’s up to us and other rural leaders to share stories of success and keep the momentum building.