One of the biggest challenges rural America faces is the exodus of people, especially young people, who move away, shuttering businesses and jobs that underpin the local economies. It jeopardizes school districts and creates more pressure on the safety nets that support higher poverty rates caused by unemployment.
But strong leaders willing to fight for their communities can work to reverse that tide. And those leaders come from the ranks of the CFO’s 44 affiliate community foundations who gathered for an annual conference this week focused on philanthropy’s role in the state of the rural union.
These community foundation leaders can encourage visionary thinking, provide a neutral platform to plan for the future, connect schools and communities, and offer grantmaking to fill gaps as public funds become more elusive. That was the message of hope and encouragement from a panel of rural thought leaders who provided the conference’s keynote session.
Dr. Mary Simon Leuci, assistant dean in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri, said planning for the new realities of rural America should be based on data, frank assessments of the community’s capacity and guided by a well-developed plan with the discipline to stay the course.
But, she added, don’t underestimate the power of determination and passion among residents who want their communities to thrive.
“You can really tap into the passion, spirit, heart and soul of the community,” Leuci said. “People own what they help create.”
Dr. Julie Leeth, coordinator for the CFO’s Rural Schools Partnership, urged the affiliate leaders to integrate their schools into these planning efforts. She also acknowledged that schools are increasingly dependent on philanthropic dollars to provide any extras for kids in a time of shrinking local tax bases and state and federal commitments.
“If you are not working through your schools, you are missing the boat,” she said. “In my travels across southwest Missouri, you can almost always gauge the strength of the community by the strength of the school. You just have to figure out ways to connect schools to your community.”
Dr. Chris Neale, superintendent of Hermann Public Schools and president of the Community Foundation there, reiterated the value schools can play and the hope young people offer for sustaining communities.
He recognizes that it’s difficult for many people to talk about money or ask others for donations. Instead, he urged the affiliate leaders to think more about the role a community foundation might play in assisting local efforts. He encouraged them to be evangelists for their mission of community building.
“Practice saying, ‘Yes, I think we can help with that’,” Neale said.
Houston’s Economic Development Manager Ron Reed admitted that rural America’s challenges are discouraging. He knows communities are asking questions about how to increase school enrollment, how to sustain what they have now, much less move forward. He challenged the CFO to offer a program or a template to help communities get started on planning for the future.
“They’ve lost hope,” he said. “They don’t know how to start. They need a plan, a recipe. Maybe the CFO is the one that takes the lead on a plan. We could be a leader in the United States.”
Richard Cavender drew on his experience from a 40-year career at the Meramec Regional Planning Commission to suggest that Foundation leaders can draw on the expertise of regional planners. He encouraged them to cast a wide net of involvement to both uncover more issues and ideas and create more buy-in from the community.
“Reach out and get everyone involved,” said Cavender, also a CFO board member. “When you are done, you are going to have a vision and a plan to get from here to there.”