A few days ago, we concluded the 2009 Philanthropy and Rural America Conference at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. This event was about asking what we can do to grow philanthropy in rural America, not what others can do for us. As philanthropists, we need to be the innovators to find new solutions to old problems.
For three days last week, more than 150 foundation and other leaders focused on one mission: to develop a strategic plan for rural philanthropy and get it back on foundations’ agendas.
The first two days of the conference consisted of plenary sessions and concurrent sessions arranged according to four different tracks: Education; Economic Development; Energy/Environment; and Building Rural Philanthropic Capacity. We asked participants to choose a track and stay with it throughout the conference. On the last day, we broke into groups to create specific strategies and recommendations for each of the four tracks. Next week, we’ll share with you, by email, the conference outcomes and next steps. In addition, we will have a special page on the Council website with highlights, speeches, PowerPoint presentations, and other resources.
In the meantime, I’d like to offer a summary of what took place during the conference.
The morning began with opening remarks by the conference hosts: Sherece West, president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation; Karl Stauber, president of the Danville Regional Foundation; Jim Richardson, president of the National Rural Funders Collaborative; and me. Next, we engaged in a panel discussion on “The State of Rural Philanthropy Today,” followed by a talk by rural development consultant Jason Gray on “Understanding the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” In his remarks, Gray said, “Philanthropy cannot be – and is not intended to be – the sole solution for a community….Philanthropy cannot replace government functions. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is a unique opportunity for significant infusions of community-building capital for low-wealth and rural communities.”
With the stage set, we broke into the first of three concurrent sessions to discuss different aspects of the four tracks.
At the luncheon plenary, the Council’s Chairman, Ralph Smith, reminded us of the “need to be attentive and persistent as we build a better infrastructure for the fate of philanthropy.”
Ed DeSeve, special advisor to the President for Implementation of the Recovery Act, was next up, and spoke about “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Rural America.” DeSeve told the audience that the Recovery Act has more than a billion dollars of wellness grants to distribute to communities. He said the government wants communities to get directly involved in meeting their needs. “We are focused on creating healthier, greener, better educated communities with higher quality jobs,” he said. “In order for this to be successful in rural areas, we need you to take action and let the government know what you have in your communities—and what you need.” DeSeve also called on the Council to collect these recommendations, ideas, and suggestions, and share them with the Obama Administration.
Following the luncheon plenary, participants again broke into concurrent sessions.
At the afternoon plenary session, Karen Jackson, Virginia deputy director of technology, and Dallas Tonsager, undersecretary of rural development with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), talked about “Rural Development—Broadband and Beyond.”
Jackson emphasized that broadband cannot succeed without strong leadership. “Virginia’s successful launch of broadband is due to a strong public-private partnership in not only deploying the broadband, but also in equipping those in rural areas with the proper knowledge and tools to use it effectively.”
Tonsager noted that the Recovery Act has $2.5 billion available for broadband. And, he said, the USDA is working with communities to build on their current assets to deploy broadband.
The day ended with an authentic “Arkansas Evening,” complete with local foods and traditional music and culture.
The morning opened with concurrent sessions once again following the four tracks.
The highlight of the day occurred mid-morning, when former President Bill Clinton spoke about his vision of rural America’s future. In welcoming conference participants to his home state and the Clinton Center, Clinton emphasized his commitment to tackling the issues that confront rural communities, including health care, childhood obesity, energy conservation, agriculture, and broadband.
Clinton also challenged those in attendance to bring their best ideas forward. “We can beat up on people and say they should give more money in rural America,” he said, “but we should give them some new ideas.”
The former president said that “an enormous number of good things are being done in America” but many don’t ever rise to scale because of lack of publicity. He believes we need to “establish an honor roll of stand-alone projects that other people and states can take to scale and try to get them funded.” Clinton said this is the best way to get buy-in, in advance, from big, donor foundations.
Clinton focused much of his talk on alternative energy initiatives and the future growth of wind and solar energy in rural America. He was adamant about the need for such initiatives, saying, “We need to change the way we produce, conserve, and consume energy—and rural America needs to be part of that.” Alternative energy, he claimed, “…would spark the largest job boom we’ve had since World War II—and we wouldn’t have to shoot anyone to do it!”
• Listen to excerpts of Clinton’s remarks.
• Hear Clinton’s answer on philanthropy’s role in reinventing the quality of life in rural america.
• Hear Clinton’s answer on bridging the rural urban divide.
Tuesday afternoon, with Clinton’s blunt talk still fresh in their minds, the participants boarded buses to see, first-hand, some of the challenges confronting rural Arkansas—and the innovative ways communities are addressing those challenges.
One group of participants visited Clark County where all sectors of the community—public, private, and nonprofit—joined together to develop a comprehensive planning document that organizes the community’s long-term vision into 41 strategic goals and 254 actionable items. The goals and action items address five fundamental pillars of community life: economic development (both tourism and job creation), housing, education, leadership development, and health care. Today, Arkadelphia, the Clark County seat and home to 11,000 residents, is cited as one of “50 Fabulous Places to Raise Your Family: The Best Places to Live, Work, and Play.”
A second group of participants visited Helena–West Helena and Phillips County. Located in the heart of the Mississippi River Delta, this area suffers from one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, with fewer than 60 percent of public school students graduating from high school and fewer than 10 percent expected to graduate from college. In 2003, Southern Bancorp., America’s largest rural development bank, and its nonprofit affiliates teamed up with the Walton Family Foundation to launch the Delta Bridge Project—a long-term plan to make the area an engine for economic development. As part of the project, more than 300 residents took part in 60 meetings to develop an ambitious and detailed plan to revitalize their community. Southern helped implement the final plan, working with the county and city governments, civic organizations, nonprofit groups, local businesses, and outside stakeholders. Southern has also helped leverage more than $70 million in investment into Phillips County priorities.
Carlos Monje set the pace for the early-morning plenary session. As policy director for the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation at the White House, he addressed “The Social Innovation Fund and Rural America.” Monje noted that, “All across the country, groups are identifying problems in their communities and figuring out ways to solve them. Our office’s task is to find these ‘diamonds in the rough,’ the programs that are working, and give them the resources to expand.”
According to Monje, as a result of President Obama’s announcement last month of a rural tour, “Cabinet members are fanning out across the country to discover ways to strengthen rural communities.”
My Council colleague, Kristin Lindsey, followed Monje’s remarks, with a blueprint for “Bringing It All Together: Developing Our Strategies.” She called on each participant to return to his or her individual track group for the next hour and forty-five minutes and help create specific strategies and recommendations building upon the work already invested through the first three sessions of each track.
Arkansas Governor Michael Beebe closed the conference with a speech that left attendees feeling empowered to make a positive change in their respective communities.
“No matter how much we are separated by distance or economic situation, we are all one people, and philanthropists get that,” said Governor Beebe. “There is no magic, no great big entity out there that changes lives. People change lives, one life at a time.”
Though the conference was small, its outcomes are sure to be significant. We have led the way in outlining the challenges facing rural America and in making recommendations to address them. Now, it is up to us to forge partnerships that engage leaders from every sector in actions that will improve life for all rural Americans.