At the Council on Foundations Rural Philanthropy Conference, held in Little Rock Arkansas July 13-15, rural mission investing was a topic integrated both into an economic development track and we also had a breakfast on the topic that drew 25 people at 7:30 in the morning (it was already hot). Founder’s Circle Member Annie E. Casey, and new Leader’s Circle member Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation spoke about their experiences in using MRIs and PRIs in rural areas (Maine and Arkansas were featured examples), in vehicles ranging from CDFI lending institutions to venture capital. The economic development group took a tour of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas in the Mississippi Delta, where the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, in partnership with Southern Bancorp, have made creative use of grants and investments to support the new business activity and educational institutions in the area. Former President Bill Clinton spoke at the conference – held in the Clinton Presidential Library – and his focus on the economic needs of rural communities, and his highlighting of the green economy opportunities – underscored, from the mission investing perspective, the potential overlap in rural and environmental investment strategies. It was a thought-provoking and inspirational event.
From my perspective, the event also highlighted the potential for issue areas to illuminate key aspects of mission investing. Rural communities have different needs, and present different opportunities for mission investment too. New Leader’s Circle Member Community Foundation of the Ozarks, for instance, has just adopted mission investing and made its first direct investment in a rural hospital, which for reasons of location would have been very hard to underwrite by a conventional lending institution.
We are beginning a project that will review the barriers to and opportunities for rural mission investing. If you have thoughts, experiences, or contacts you are willing to share, we’d love to hear them!