Rural Fundraising and Foundation Dependence

Dear Kim,

I am a development director for a nonprofit in Appalachia. The organization has been around for decades and has been funded almost exclusively by grants for this entire time. I am new to the development field, but I understand that relying on grant funding can be harmful to our organization in many ways. However, the discretionary income for our area is very low, and there are very few wealthy individuals in our community. It seems considerably easier to raise money through a foundation or government grant than through a fundraising campaign in our community. Am I missing something? What other fundraising options are available to rural nonprofits when community members are too poor to give?
—Dazed and Confused

Dear Dazed,

Your question is much larger than perhaps you realize. A whole book could be devoted to how to raise money in rural communities and there are a number of articles in the Journal on this topic, as well as a chapter in my book, “Fundraising for Social Change”. Briefly, there are two parts to my answer:

1. Raising money from the community and from foundations and government is not an either/or proposition. In fact, most rural groups of any size rely in part on foundations and government. The government, I believe, has an obligation to provide basic social service to anyone who needs it, and so seeking and getting government funding is appropriate. The danger is when the government (as is the case now) does not feel any obligation to its citizenry, but prefers to spend the majority of its tax revenues waging wars.

Much of the wealth of foundations is created from the assets of poor communities and by the labor of working people. So, it is also a redistributive function for you to receive money from foundations. I would not stop seeking money from either of these sources.

2. However, these sources are not always reliable, and they can also take you off mission. The way to stay focussed on what the people of your area need is to insure that they feel part of what you do. They will feel a part of it when they are asked to contribute. No one is too poor to make a contribution if your organization is willing to accept gifts of $5 and $10. Studies show that families living on incomes of $10,000 give away 4.6% of their gross income. I think you would be surprised at how much money is given away by the people in your community, often to their house of worship, but also often to nonprofits with no connection to your community. They are not giving, not because they don’t have the money, but because they are not being asked.

Build a broad base of support–foundations, government, earned income, small donors and larger donors. Rural communities can do this.