Rural Philanthropy--Up Close and Personal

food_stamps_3.jpg Rural areas pose significant challenges to organized philanthropy; that is, to the establishment of foundations that are formed to address issues in specific rural areas. Margaret Nost, Director of Regional Affiliates for The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia, lives and works in the rural communities of Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. She grew up in the urban environment of Richmond and observes that there are opportunities for philanthropy in rural areas that we may be overlooking. Her perspective is important, and her thoughts follow.

The same challenges facing rural philanthropy—sparse population and no corporate philanthropic resources—are also the opportunities that make individual charity and volunteerism so strong in rural areas. Unlike in an urban and suburban community, the needs of one’s neighbors are usually hard to hide in a rural community. For example, when we lived in Chesterfield County [part of Greater Richmond], I would drive my children to the preschool program at a local church or put them on the bus to a neighborhood school that drew from wealthy developments. I would drive toward the city, hop on expressway and be at my downtown office without ever having to think about or face those in the Richmond area who had real needs. Not that I wasn’t aware of the major social needs in the area, but it was easy to think of the people facing those problems as “residents of Richmond” or “area citizens” and not as “my neighbors.”

I could easily say I was doing my part by having a payroll deduction go to the United Way Campaign and volunteering with the Junior League. To this day, I have never been to Whitcomb Court or Fairfield Court housing projects. I know the general areas they are in and look over at one of them as I drive by on the interstate, but that is as close as I have ever gotten. Same with the “Fan Free Clinic” - oh, that must be some government-supported medical facility for poor people in the Fan, I used to think. Now that I see the work of the Northern Neck Free Clinic and I understand the need it meets for many of my neighbors, I have a totally different view of the work free clinics provide.

In a rural community, it is a lot harder to stay on “the fringes” and ignore the pressing needs of the community. There are no city housing projects for those needing subsidized housing. You see all levels of society once you leave your driveway. My neighbors on my road are living in million dollar homes and in trailers with shallow wells. In Lancaster, there is one public elementary school, one middle school, and one high school and your child goes to that school regardless of the area of the county you live in. I shop at the grocery store along side the retired corporate executive, the nurse’s aide who works the night shift at the nursing home in Kilmarnock, and the migrant workers who are working the farms every summer. I see food stamps used by the person in front of me at the check out counter on a regular basis. I don’t think I ever saw a food stamp used at the Ukrop’s at Stony Point. The lawn care company that took care of our yard and irrigation system in Salisbury was huge and took care of hundreds of yards - they came during the day, did their work, and mailed us an invoice every month. Here, you know where the person who owns the small lawn mowing business lives, and you know him and his brother by their first names.

I’m not saying that people who live in the city are blind to the need of others, and certainly there are plenty of rural residents who look the other way. But the opportunity for an individual to see the difference their charity is making in the small community may be greater than in the urban community, and it is harder to ignore. It may be easy for me, living in Richmond, to say, “Oh, how can I make a difference in someone’s life? After all, there are all these city programs out there providing help.” Here, there are fewer such programs, and our churches fill some of the gaps that government programs don’t fill. Plus, your chances of actually personally knowing the individual or the family that needs help is much greater.

I think this is why so many of the retirees who have set up funds with the affiliates of The Community Foundation usually want their charity to stay local. Some may make the one time gift to organizations they are passionate about, but the long-term support is for the local community. The retiree may have volunteered extensively in his city while he worked and may have contributed to many charities, but often they move on from their allegiances to new ones they establish in their retired years. Now, I know Mathews, River Counties and Gloucester can’t be compared to a rural area of Arkansas, for example. We do have the wealth to benefit from. And Lancaster County is certainly more densely populated than rural parts of Alaska. But overall, I think the rural nature of a community makes up for what it lacks in corporate charity and population density.

Robert Thalhimer

Posted at 6:36 AM, Jun 19, 2007 in Peace and Justice | Permalink | Comment