The Importance of Rural Strategy in the Just Transition Movement

Last year, the US Department of Agriculture released a study that revealed a disparity in philanthropy that those working in rural places already keenly felt—when it comes to private grant money, rural based initiatives are at a disadvantage.

The study found that in the five-year period from 2005 to 2010, rural areas in the United States received only six to seven percent of private foundation grants, even though the country’s rural population is still nearly one fifth of the US population overall.

Despite this, some philanthropies are diligently working to support transition initiatives in rural areas. One of these is the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation based in Winston Salem, North Carolina. The foundation, which works across the Southeastern United States, aims to “help people and places to move out of poverty and achieve greater social and economic justice,” according to their Mission and Beliefs.

A recent National Rural Assembly interview (published by the Dailey Yonder) with the Babcock Foundation’s Executive Director, Justin Maxson, explores the set of assumptions that underlie the lack of rural grant funding, and why those assumptions need to change.

At issue is a pervasive assumption that rural communities don’t have the capacity to effectively deploy capital within their communities, which Maxson referred to as “bunk” at last year’s National Rural Assembly. Maxson thinks that philanthropies use the perceived lack as “an excuse not to learn where there is capacity,” going on to say that when it comes to capacity, rural America has plenty.

Despite the existence of these investment opportunities in rural American, Maxson acknowledges that finding them can take hard work for urban-based philanthropies. In the interview, Maxson laid out how the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation settles into rural places, which allows them to identify investment opportunities. The strategies for coming to know a rural community include:

  • Authenticity
  • Building connections that result in a better understanding of place
  • Listening well
  • Asking good questions

Maxson also stresses the importance that the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation has placed on supporting, at a multi-year level, the growth of capacity in places where it already exists, as well as supporting “multiple hats, and the people who wear them,”  a strategy he identifies as a type of leadership development.

Overall, Maxson stresses the underlying importance of funding rural places to broader strategies of change that philanthropists are trying to enact.  “If you’re interested in statewide policy, you can’t win without rural places.” The Daily Yonder interview highlights the significance of rural places and strategies to help support and improve them, particularly for those involved in just transition.

Maxson’s message, that philanthropists need to slow down and scratch the surface of investment opportunities in rural places, speaks to wider efforts of just transition efforts in Central Appalachia—it isn’t impossible, but there also isn’t a quick fix. It requires strategies as unique as the places they’re rooted in, as well as patient persistence, for all those involved.