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Yes, Virginia, There is Funding for Rural America

Photo Credit:  Jersey Tourism, Flickr Creative Commons License,http://bit.ly/1eb5HCO
Photo Credit: Jersey Tourism, Flickr Creative Commons License,http://bit.ly/1eb5HCO

Dear CommunityMatters, I live in a rural area. Some people say there is no funding for projects in my community. Please tell me the truth, is there funding for rural America?

The narrative often told about rural communities is that they are too entrenched to be innovative and too small to garner significant philanthropic investments. Whether you work for a community organization or local government, it is easy to feel like a small fish in a big pond when you submit a grant application for a rural project. Is applying for a national or federal grant even worth the time? How can rural communities attract interest (and funding) from grantmakers?

Emerging trends in philanthropy are turning antiquated perceptions of rural right side up, demonstrating that small places are worth investing in and that, yes, there is funding for rural America.

Three speakers joined CommunityMatters and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design for our January call to share their expertise on these new funding trends, along with tools and strategies for funding rural design projects. We’re very thankful to Cynthia Adams of GrantStation, Jen Hughes from the National Endowment for the Arts and Erin Barnes of the crowd-resourcing site IOBY for taking the time to offer their insight. This recap from the conversation is just the tip of the iceberg – listen to the call recording and read through the call notes for more helpful resources.

What trends in grantmaking are working in favor of rural places?

Cynthia shared a number of trends that are shaping a new wave of philanthropy, from attitudinal changes about how success is measured to functional changes related to use of technology. What does it all mean for rural communities?

Grantmakers are at your fingertips. Communication with grantmakers has never been easier or more productive. Reach out to funders through social media. Read their blogs and e-newsletters to understand their funding interests. Use online assessment tools and other web-based resources provided by grantmakers to narrow your prospects. The trend toward openness and transparency means you can spend your limited time on applications that truly seem to be a good fit for your project.

Big results outshine high numbers. More and more, grantmakers are measuring success by looking at impact and outcomes. A project isn’t evaluated by how many people showed up, but by how it changed perceptions or transformed a community. This trend is positive for rural communities, as there are many opportunities to make large-scale change with a relatively small investment of resources.

Partnership, Collaboration, Teamwork, Cooperation. Whatever you call it, funders want to see it. Small communities often have a leg up when it comes to working together. You know your neighbors, and you can pick up the phone or knock on doors to get people on board with your idea.

What funding strategy is right for my project?

Don’t discount government grant programs. You might be surprised by Jen’s view as a federal government grantmaker when she tells you that federal grants are actually worth applying for. Why? At the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), applications from rural communities are reviewed by a separate panel for rural projects, so your biggest competition for a funding request is another small place. The NEA offers tailored comments and feedback, allowing all applicants to learn how they can improve their application for future opportunities. Plus, applying for one federal grant can get you on the government’s radar; when you successfully execute a planning grant, you’ll have a leg up in your request for implementation funding.

Crowdfund to amplify, not exhaust. Erin took questions about crowdfunding fatigue head-on, with a reminder that crowdfunding is just one tool in the fundraiser’s kit. You’re likely to attract about 30% new donors with a crowdfunding campaign, which means you need a strong base of digital donors to see success. Crowdfunding is a great way to fund periodic projects, operating costs and new innovations. Just make sure a campaign will amplify your work, not exhaust your base.

What are some creative uses for all these rejection letters?

Hearing “no” is never easy. If you’ve applied for more grants than you can count, throw those letters in the recycling bin and focus your time on building a case.

Go Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper. Grantmakers are looking to take risks (albeit, calculated ones), so seek funding for an idea that excites your community. Organize a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (LQC) project to demonstrate support for your idea. The LQC approach allows you to test a big idea and build momentum with a shoestring budget. Take pictures and capture quotes from participants to include in your next grant application.

Start with local funding. Make that hyperlocal. Use crowdfunding to show your community will back the idea with their own wallets. Include a map of funders with grant applications to visually depict local support. If you’re intimated by digital fundraising, try a dollar campaign, where you solicit $1 donations from as many people in town as possible to demonstrate backing.

Just give me some names. Seriously.

Ok, we get it. Sometimes the best way to find funding is to dive right in and get started on an application, but first you have to know who to ask. Here are five funding opportunities that are particularly ripe for small communities looking to undertake a community design or development project. We promise there are many more in the call notes. Help us add to the list if you know an organization with deep pockets, or just a deep love for rural America.

Citizens’ Institute for Rural Design. This federal program offers a financial award and technical assistance for communities seeking to address a pressing design challenge. Look for application details in March.

USDA. Get in touch with your state office to learn about local funding programs.

State Arts Agencies. Pick up the phone and call your local state arts agency to learn about funding opportunities in your area.

IOBY. Check out IOBY if crowdfunding peaks your interest. If you’re working with a municipality, connect with Citizinvestor, a platform geared just for local government projects.

And, the teaser…Register now for GrantStation’s upcoming webinar on Funding Rural America: Finding New Grants for Small Communities. Space is limited!