The creators of a new, multi-million dollar philanthropic initiative say they designed the application process – which will operate more like a contest than a grant application – to help identify new kinds of grantees, including underfunded rural organizations.  

The Communities Thrive Challenge will award up to $1 million each to 10 organizations that are improving local economies and creating financial stability for families. The funding will help the groups expand their reach to a national level. The deadline to register for the program is June 12. The deadline for applications is June 19. 

The program is a project of the century-old Rockefeller Foundation and the 3-year-old Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.   

“Rural was very much the inspiration for the Rockefeller Foundation to want to create the Communities Thrive Challenge,” said Rachel Korberg, an associate director at the foundation. “I come from a town in rural Pennsylvania. I’m very passionate about this personally.”  

She said an early spark for the challenge came when she was visiting Unlimited Future, Inc., a woman-owned business accelerator in Huntington, West Virginia, that showed her examples of entrepreneurship and community development.

“I was so inspired by them, and also felt like had I never been in Huntington I never would have met them, wouldn’t have known about the impact that they were having,” Korberg said. “When I got back on the plane in Huntington, I typed out this email to my colleagues that said, ‘We need to make sure that we’re not missing organizations like this small business accelerator. Maybe this is the right moment to do an open challenge.’ ”  

That conversation grew into the Communities Thrive Challenge.  

“The [challenge] is really about learning from and investing in community-driven approaches to expand economic opportunity,” Korberg said. “We believe that there is a ton that is working in communities far too often that is being missed by philanthropy. I think that is especially true in rural America.”  

Over the next six months, the challenge will identify up to 80 organizations working in local or regional community development. This initial winnowing will include peer review, in which applicants are part of scoring other groups’ applications. From the finalists, a panel of more than 40 reviewers will help select the 10 winners. These groups will receive funding along with assistance to help showcase their efforts across the nation.  

One of the reviewers, Lisa Mensah, former undersecretary for rural development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said she hopes rural groups consider the application seriously. “My view is that rural institutions, in particular, have great and creative ideas, often because there aren’t any other options,” she said. “There are a lot of rural institutions doing bold and innovative things, and I hope they do take a shot at putting their work in front of this challenge.”

Aside from nonprofits, applicants can include for-profit enterprises that are operating a project that has “charitable purposes,” according to the rules. Groups must also have an annual operating budget of at least $200,000. 

“We understand that some of these organizations from rural places may not have a way in or not be familiar with some of the funders in larger, more urban areas,” said Caitlyn Fox, Director of the Justice and Opportunity Initiative for the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation. “We want them to be on our radar.”  

Fox said that the contest format was intentionally selected to encourage a broader conversation about community economic development. 

“There’s a lot of simpler and more efficient ways to find a handful of organizations to fund, but it’s not always the most equitable way,” Fox said. “We really want to make sure we have a wide variety of organizations applying, and we want to make sure we have a project pipeline from a variety of different size organizations in different geographies and different towns to really make sure we’re not missing things, not skipping over people and organizations making a difference where they work.”  

Several reports over the last 15 years have questioned whether private philanthropy invests in rural projects equitably. A 2015 Department of Agriculture study, for example, found that rural areas constituted 19 percent of the population but received only 7 percent of private foundation funding. Per capita funding in rural areas was half the urban rate, the study said.  

In 2015, then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the National Rural Assembly that USDA had encouraged foundations to fund more work in rural America. “What we’ve seen unfortunately, tragically, is not an increase in investment; we’ve actually seen a decrease,” Vilsack said then.  

Journalist Rick Cohen, who produced a number of reports on rural philanthropy from 2004 until his death in 2015,  reported in 2014 that while foundation assets grew by more than 40% from 2004 to 2008, their funding of rural development dropped 3.5%.

Allen Smart, a rural philanthropy consultant who is not affiliated with the new initiative, said the funding strategies that work in urban areas do not always work in rural ones. 

“Rural philanthropy in some ways requires a different approach,” Smart said. “It’s important to keep the local community in mind, to treat the ‘place’ as if it’s equal to, if not more important than, the individual.”  

Rockefeller and Chan Zuckerberg have done several things that will make the challenge more accessible to rural organizations, they said. Organizations that have received funding from either of the philanthropies in the past decade are not eligible to apply. “This is about getting outside of our echo chamber,” Korberg said. “It’s about new voices and new organizations, maybe organizations that didn’t feel like they could be partners with us.”  

The funders are also promoting the challenge at community events around the country. For instance, they recently held a meeting  in Lawton, Oklahoma, to learn about “priorities and hopes and struggles” of Native American tribes and tribal communities.  

“We’re spending a lot of time and effort trying to address communities that might have a hard time finding us, and rural is a big part of that,” Korberg said. “We’re really trying to reach rural communities and encourage them to apply. We want them to know that that their applications will be taken very seriously.”  

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