Vision to Learn in Iowa, a non-profit mobile vision clinic that serves low-income schools and communities, is highlighted in the learning portal as an example of a successful rural health philanthropy project. (Photo:

A new online “learning portal” seeks to help rural organizations raise more funding from philanthropies, which tend to favor urban projects and organizations over rural ones, a federal study shows. 

“There’s been a great interest in philanthropic investments in rural communities,” said Alana Knudson, one of the portal’s contributors. Knudson is co-director of the Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis at the non-partisan research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.  

The online toolkit was developed through the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP) in partnership with the National Rural Health Association (NRHA), who have convened an annual philanthropy meeting for the last five years, Knudson said. “This toolkit is really an opportunity to share strategies with rural communities on how to connect with philanthropic organizations in their local areas or at the national level,” Knudson said.  

RHIHub’s online collection of resources defines philanthropy as “active efforts to promote human welfare.” Common philanthropic resources are identified as donations and grants of time, technical support, professional services or money to individuals and organizations. Information is provided for accessing and managing philanthropic activities associated with both private foundations and public charities.  

The toolkit is grounded research from USDA’s Economic Research Service that documents a gap between rural and urban philanthropy. The ERS study found that rural people make up 19% of the population, but rural-based organizations accounted for only 5.5% of the real value of domestic grants by large foundations and slightly more than 7% of grants from smaller foundations. On average, large foundations awarded $88 per person to nonmetro counties, almost half the average provided to organizations in metro counties, according to ERS. Rural grants were more likely to be awarded for higher education, the environment and outdoor recreation. Urban organizations, in contrast, received more grants for health, science, technology, arts, culture and humanities. 

The American Indian Public Health Resource Center has helped expand health services to many Native American communities in the Northern Great Plains through additional fundraising relationships. (Photo: American Indian Public Health Resource Center)

Numerous examples of successful rural health philanthropy projects and partnerships are available through the platform. Specific examples include:  

  • Vision to Learn, rural Iowa — a non-profit mobile vision clinic that serves schools and organizations in low-income communities by providing free vision exams and glasses. “Vision To Learn was piloted in Iowa in 2016 to address barriers to vision care access in eight Title I schools in Dubuque and Jackson Counties. During the 2016-2017 school year, Vision To Learn served 45 schools in seven Iowa counties,” according to the site. 
  • American Indian Public Health Resource Center, North Dakota—the organization serves Native communities through technical assistance, research, programming and policy development, and self-determination feasibility analysis. The group has helped expand health services to many Native American communities in the Northern Great Plains through additional fundraising relationships.  

The toolkit also contains numerous resources for assisting rural health practitioners with accessing grant funding through the module’s “Implementation” section. Resources are provided for grantwriting best-practices and proposal development support.   

”We really looked at this as more of a cross-sector toolkit,” Knudson said. “Obviously our goal is more health related for the work we do for the federal office, but we are of the mindset that improving health means that everybody in rural communities is moving forward and this is an opportunity to make that happen. I don’t think any of our rural communities have enough resources to do the great work they want to do, be it in health, education, economic development, recreation. No matter the focus, I think there are a lot of important insights in this toolkit to help rural communities build those relationships.”  

The full toolkit and training module is available online at 

Contributors from the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis include Alycia Bayne, Katherine Groesbeck, Sarah Hodge, Alana Knudson, Luciana Rocha, Amy Rosenfeld and Tricia Stauffer. 

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