Folks play bingo at the Lutcher Senior Center in Lutcher, Louisiana. Photo by Shawn Poynter/Daily Yonder

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is excerpted from a report issued by Grantmakers In Aging.


Older people in rural places face a range of daunting challenges as they age, from mobility and economic security to housing and health care. While older people across this aging nation face similar challenges, the physical and social isolation that can occur in a rural setting compounds problems and make it even more difficult to age in place, safely and well. “I have seen needs play out in a dire way in a rural community because there is nobody else around,” says Amy St. Peter, assistant director of the Maricopa Association of Governments in Arizona.  

Many rural communities lack the financial resources to help, yet private philanthropy has generally not taken a concerted interest in rural America or its older residents. “Rural aging tends to stay off the radar, for a combination of many different reasons,” said Charlotte Haberaecker, president and CEO of Lutheran Services in America.

Grantmaking to rural projects has been declining for years and is disproportionately low: an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of large foundation grants showed that only 6.3 percent benefited rural communities, even though they are home to about 20 percent of the population. Other estimates suggest an even smaller philanthropic investment.

That disparity, and the unmet needs it represents are “a powerful issue,” says Allen Smart, formerly vice president of programs and the director of the health care division at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in North Carolina. Smart believes philanthropy must focus more attention on rural Americans, who “are not at the table, and are isolated politically, economically.”

At the same time, the benefits and opportunities of rural funding can be considerable. While there are not many private funders making rural aging investments, and grants may not be large, Brian Myers of Empire Health Foundation says, “They make a big difference.”

“What I find most exciting about rural work is the nontraditional partners that get involved,” says Candace Baldwin, director of Strategy for Aging in Community at Capital Impact Partners. “Community facilities are few and far between, and people tend to play multiple roles and wear multiple hats. It’s an exciting new frontier.” …

Smaller Scale, Great Impact: Approaches to Funding in Rural Aging

While needs can be great, the smaller project scale in most rural communities may seem like a deterrent to some funders. But those small projects can also create powerful outcomes.

“With low density, it’s hard to get numbers that look sparkly on paper. Yet for the individuals who are helped, it’s life changing,” says Carol Wright Kenderdine, assistant vice president of mobility & transportation at Easterseals, Inc. and co-director of the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center.

That view led OATS (Older Adults Technology Services), which funds 95 percent of its work in New York City, to try new projects in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and upstate New York with the AARP Foundation, helping rural adults get connected digitally by learning to use iPads. “We were excited to work with rural communities because the impact is higher,” says OATS Executive Director Tom Kamber.

Similarly, great results are possible when funding rural aging, but flexibility and a different set of metrics for evaluation may be needed. “Issues arise when funders want formality in what is often a very informal system,” says Sandy Markwood of n4a, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. “The beauty of rural America is you have the blend of formal and informal. Some services don’t have a project name – they just happen. From a grant perspective, that can be difficult because there’s nothing to audit.”

Funders may want to change performance measures from numbers of people served to quality of life and lasting impact. As Carol Wright Kenderdine of Easterseals, Inc. puts it, “We have to change funders’ mindset about what is success. Is the impact changing quality of life? Is it something that couldn’t have happened otherwise?”

Maximizing Local Talent Requires an Asset-Based Approach

In many small rural communities, traditional nonprofits and agencies may be small or even nonexistent, but there are often other powerful assets.

“The culture in small towns is more personal, and those stronger connections give rise to different solutions,” says Amy St. Peter.

A close-knit network of neighbors or versatile and multi-tasking local institutions can be important elements of an asset-based strategy. “Small communities tend to make the most of what they have, so you may find that the local fire station is the only social service provider for miles around on weekends, or that the local bank is doing informal wellness checks on its older customers,” says John Feather , CEO of Grantmakers In Aging.

“There may not be as many strong nonprofits or strong identified leaders, but there are people who are used to getting things done, who are deeply committed, bringing family connectivity, history, and ownership of community,” says Allen Smart.

This report was produced as part of “Creating a Sustainable Network for the Rural Aging Movement,” a program of Grantmakers In Aging. The initiative seeks to improve that experience of aging in rural communities and is supported by a grant from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. Grantmakers In Aging is a membership organization “comprised of all types of philanthropies with a common dedication to improving the experience of aging.” The complete report is available online.

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