From helping with vaccine hesitancy to shifting church services online, some rural philanthropic organizations pivoted and changed their direction and focus areas during the height of the pandemic. 

At Con Alma Health Foundation in New Mexico, Executive Director Denise Herrera said she learned that relationships in rural philanthropy really matter. Herrera joined the foundation in May 2021 from a position based in Austin, Texas. 

“I’ve noticed that relationships really, really matter when it comes to rural philanthropy,” she told the Daily Yonder. “Because sometimes the community doesn’t have access to the nearest clinic, which is four or five hours away, and hundreds of miles away. So sometimes you really have to rely on the people and the communities and the organizations on the ground doing the work. And you’re not always able to go visit a community or get to know them as closely as you might get to know communities that are a little bit closer by.”

She said that New Mexico is home to 23 Tribal Nations and Pueblos. When the pandemic first hit, the Navajo Nation had some of the highest rates of Covid cases per capita in the country, she said. 

“And these are communities that don’t even have running water,” she added.” So when people are saying, ‘Oh, wash your hands,’ and they don’t have access to hand sanitizer and they don’t have access to basic things like running water, that’s a really difficult situation. And fast forward once the Covid vaccine became available, Navajo Nation has some of the highest vaccination rates per capita in the country.”

One community, she said, requested money to refurbish a nearby playground that was near a community clinic where people were getting vaccinated against Covid. 

“I do think there are definitely examples here in New Mexico, where people are being creative,” she said.

At the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation in Freeport, Maine, Executive Director Gabriela Alcalde told the Daily Yonder that the organization launched a rapid response in 2020. It was developed prior to the pandemic, but shifted to focus on pandemic-related needs. 

“I think the pandemic disproved many fears foundations have operated under regarding multiyear, general operating support,” she said. ‘It also showed foundations that the sky didn’t fall when we didn’t require so much reporting.”

She said that initially, there seemed to be a recognition that foundations should fund organizations serving communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but, she added, she has already observed that changing back to pre-pandemic ways. 

“Not much has changed in terms of funding BIPOC-led organizations, and I am unsure about grassroots and small organizations,” she added. 

David Jordan, president and CEO of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, based in Hutchinson, Kansas, funds access to care. Most of the work the organization does is in the rural western two-thirds of Kansas.

“Immediately during Covid, we recognized there were needs on the ground,” he said. “[The church congregations] knew what they needed – whether or not it was like support to transition their ministry to online methods, resources for community food banks, materials to make masks. So we immediately sort of repurposed funding to help provide a Covid special grant … largely in rural communities.”

Like others, Jordan said the pandemic has exposed long-standing structural issues with supporting rural communities. 

“You see that on the ground, whether or not it’s lower vaccination rates, higher prevalence of chronic disease, you see rural hospitals more financially vulnerable, it’s tougher to sustain a workforce in rural communities,” he said. “So I think the pandemic, in some ways, exacerbated the challenges. It met with sustaining some of the key structures in rural communities, and also some of the disparities that exist from a health status standpoint. So I think it helped to refocus the need for engagement to the rural philanthropy and also that it should be centered on the needs that exist on the ground.”

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