To Spark or Sustain? Two Equally Important Rural Funder Choices - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

To Spark or Sustain? Two Equally Important Rural Funder Choices

People in rural areas are no strangers to philanthropy. In fact, Philanthropy Roundtable research shows that people in rural communities are disproportionately involved in philanthropy. Maybe it’s raising money to send the girls’ softball team to a tournament. Or getting some money together behind the scenes to open a bakery and coffee shop downtown. Or collecting donations to help neighbors recover from a flood.

Whatever the example, there is philanthropy going on right now in your rural community. Your challenge, then, is how to best leverage that philanthropic energy.

As you think about what role you might play in your community’s philanthropy, consider the following questions:

  • Do you want to grow and sustain what works?
  • Do you want to spark new ideas and innovations?
  • Do you want to do both?

Rural communities need both types of philanthropy, and it’s worth considering where you and your organization feel most comfortable and where you feel you can best contribute.

To sustain

As a sustainer, you might engage in work that seeks to support and enhance schools, parks, arts groups, or the local health and human services system with direct grants to services and capital improvements. Every rural community has important common institutions or support systems that need to be sustained. The best sustaining philanthropy looks to use private dollars to leverage ongoing corporate, governmental, and individual support to the highest degree possible.

Providing support to sustain in this case doesn’t just mean dollars. It can mean the type of leadership that allows long-overdue projects to finally get going. Or convenings that help residents breathe new life into old, worthy ideas.

Being a sustaining funder isn’t a role limited to large foundations. In rural communities, it’s often the smallest funders that make things happen by using their unique abilities to convene, prod, encourage and facilitate.

To spark

As a funder who sparks new ideas, you might work initially on your own or in partnership with others. Spark-focused funders are re-imaginers and provocateurs—leading communities to think about where they want to go rather than making better the current state of things.

One example of spark funders are those working in the former coal mining towns in Appalachia to help residents re-envision a new economy in the wake of a fading coal industry. This work can be very difficult—and sometimes personally challenging—as you negotiate the tensions between those in control of the current state of affairs and those who see a different future.

As with sustaining philanthropy, the smallest funders can be the ones who play key roles in introducing new ideas through speakers series, editorial op-eds, or sponsoring trips to places that people might aspire to emulate.

Once again, size doesn’t matter when it comes to sparking change or sustaining what works. What does matter is the ability to understand the history of the community and its people. And that’s a role in which rural funders can excel.

When to sustain and when to spark?

Finally, you might think of how to allocate your resources and attention to sustaining work and sparking ideas in your community. One shorthand way to think about your role as a sustainer and/or a sparker is to understand whether your rural community is:

  • A natural asset site—Does the region have the type of physical beauty and resources that have shaped their histories and may shape their futures? Are there valuable reserves of clean water or arable land that make the community a source of life for others?
  • A rural area of transition—Is the area in the midst of transition from being definitively rural to more suburban? Or is it becoming more isolated as other rural communities around it fade away?
  • A rural area of longstanding poverty—Is the community struggling to hold on against all odds—just as it always has?

Understanding the answers to these questions will help you determine how to approach your work in a particular rural area. It will give you an idea of which partners to approach, what kind of expertise you may need to bring in from the outside, which other funders—whether foundations, government, or financial institutions—might be encouraged to join your work, and whether your own role will be more defined by the money you give or how you show up as a leader and facilitator.

None of the community attributes listed above require an either/or choice between playing the role of sustainer or sparker. Instead, they should help you heighten your awareness of the context of the place and how you might best work there. If you’re working in more than one rural community, questions like these also can help you create different strategies that fit the different context found in different rural places.

Whether you decide to sustain, or spark, or both, be reminded that the philanthropist who begins rural work by learning and listening—rather than buying a platform for his or her own ideas—always has a better chance of creating change that endures. No matter how needy a rural place may seem, the people who live there understand better than anyone what will make a lasting difference in their community. When you welcome the full range of voices and perspectives from any rural place, you’ll find there are always new ideas to spark and great work to sustain.

See also: The Lonely Rural Funders Guide to Networking

Allen Smart is a consultant to funders on rural and philanthropic strategy. He currently directs a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded project at Campbell University, Buies Creek, NC, that is exploring effective rural philanthropic practices taking place around the country. Prior to this role, Allen led the Kate B. Reynolds Trust in Winston-Salem, NC to become a premier rural funder in the South, serving as vice president of programs and interim president.


  1. Elizabeth Grinnell

    As a member of two philanthropic organizations and a personal funder that works in rural areas, the most striking points of this article are “people in rural communities are disproportionately involved in philanthropy” and “the people who live there understand better than anyone what will make a lasting difference in their community.”

    Some of these people have lived for generations on a family ranch. Others have traveled the world and set down roots in a town of 10,000 or 50 people. These are people who enjoy living away from the city. There is coffee shop but it isn’t a Starbucks. Its the diner that “Mary” owns. Its the organic coffee shop next to the artist studio. They have facebook but know the the best place to learn about what is happening is the Post Office.

    Recently I was introduced to a new non-profit that was working to establish a town library. A 501(c)3 run by two retired ladies. They had a new trailer and new books.

    They didn’t want a grant for a building or a salary for three years. They knew the town couldn’t afford to sustain a building or a librarian’s salary.

    They wanted money to pay the electric bill. This would carry them through to their annual fund raiser which is their sustainability plan. Simple, practical and workable for them and their town.

    Sometimes I have to remind myself about the reality of numbers. See this town has a population of 314 people. It is 30 miles from the big town. The big town has a population 9,907 (US census data).

    The rural world isn’t better or worse – it is just different.

  2. Allen Smart

    Thanks Elizabeth. Your library example is perfect- and one that I will borrow. You know of what you speak!

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