Which Funders Care About Appalachia and What Are They Up To?

The struggles of lower-income whites is a topic that's received a lot of attention since Donald Trump's election. Almost nowhere did his promise to "make America great again" resonate more strongly than in Appalachia. Trump won many of the counties in states like West Virginia and Kentucky with over 75 percent of the vote. 

The election results have elicited discussion of what philanthropy has or hasn't been doing to address the issues facing rural and Rust Belt populations. Our own analysis is that, for a bunch of reasons—starting with the fact that most big foundations are based in coastal cities—funders have largely ignored the struggles of poor whites living off the beaten path, a group that's been called America's "original underclass."

RelatedBypassed: How Philanthropy Forgot About the White Working Class

Yet not all funders have been MIA as rural America has sunk further into despair. In the Southeast, quite a few funders have focused on the challenges facing Appalachia, bringing new money and thinking to a region long known for its entrenched poverty. 

Thes region is in a period of transition, and the predominant issues here continue to be jobs and economic security. The decline of the coal industry has a lot to do with that, but other concerns are the pervasive public health crisis, the undervaluing of natural resources, and persistent under-investment in the region’s organizations, community capacity, and youth.

As we've pointed out in our coverage of Appalachia before, big grantmaking players in this region include the Calvert Foundation, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation (MRBF), the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Family Fund. But there’s another philanthropic force on the scene that’s brought over 80 national, regional, and local grantmakers together to make the local economies more resilient and the residents more prosperous. It's called the Appalachia Funders Network, and the states involved are Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

The network was formed just six years ago, and it's about more than just finding jobs. The vision here is bigger, and even optimistic, centered around the idea of an "Appalachian Transition." For all the problems caused by coal's decline and other changes, this group also see the emergence of "unprecedented opportunities to set a new course for our economy and communities." It imagines a region "of healthy communities and locally rooted economies that promote sustainable and broadly shared prosperity."

That sounds like a heavy lift, given the state of Central Appalachia right now, but this is a long-range effort. The network has organized a set of working groups designed to build community capacity, leverage resources into the region, advance food and agriculture systems, promote clean energy and protect natural resources, and support a culture of health. Here’s a quick rundown on those working groups.

Overall goals of the network are to build relationships among Appalachia funders, unify funders with a common vision, collaborate across different sectors, align resources for leverage, and support leadership for future growth. MRBF was one of the network's founders and, among other things, its involvement is a way to connect the dots between grantmaking and program-related investments. MRBF was a partner in starting a campaign in 2015 called the Philanthropic Engagement Project, a fifth working group, to increase philanthropic investments and accelerate the pace of the Appalachia transition. The project aims to increase the Appalachia Funder’s Network membership base by 25 new members by December 2017

There are about 40 member organizations that are part of the network today, and a steering committee comprised of funders that guide the activities. Representatives on the steering committee include the Appalachian Community Fund, Appalachian Regional Commission, Athens Foundation, BB&T, Chorus Foundation, Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Osteopathic Heritage Foundations, USDA Rural Development Tennessee, and USDA Rural Development West Virginia.

What sets this network apart from other statewide networks of foundations is that it covers six states and has an overarching purpose of building and supporting the movement towards the Appalachian transition. The network is also based on collaborative relationships with statewide grantmaker associations and connecting members to share best practices.

All in all, there's a lot to like here: funders banding together in a long-term way to tackle challenges that neither government nor the market has been able to properly address.