Small Town Love: Funders Looking Off the Beaten Trail

photo:   debra millet /shutterstock

photo:  debra millet/shutterstock

Despite the well-documented problems of rural America, small towns and exurban communities are actually growing in some places. They're home to many millions of Americans and often have the same problems found in cities and suburbs—as well as challenges more unique to isolated places. Too often, though, these places that are overlooked by major funders looking to maximize their impact and serve the greatest number of people possible.  

South Carolina is a good example of a place where small towns and rural areas are in need of more attention. An article published in Charleston, South Carolina’s The Post and Courier noted that South Carolina’s small municipalities are growing rapidly, especially ones that surround larger metropolitan areas. Residents here are often willing to endure a longer commune for a little extra space, more affordable home prices, and easy highway access. The goods news is that, in South Carolina, there are actually quite a few funders that are in tune with small town and rural needs.

The  J. Marion Sims Foundation, for example, is a true locally focused funder and exclusively devoted to the South Carolina counties of Lancaster County, Fort Lawn, and Great Falls. In these places, it awards grants in the areas of healthcare, health education, disease prevention, and youth. But this is also a funder with a collaborative spirit that’s willing to look outside of its service area to team up with like-minded foundations. 

The Sims Foundation and the Orton Family Foundation recently teamed up to form a strategic partnership that’s all about strengthening small towns in South Carolina. It’s part of a resident-driven community development model called Community Heart & Soul, which aims to take into account the unique character of towns and emotions of the people who live in them.

J. Marion Sims’ president and CEO, Susan DeVenny, said:

Our partnership with the Orton Family Foundation is part of Sims’ ongoing commitment to lift up and empower community voices to support a healthy community. We intend to deepen dialogue within our communities, to strengthen and support the kind of collaboration that builds capacity in our towns and cities.

The Orton Community Foundation is headquartered in Shelburne, Vermont and has a Rocky Mountain office in Arvada, Colorado too. While its overall commitment isn’t South Carolina-specific, it does specialize in support for the types of towns that exist here. Orton will be providing coaches, training, and technical assistance to get two-year community engagement projects off the ground. Similar projects are going on elsewhere across the country too in Pennsylvania, Maine, Colorado, Iowa, and other states.

Shared goals between these foundations are spurring economic development and getting community members involved in local affairs in small towns. But so far in other towns, Community Heart and Soul has also helped groups secure grants by improving investor confidence and giving the private sector a heightened level of certainty.

So, for South Carolina’s growing small towns, this may mean getting more funding to launch new grassroots programs and keep current ones sustainable. It’s certainly an interesting model, and one we’ll be keeping an eye on in our various regions of coverage. To learn more, check out the Community Heart & Soul Field Guide, which is available for free download on Orton’s website.

Related: Can the Humanities Play a Role in Community Development? One Foundation Thinks So