What Do We Really Know About Rural Nonprofits?
|September 30, 2011||Posted by M. P. under Management, Philanthropy, Research||
According to Census 2010 data, over a ¼ of the population of Pennsylvania (27 percent) is located in rural areas, and a considerable amount of our region of western Pennsylvania is considered rural. Yet in my admittedly anecdotal experience, it seems that much of the mainstream discussion in the sector focuses on urban organizations. The challenging issues faced by rural nonprofits, accessibility (a dispersed population), transportation (rarely any of a public sort), technology (reliable connections and coverage) and needs specific to non-metropolitan areas may be a bit of a mystery (hopefully not an afterthought) to the thinkers and influencers in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.
A report from The Bridgespan Group, Small but Tough: Nonprofits in Rural America by Alex Neuhoff and Andrew Dunckleman, turns the lens on rural nonprofits in the United States to examine what these organizations look like, identify their most pressing challenges and determine how they differ from their urban peers. Some highlights of the study:
- Rural nonprofits are funded at a lower rate per capita than their urban counterparts. Rural areas make up 18 percent of the total population of the United States, have a higher rate of poverty overall (22 percent of the country’s poor reside in rural areas) but represent 8 percent of the total spending in the nonprofit sector (including human services).
- In spite of the above, overall, rural nonprofits appear to be in a better fiscal state than urban nonprofits and are less likely to run an operating deficit.
- Data suggest that rural nonprofits have learned to be both nimble and aggressive, prioritizing and pursuing strategies perhaps different from those of urban nonprofits used to the close proximity of both clients and funders. The authors point out that rural organizations collaborated, merged and otherwise partnered with each other or a larger network, had strategic approaches to grants (private and public) and emphasized relationship-building outside of their communities.
- A major obstacle faced by rural nonprofits is leadership recruitment and retention, an issue Pennsylvania grapples with per a recent study on the challenges associated with rural leadership development.
The study (available for download at The Bridgespan Group website) provides an excellent initial picture of rural nonprofits, including a comparative case study of similar programs operating in two very different locations. I hope this type of organizational research continues, as there may be much to learn from the nonprofits operating 60 miles outside of Pittsburgh, but seemingly a world away.