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Rural Health Information Hub

Partnering with Community Foundations

Community foundations are public, philanthropic organizations that provide designated funds and grants to communities in specific geographic locations. They are considered one of the fastest-growing types of philanthropic organizations in the U.S., with more than 750 community foundations located across the country. These entities serve as a repository for assets and resources that are donated by individuals, families, and businesses and set aside for the benefit of a specific location and community. Assets set aside by donors can contribute to the creation of endowments or other kinds of donor-advised funds that are managed through community foundations with the purpose of serving and improving the community for years to come.

As of 2011, it was estimated that community foundations provided approximately $4.3 billion toward improving the vibrancy of communities across the country. Asset sizes ranged from less than $100,000 to over $1.7 billion.

Community foundations support education, the environment, and residents' health and well-being, among other issues. Hundreds of community foundations are located in each state and these foundations play an increasing role in improving the quality of life in rural regions and other areas around the country. Most community foundations are accredited, which means they are held to certain high standards for financial responsibility and accountability. To find a list of accredited community foundations for each state, see the Council on Foundations' Community Foundation Locator.

Aside from being a central location for community donations, community foundations can also help to build capacity within rural communities. For example, some national foundations or other funders may require that communities secure matching funds before the full value of a grant is dispersed. Community foundations can be one option for providing matching funds and sharing the costs in these situations.

Community foundations can also be a valuable resource for rural communities interested in building an endowment to provide dedicated funding for local activities. Because of its expertise and experience with managing and raising funds, a community foundation can be an excellent management organization for a rural endowment fund. For example, community foundations often provide some form of administrative support for rural giving circles, in which members pool their resources and give to a single or limited number of recipients. Giving circles can help rural funds and resources stay in the local community and encourage smaller or non-traditional individual investments. Pooling these assets into a few larger gifts can also help amplify their impact for an organization or program.

Examples of Approaches for Working with Community Foundations

  • The Black Belt Community Foundation (BBCF), located in Alabama's Black Belt region, was established in 2003 and has since expanded its grants portfolio to over $3 million, supporting arts, community development, education, and health and wellness programs in its 12-county service region. Its goal is to bring together existing community resources in the Black Belt region and enable investment in local nonprofits. With initial seed funding from the Ford Foundation, BBCF recruited board members from all participating counties and held public meetings and conducted asset-mapping in every county to determine priorities and opportunities for participation.
  • The Community Foundation of West Alabama describes itself as a “savings account” for the 9-county region it serves in Alabama. Its work involves managing a variety of funds including agency endowments, designated funds, donor-advised funds, and unrestricted funds. While many of its grants are education-focused, the foundation also funds projects with an interest in improving community health. These include previous grants supporting mental health services for children and mothers from abusive households, teen pregnancy prevention education, and diabetes education services.
  • The Nebraska Community Foundation works in 250 communities across the state to support grassroots philanthropy. Rather than administering grants directly, its primary focus is building capacity in communities interested in identifying and investing in local assets. Resources include education and training opportunities for community leaders as well as templates and other tools. Potential donors and grant applicants work directly with the particular community fund of interest rather than through the Nebraska Community Foundation itself.
  • The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation is the largest community foundation in Central Appalachia and administers over 500 philanthropic funds in a 6-county region. Its health-focused funding includes an emphasis on food security, access to healthcare, chronic disease prevention and treatment, health-related employment, behavioral health, nutrition education, and access to green space and recreational areas. Potential applicants must work with a project officer before being invited to apply, in order to ensure the activities covered by the grant align with the foundation's strategic plan.
  • The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque serves nonprofits as well as individual donors, families, and private foundations in the Greater Dubuque area of Iowa. The foundation supports a variety of initiatives, including Vision To Learn, a mobile vision clinic designed to help student success in schools by improving children's vision.
  • Since its founding in 1991, Hillsdale County Community Foundation has provided $9.1 million in grants and scholarships to programs in rural Hillsdale County, Michigan. The foundation administers more than 100 funds and offers community grants throughout the year. In 2016, the foundation provided start-up funding for the Hillsdale County District Court Drug Treatment Court. Learn more about drug treatment courts in RHIhub's Rural Prevention and Treatment of Substance Use Disorders Toolkit.

Considerations for Implementation

Community foundations are dedicated to funding work that will make a positive difference for the people living in the community. Therefore, when partnering with a community foundation, it is important to make sure that your program's goal is to serve the community.

Community foundations in some rural areas may be relatively small with limited resources. Depending on the types of donations and sometimes the wishes of the donors, those resources may be allocated for specific uses and cannot be awarded to organizations that do not fit the funds' criteria (for example, an organization serving an entire state or region).

Program Clearinghouse Examples

Resources to Learn More

A Handbook for Giving Circle Hosts: Tools and Resources for Developing and Sustaining Giving Circles
This toolkit was developed for organizations like community foundations that are interested in hosting a giving circle. It has forms, templates, and a cost calculator in addition to information about the benefits and potential risks of launching a giving circle depending on community circumstances.
Organization(s): Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers
Author(s): Bearman, J.E.
Date: 2008