Monday, October 3, 2011

Making Connections for Effective Rural Philanthropy

By Racheal Stuart, Senior Program Director, Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation

When I’m trying to figure out a particularly sticky community issue in my work on behalf of the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, I stop by Paul Grenier’s garage on the East Side of Berlin, New Hampshire. Paul can be found there on most Sundays, rebuilding vintage Harley Davidsons. He is the Mayor of Berlin, a city of about 10,000 people in Coös County. He is also a Coös County Commissioner—all this while he holds down a full-time job at an automobile dealership.

Paul is a dedicated and persuasive leader in a region that is going through intense community and economic transformation. I count on him for the “unvarnished truth”—not that I always agree with him, but I know I’ll hear an important perspective as well as a get a good hearing of my own. The last time I stopped by Paul Grenier’s garage we discussed the tension between addressing urgent, critical needs and investments that will not pay off for years, maybe even generations. Paul remarked, “If the region takes another body blow, we might not have a future worth investing in.”

Paul recognizes the challenges of his home place. Coös County is physically isolated from the rest of New Hampshire by the Northern Presidential range of the White Mountains. The region has a multi-generational history of large paper mills as the principle employer and a legacy of civic leadership characterized by benevolence, strong local ties and community loyalty. According to research by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, Coös is undergoing a major transformation from a resource-dependent manufacturing economy to a future that is still being defined.

Photo: Coös County in late fall.

Building Social Capital and Leadership

My connection with Paul reflects the philosophy and approach of the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the NH Charitable Foundation, a provider of philanthropic capital in the region. We believe in order to be successful our work must be jointly owned and led by people on the ground, and that we are at our most effective when we are in true partnerships with community leaders.

There is an ongoing need for more bridging between communities and sectors, and between long-time community leaders and economic development professionals in the nonprofit sector. To address this need, the Tillotson Fund uses multiple methods to strengthen and expand social capital – feelings of trust and reciprocity – across the region:

  • We insist on local staff with real ties to the community, reflecting the philosophy of Neil Tillotson, whose generosity created the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund. Mr. Tillotson believed we should personally know the people who are affected by our decisions.
  • We engage existing and emerging leaders in the region in all levels of governance and decision making to build a pipeline of leadership for the Fund itself.
  • We operate as a social capital broker, using several programs to strengthen “bridging social capital” across communities and sectors, and among those inside and outside of the region.

Photo: Coös Symposium participants, a group of leaders from around the region.

Image: A network diagram depicting the many ties among Coös Symposium participants.

Decisions being made by today’s leaders will determine if Coös County heads toward a vibrant future or persistent poverty. Yet there are promising signs that our work together is paying off.  New Carsey Institute research and our own network analysis suggest that the Tillotson Fund’s work to strengthen social capital has had a positive impact on efforts to advance regional economic initiatives. After years of tireless effort by nonprofit leaders, elected officials, and state and local agencies, Coös County is holding its own and moving forward: 

  • re-opening of a major manufacturing plant,
  • ground-breaking on a key renewable energy project, and
  • experiencing an uptick in tourism revenue for the first time in years. 

There is no doubt we have a ways to go in Coös County, but these are good signs that our leadership is up to the task! I have hope that our work together will pay off for generations to come.

What is your community’s experience with philanthropic organizations? How are you developing strong local leaders and a sense of trust in your rural region?

Racheal Stuart lives and works in the Coös County, New Hampshire. She enjoys biking and hiking in the White Mountains when she’s not building bridges of trust for her work with the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund.

Visit the Rural Futures Lab website here.

Photo and images supplied by author.

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