Rural Funder Virtual Roundtable: Pamela Jons

Pamela Jons, Whatcom Community Foundation

Title: Director of Advancement & Programs
On the job since: 2009
Geographic scope: Whatcom County, WA
2015 rural funding: $3.1M (including donor-advised grants)
Staffing: 5.3 FTE

How has your career prepared you for your current role?

Before my job at the community foundation, I worked in the public sector for more than two decades serving as a social worker, development professional and coalition builder. These opportunities gave me great empathy for nonprofit professionals and for all people seeking changes in their lives and communities. This also helped me better understand that how we talk to, with and for each other really matters. My formal training in public policy and planning help me more effectively navigate systems change opportunities, and through my time with the Whatcom Community Foundation, I’ve gotten to see how philanthropy can be a powerfully transformational experience for the giver, receiver and facilitator.

What are the most important issues for rural grantees in your community?

Political polarization and the devaluing of civil dialogue have eroded our ability to engage communities in respectful, meaningful and comprehensive ways. The ethic of barn raising — working together out of need if not out of desire — is vulnerable in the very communities where it was born. Despite this climate, grantees are working to address widespread racial, economic and geographic disparities in health and overall well-being. Specific areas include affordable housing; lack of public transportation, jobs, access to services and fresh, healthy food; and limited access to broadband. The young people in our rural communities face especially tough challenges regarding access to quality education and employment opportunities.

Many of the challenges rural communities face are hidden from view. For racial and ethnic minorities, the challenges are even more pronounced. Native American and other sub-populations are often relegated to an asterisk in reports. However unintentional, it implies insignificance. This lack of visibility also makes resourcing the work of grantees more difficult; philanthropic resources flowing to rural communities are scarce.

What are your core strategies for addressing these issues?

We strive to build on the strength that is inherent in rural communities. Even an inhospitable climate can be overcome by establishing genuine trusting relationships. Truly seeing everyone as a neighbor transforms policy and practice. Relationship-building is a recurring goal in our work. We also appreciate that timing is everything. Even long-dormant efforts can be rekindled with the right people at the right time.

Other core strategies include boundless curiosity and devotion to improving individual, organizational and field practice; building conversations from within the community; and capacity-building and technical assistance.

How are demographics changing in your region, and how is your funding strategy addressing these changes?

Like the rest of the country, immigrant populations in rural places are growing. Housing is more affordable in rural areas. A byproduct of this trend is the obscurity that it affords. Perhaps it is desired; perhaps not. In the two tribal reservations in our community, it's a challenge to connect Native American youth to their culture. Our funding strategy is again relationship-based — and we have much work to do. We need to better understand the aspirations, assets and challenges in each of the communities that comprise the whole of our service area. Our existing relationships help us expand our network, as well. We are also opportunistic: if we have an opportunity to invest in work in a particular community, even if it is not what we might have envisioned, we generally take advantage of it.

What's been a big success for your organization?

First, our focus on relationships. We lead with curiosity, gratitude and patience. Those relationships continue to benefit our work over time. Second, investing in and otherwise supporting libraries as community hubs. The importance of their ever-expanding role, particularly in rural communities, cannot be overstated.

What’s the biggest rural funding challenge your organization is tackling right now?

  • Reduced focus on rural areas by many funders.
  • Economic development: the more urban areas of our community are generally the primary focus and resources are minimal.
  • Supporting active rural and Native young leaders: reinforcing youth development as an integral part of rural community sustainability.

What’s one more question we should ask, and how would you answer it?

Q. How can philanthropy better appreciate the importance of rural, have its fingers on the pulse of what is happening and respond in a timely way with a wide range of our tools?
A. We (philanthropy) need to actively seek to better understand the opportunities and opportunity costs in rural communities as well as the needs. There is a profound disconnect when funders place their primary focus on population (i.e., funding in areas with a sufficient population size to warrant attention). If we can solve challenges in rural communities those solutions may have application in urban areas as well. Adaptation from one geography to another is common. We should see the opportunity across type, as well.

Pamela Jons is director of advancement and programs at Whatcom Community Foundation, joining us this month for our virtual roundtable with rural funders.