(This article originally appeared in the August 7, 2010, issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)
The nonprofit landscape in rural America resembles a sparse pygmy forest, where trees that would normally grow to a great height reach only a few feet for lack of nutrients.
There are fewer nonprofit groups to begin with, and beyond that, the organizations serving rural areas are much smaller. In fact, on a per-capita basis, rural groups are only one third the size of urban organizations.
Why does this matter? Poverty is higher in rural areas than urban, and the average rural nonprofit serves a region 100 times larger than that of an urban nonprofit. While the government, businesses, and faith-based organizations are making efforts to help rural areas, they by no means offset the paucity of nonprofit groups.
Some promising solutions deserve attention. Among them: encouraging rural groups to join bigger national networks as a way to offset some of the growth-stunting challenges to organizations working in remote locations.
As we considered whether this idea had merit, we took an in-depth look at one network—Communities in Schools. We found that the organization’s rural operations did indeed benefit from the support they received from its national and state offices. But we also found, to our surprise, that the benefits went both ways. The network as a whole gained strength from the presence of its rural affiliates.
Communities in Schools is one of the country’s largest nonprofit networks, with almost 200 local affiliates spread across 25 states. Its goal is to help students stay in school by ensuring that they have the “five basics”: a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult; a safe place to learn and grow; a healthy start and healthy future; a marketable skill to use upon graduation; and a chance to perform community service.
Communities in Schools puts those basics in place by providing intensive case-management services for the 5 percent to 10 percent of students in each school who are most at risk of dropping out, while ensuring that all youngsters have easy access to services that could help them to stay in school.
As an example of the organization’s presence in an urban area, consider Fulton County, the core of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Fulton covers 535 square miles and has more than one million residents. The median household income there is $62,682; 41 percent of the population has a four-year college degree; and about 15 percent of the population lives under the federal poverty line. Professional services are the leading form of employment in Fulton, with 11 percent of jobs. There are 1,815 nonprofit organizations in the county, with a total annual budget of $10-billion. Human-service organizations number 539.
In Fulton, Communities in Schools of Atlanta has grown to support 65 schools. With an annual budget of $5-million, it employs 94 full-time employees and facilitates more than 600 partnerships with business, government, and other entities. The schools it serves enroll almost 35,000 students, and the organization reaches 74 percent of them with preventive services, focusing intensive services on 11 percent (those most at risk). Over three-quarters of the organization’s budget comes from the local school district; 2 percent comes from state or federal government. Of the students who receive the intensive services, 83 percent are promoted to the next grade.
About 140 miles southeast of Fulton—halfway between Macon and Savannah—is Laurens County, Georgia, where Communities in Schools has a rural affiliate. Laurens covers an area more than 50 percent larger than Fulton (812 square miles) but has a total population of about 48,000 people.
The population density in Laurens comes out to about 59 people per square mile, well below the cutoff point of 300 people per square mile that often designates rural areas. The median household income is approximately $38,676; 14 percent of the population has a four-year degree; about 21 percent live under the federal poverty line. Manufacturing is the largest source of employment, accounting for 16 percent of jobs.
There are 41 nonprofit organizations in Laurens, with a total annual budget of $13-million. Thirteen focus on human services.
At the Laurens Communities in Schools, resources are thinner and strategy more focused, yet results are comparatively strong. The Laurens organization has a budget of just over $400,000, four staff members, 20 partnerships, and 17 schools to support with enrollment of almost 10,000. The state government provides two thirds of its budget; none comes from the local district. Despite a budget less than one-tenth the size of Atlanta’s, though, Communities in Schools reaches a full third as many students, providing preventive services to 82 percent and focusing intensive services on 3 percent (less than 5- to 10-percent of the group’s target for at-risk students but aligned with the schools’ direction as to who needs it most).
How does Laurens do it? With a lot of hard work and creativity, and a good measure of support from the state and national offices. First, the Communities in Schools networks offer a brand and reputation that grant makers trust. Laurens and other rural affiliates also receive money from the state government that the Georgia state office of Communities in Schools helps to secure. In addition, both the state and national offices of CIS help Laurens identify and apply for national grants. As a result, the Laurens affiliate is financially stable.
Like other rural affiliates, Laurens also receives help from the network to improve its programs. The Georgia state office of Communities in Schools developed an innovative approach called a Performance Learning Center. Several rural (and urban and suburban) affiliates in Georgia have copied this approach, and it’s spreading to other states. Those rigorously evaluated programs not only ensure effectiveness but also help save the cost of developing a program from scratch.
Laurens also receives help from the network in attracting, retaining, and developing high-quality talent. The Communities in Schools state and national offices offer training and professional development, providing an opportunity for leaders throughout the network to build relationships with their peers, share ideas, and help locate potential candidates.
The network also expands the career opportunities available to staff members who work at affiliates, thus increasing the number of employees who stay at the organization for a long time and developing a skilled work force. For example, the former executive director of the affiliate in Georgia’s rural Berrien County now works at Communities in School’s national office.
These sorts of support have helped the Laurens program deliver results that shine as brightly as Atlanta’s: 98 percent of students that receive intensive services in Laurens are promoted to the next grade. Other rural affiliates also demonstrate strong performance.
But the national network benefits as well. The Communities in Schools footprint is 36-percent larger because of its rural affiliates; the nonprofit organization serves 540,000 young people in rural areas beyond the 1.5 million urban and suburban youths served.
Laurens and other rural affiliates also contribute to the influence that the national network wields. Politicians in rural areas tend to hold office longer than their urban peers; what’s more, rural legislators frequently make up the majority in state legislatures (given the disproportionate number of rural counties in the United States).
Communities in Schools benefits from that tenure and scope, in terms of the state government money it receives for its affiliates in several states.
Innovation at Communities in Schools is also bolstered by the network’s rural affiliates. Financial constraints force rural affiliates to be highly disciplined and creative with their resources, and promising new ideas often spring from rural affiliates’ experiences.
While we can’t generalize based on a study of one network, it is clear that the Communities in Schools rural affiliates help the organization fulfill its mission to serve all young people, something that warrants further exploration. This benefit of inspiration cannot be taken lightly; it’s what drives many people to work in the nonprofit world.
Rural nonprofit groups face real challenges in attracting resources and serving a geographically dispersed population. More support for rural nonprofits is clearly needed, but what can nonprofit leaders do to catalyze this investment?
The experience of Communities in Schools suggests that developing nonprofit networks could be the answer.