Archive for July, 2007

Urban and rural nonprofits can learn from each other

Fundamentally,  nonprofit organizations exist to meet a community need, but how they meet those needs varies widely. Urban and rural environments present different obstacles and opportunities that must be overcome and met.

Neither locale is easier or more challenging, but the lessons each provide can help organizations think in different ways and step into the other’s shoes for a change in perspective.

Nonprofit work is hard. Refreshing your perspective by taking a look at what works in different places could help energize you for the work ahead.

Rural and urban organizations, which often work in very different settings, excel in unique ways and offer lessons for their city or country counterpart. Of course, not all rural and urban nonprofit agencies are alike, but some generalizations can be made that provide insight into different ways to operate.

Unique differences

Often, one of the most striking differences is the size of an organization. Rural nonprofit organizations are typically smaller—in budget, staff and board. Rarely have I come across an organization out on the plains or mesas that looks top heavy in management, has an oversized board or is grossly over-funded. Often, the end result of this small size is a nimble, flexible organization. Rural groups are more able to adapt quickly because they are unencumbered by large bureaucracies.

Urban nonprofits look and feel different from their country cousins. Aside from generally larger staffs, urban groups tend to differentiate job descriptions. People are hired for their specific skill set and expertise that add to an organization in a certain way. Jobs are better defined; there is development staff, program staff, volunteer coordinators and levels of management. Policies and procedures are organized and standardized. This type of organization leaves less to chance. In times of stress, it reduces the burden to devise processes and allows groups to focus on solutions.

Geography also affects organizations in different ways, both for the good and bad. In rural areas, no client is too far away or too remote. The rural lifestyle lends itself to reaching across broad geographies (and to lots of driving). Organizations recognize need before geographical inconveniences, knowing that there are few others to provide needed services. Often nonprofits encompass several issues instead of specializing in one service. Who else will meet the needs?

Simply as a matter of geography, urban nonprofits are closer to more funding outlets, such as government departments, corporate headquarters and foundation offices. Urban groups can take advantage of the coincidental meeting of a funder at an event or restaurant to provide updates on the organization, share an invitation for a visit or simply maintain goodwill. When used to their best advantage, these casual meetings can create new avenues for revenue.

Less technical assistance is available outside of metro areas. Leaders of rural agencies must rely more on their instincts and less on formal training. They learn as they go forward by taking risks, seizing opportunities in the moment and mobilizing their communities. Rarely can a leader in a rural setting call for immediate consultation from an expert or whip together a board training on fundraising when the budget is in dire need of a boost.

Leaders in urban settings tend to have greater access to their peers and make good use of this by connecting through questions, discussions and collaborations. They grab the opportunity to learn from others and to develop relationships that provide insight and support as they do their difficult jobs. This collaboration also provides the chance to seek out partnerships and understand the greater scope of the work going on in their area.

Resources in the hinterland can be scarce. Not only must rural organizations learn to be lean and mean, but they can’t overburden their limited pool of donors. Agencies must be thoughtful and stick to a plan when asking for support.

The same principle applies to board members. Metro area nonprofits have a larger pool of candidates from which to choose. Specific slots, such as accounting, marketing or legal expertise, can be filled with well-qualified folks. Many of these new board members come with training and an understanding of the expectations and roles of board members.

Lessons learned

Rural and urban nonprofits can learn from the strengths of the other to make for stronger organizations all across the state. Rural organizations would do well to be thoughtful when adding new staff and board members. Too often, people are added to organizations out of a sense of urgency instead of from a strategic process. There are good, qualified people all over the state who are willing to add to the capacity of the sector. Tap into those resources through a sense of abundance rather than a sense of scarcity. Rural leaders can also reduce their sense of isolation by using technology to reach out to their counterparts all over the state. There’s no reason not to utilize the strengths of others and the wonderful camaraderie within the nonprofit world to help do your work better.

Urban groups can connect to their communities more directly and more often. Rural groups are never far from their supporters and clients, which provides an instant accountability that is unique to smaller towns. As one leader in a small rural town told me, “Everyone is involved in hospice.” This reminds organizations of their true missions and can guide new programs and work in ways that create authenticity that does not come from sitting in an office on the phone. Trust the instincts that guide this work. There is much to be gained from tapping into external resources, but the passion that drives the work of the nonprofit sector comes from the compassion and knowledge that lies within people.

Finding the balance between utilizing rural, instinctual leadership and urban, resourced leadership provides the best of both worlds to contemporary leaders in any setting.

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