Meet your partners where they’re at… literally. With rural partners, making the drive to visit their town engenders trust like nothing else. Usually, the burden is on rural partners to carve out time and expenses to make long drives for trainings and conferences in urban centers. Going to them speaks volumes about your respect for their time and your genuine desire to see their community improve.

Rural towns’ focus on survival supersedes all other needs. The short-term survival mentality of rural communities can be easily overlooked by those living in cities where public works and municipal duties are carried out seamlessly through paid city staff. In most rural communities, people pay the taxes, make the decisions, and very often do the work—road and building maintenance, water access, fire and emergency medical services.

Goals may be the same, but language can be different. Many words familiar to a health funder mean something different in rural communities. “Equity” is what you’ve paid on your land. “Policy” means restrictions. “Giving agency” must be related to the local research extension office. The worst thing we can do is to thrust uncomfortable semantics onto partners with a sense of philanthropic paternalism. Instead, we must work diligently to identify the shared values that words represent and find a language that resonates with everyone.

True partnership means rethinking and rightsizing funding strategies. Most rural communities do not fit an ideal grantee profile. The few local nonprofits may be focused on the town’s immediate needs (e.g., fixing the playground) rather than being sophisticated change agents. The challenge is to find the unconventional allies and respect their political parameters and timelines. Some of the biggest HEAL champions are economic development directors who see the long-term value of healthy communities. But these directors work under incredible pressures and constraints to show short-term wins in towns where survival is the primary concern.

Data also look different. Truly representative county-level data can be hard to obtain. Some populations are too small for data to be de-identified, or a single incident can skew the annual county health rankings. Furthermore, fewer points of data means a greater chance of personal connection. What might be a number on spreadsheet in a city health department is a painful reminder that your neighbor’s son committed suicide in a rural county.

Advocacy efforts look different. Health champions in rural communities very often walk a fine line of not alienating potential partners, especially when the partnership pool is so limited. Rural grantees must constantly juggle a faraway funder’s agenda with the intimate day-to-day realities of a truly interdependent small town, where histories run deep and human nature keeps score. We need to trust that our partners know the right order of priorities and understand what activities will build public trust.

Read the full article about working with rural communities by Elizabeth Burger at Grantmakers In Health.