Giving Compass' Take:

• This case study from Campbell University explores how philanthropy is engaging with the community in Northeastern Iowa.

• How can funders better work with rural communities to support their goals? 

• Learn about the impact of small rural foundations

M.J. Smith is a force to be reckoned with. On any given day, she’ll drive more than 100 miles to meet with people in the many small towns that dot the rural Northeast Iowa landscape. She’ll discuss their hopes and dreams and their plans to change their communities for the better.

From rebuilding small downtowns to supporting food pantries; developing recreation and fitness programs to creating new approaches to energy conservation and use — M.J. works with all. As the manager of affiliate funds for the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque (CFGD), M.J. doesn’t have to be a subject matter expert on any project. Instead, she’s an expert at listening and connecting, building the relationships that in turn build the communities in her care.

She’s also created two tool kits for endowment building and for fundraising — one of which was adopted and published by the Council on Foundations. There’s probably no one who knows her three-county region as deeply or enjoys connecting people as much to solve problems and create new opportunities. Sometimes, it may seem as if things happen here just by the sheer force of M.J.’s will, but it’s really just persistence and an ingrained belief that as a woman who feels blessed with plenty, she is bound to ensure that others have access to plenty as well.

“I spent a decade on our school board working toward a successful rural school merger,” she says. “The experience taught me that I had more than enough time, ideas, partners and patience to lead others toward a place they would have otherwise never traveled.

“So it is with rural philanthropy. This is the place where my greatest talents and joys intersect to inspire and equip others to share.” And she does it all as a three-quarter time employee of the CFGD and a fulltime member of the Northeastern Iowa community.