If you’ve seen one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community.” 

It may come as a surprise to learn that there is no exact definition of a rural community. Trying to define rural is a challenging task given our country’s diverse geography and changing demographics. One thing is clear, however, rural communities are no strangers to natural hazards and extreme weather events. 

Unfortunately, smaller populations and more remote geography mean that disasters in these areas do not receive the same attention as disasters in large cities. Disasters in rural communities tend to receive fewer donations, less media attention, and a smaller presence from outside disaster response organizations – making recovery more difficult for those affected. 

So, what can funders do to support these communities before, during and after disaster strikes? 

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) recently hosted a webinar, Beyond the Headlines: Funding Disasters in Rural Communities, to help answer this question. CDP Vice President Regine A. Webster moderated the discussion and panelists included: Cari Cullen, director of the CDP Midwest Early Recovery Fund, Brian Fogle, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, and Don Phoenix, principal of the Sankofa Group, LLC. 

Here are some key takeaways for donors from the webinar: 

Rural America is diverse and full of entrepreneurs. It’s innovative and changing. Contrary to popular belief, agriculture accounts for only a fraction of rural employment overall. Manufacturing and agriculture, which are the two historically dominant sectors in rural areas, now account for less than one in five rural jobs combined. Rural America is also home to immigrants, refugees and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities that have historically experienced marginalization and disinvestment. Funders must keep these factors in mind and include marginalized communities in the planning and decision-making process.

Take time to listen and engage with communities to learn what they want and need. Instead of telling communities that they need, spend time listening to community members and building trust. Allow them to tell you about the challenges they are facing, what is important to them, and the critical needs that must be met.

As Cullen said, “I need to listen deeply enough to provide the right resources at the right time.”

Be there for the long-term. Recovery in rural areas is going to take a while and look different than disasters in urban areas. That’s why Brian Fogle shared that “one of the first things that we try to do is go into the community and be present and give them hope, and also set expectations.” Funders must help communities understand that the road to recovery will be long and commit to being there for them long-term.

Fogle added: “It is very, very important to let them know we will walk along with them.”

A little goes a long way in rural areas. There aren’t many large nonprofits in these communities, but people are resourceful. They work together and share resources in ways that amplify impact. Money can go a long way if you give communities the flexibility and freedom to determine how to use their limited funds. Donors need to build the capacity of those who are already doing the work in the community, giving them the resources to coordinate and build a coalition or recovery group.

And, as Phoenix said, “We can’t wait for a crisis to think about capacity in rural communities. We need to fund local disaster management plans for communities.”

Community foundations are critical partners. Small communities are skeptical of outsiders, but community foundations are in the community. Partnering with local community foundations can help ensure your donation is used in the most efficient way to meet critical needs.

Fogle explained: “They're the people that know their community, care for their community and know how to get things done more than anybody else.”

We can’t end this recap without mentioning the deadly tornado outbreak that wreaked havoc across eight states on Dec. 10 and 11. The majority of tornado-hit communities are in rural areas and will face a long and difficult road to recovery. We encourage you to join CDP for the December 2021 tornadoes: How to Support Long-term Recovery webinar, co-sponsored by Giving Compass, on Thursday, Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. ET.