Juliet Squire is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a reliably reformy part of the Fordham-AEI axis. She has traveled the Phillips Exeter-Yale-AEI career trajectory with a stop in the New Jersey Department of Education before landing at Bellwether, where she makes observations about education that I pretty much always disagree with.
But she also just released an article for AEI about philanthropy in rural communities, and speaking as someone who has lived his life in a rural community that periodically is afflicted by someone trying to do philanthropy to it, she's made some good observations here.
One of her three "key points" is really on the mark:Place-based philanthropy is hard to do right. It requires philanthropies to shift their mindset from that of a benefactor to that of a partner committed to learning and working alongside local leaders.
This is fundamental. Do-gooders who sail into town with attitude of, "I'm here to bestow my wisdom and largesse on this bundle of hicks," are doomed to well-deserved failure. Squire goes on to offer five somewhat jargon-choked lessons on how to get it right, and they're worth discussing.
Place-based philanthropy requires local capacity and sometimes building that capacity from the ground up.
Philanthropists like to "partner" with locals already doing good works (or at least they should), but rural communities don't necessarily have a lot of Good Deed Doers working regularly. Squire's picture is unnecessarily bleak ("In some rural places, significant declines in the population or the economy have hollowed out civil society"), and she suggests that philanthropists may have to "build capacity" from scratch, which requires the philanthropy to more directly engage (or at least it should). Squire suggests starting with concrete actions like building playground equipment, so that the locals can see you're for real.
Place-based philanthropy requires local leadership and philanthropies willing to embrace humility.
This point is dead on. Local leaders know the territory, the challenges, the history, the hopes, the dreams. Philanthropists coming from outside have to earn local leader trust and they have to actually trust local leaders to make the right choices. Trust local leaders and get out of the way. Modern fauxlanthropy too often resembles a business venture that hires people to help the Big Rich Guy implement his preferred programs (looking at you, Bill Gates).
There is something about rural communities that makes this worse. Perhaps the notion in some big city types that they need to step in and show the rubes how to get it done. In recent decades, this has been exacerbated by the rise of Tech Bros who have a tendency to believe they smartest people in the room, even on subjects about which they don't know jack. "I'm a young gazillionaire, so I must be an omni-expert."
These deep-pocketed Dunning-Kruger exemplars inevitably screw it up. Let me tell you story from my own town. A guy bought the hotel (yes, there's just one) and declared he would turn it into a local culture center, starting with a big high school arts festival. He approached all four of the local high school choirs about appearing, selling it by telling each director that the other three had already signed up. Only someone who didn't know how small towns worked would have used such a dumb lie with four people who knew each other personally and saw each other regularly. The unfortunate thing is that when these wealthy dopes crash and burn, they can walk away easily, and the locals have to clean up the mess (again, looking at you, Mr. Gates).
If you don't trust local expertise, you are going to screw it up. Period.
Place-based philanthropy requires acknowledging the interconnectedness of community challenges and a readiness to invest across multiple domains
Everything is tied to everything else. I would argue that this is not true only in rural communities, but that the size of urban "Gordian knots" allows folks to pretend that issues can be handled separately. Squire notes that in rural communities, you can't disentangle school quality from economic development, and I want to ask if there's any place that's not true. But her observation that rural communities can be more "nimble" essentially because it's easy to get all the major players at the table makes sense.
Place-based philanthropy requires patience, a willingness to play the long game, and early planning for how to sustain initiatives as philanthropic dollars phase out
Drive-by do-gooding is not super-helpful anywhere. The idea is that the money guys swoop in, set something up, and that gives itv the momentum to keep going. The lazy way to do this is what my brother (who served on the school board for a while) calls "grant crack." That's when the Widget Foundation gives you a two year grant to set up a widgetry program, in the hopes that at the end of two years, you'll find widgetry so delightful that you'll start funding the program yourself. Except that in two years you'll be just as broke as you are now.
If you want your widgetry program to take route, you (and your investment) are going to have to stick around for a while to make sure that the program really works and is being led by people who are invested, capable, and knowledgable about widgetry. It's not just that it's needed to help the program find its feet; it's that when you dump-and-run, we take that as a sign you weren't really interested in us and you can't really be trusted.
Place-based philanthropy requires setting aside preconceived notions of what it looks like to achieve impact and scale
Or, more simply, you can't insist on your own definition of success. In particular, don't show up with your own set of pre-developed metrics for how to measure what is accomplished, because you don't know the people or the community and your pre-created metrics are bunk. See the above point about trusting local leaders.
Squire nods to another problem--the creation of turnkey programs. I've always been mystified about this-- people who play in the big leagues of policy and philanthropy would rarely claim, "Well, this is how it worked in New York City, so it should work exactly the same way in LA and Chicago." That would be dumb, because each city has its own history, values, pace, style and ways of getting things done. Yet somehow, many folks assume that small towns and rural communities are interchangeable, popped out of some cookie cutter community design. One size does not fit all.
My extra two cents
These are five not-too-bad points, and I can't let them pass without noting that A) mostly they are true for any community and B) so many education reform programs have violated these lessons. Common Core, the charterization of NOLA, test-centered schools, etc etc etc--they have violated these lessons over and over again.
I don't really know what the audience for Squire's piece will be; I can think of some people who should read and reflect on it, but I'm not holding my breath.
As a side note, one other story. A tech bro has just bought several major buildings in the neighboring town in my county. He has had some meetings with the locals, where the themes of his rambling presentations have included things like he doesn't much like collaboration, that he hopes to make money out of this, and that he hopes to revitalize the city--but, the implication is, on his terms. We'll just see how this plays out.