In our final post about philanthropy in America, Dr. Matthew Ehlman shows that philanthropy is not only found in urban environments, but it also plays an important role in rural America.
Where government and business have left, philanthropy has stepped in. According to The Bridgespan Group, rural areas between 1994 and 2001 received between $401 and $648 less per capita for community and human resources, and national functions.
Scarcity of funding from the government, as well as private foundations and corporate giving, shows that nonprofit organizations in these communities must work harder to obtain the money they need to serve rural communities, and are less able to help the disadvantaged in their communities.
Matthew Ehlman, Ph.D.’18, recognizes these issues, and is determined to promote rural philanthropy through his work as a founder and consultant at The Numad Group, and through the creation of the Rural Philanthropy Institute.
Ehlman began his career in philanthropy after graduating with his bachelor’s degree in finance from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. He volunteered at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota, where he drove the school bus and ran the afterschool program.
At one point, Ehlman and another volunteer were tasked with filling out a grant application for a foundation. They successfully submitted and were awarded a $50,000 grant for new technology at the school. The president of the school asked Ehlman to volunteer for another year in the development office, beginning Ehlman’s career working in fundraising.
After completing that work and knowing he wanted to enhance his knowledge in the field of nonprofits, Ehlman began his MPA with a concentration in nonprofit management at Indiana University Bloomington. After graduating two years later, he returned to Red Cloud Indian School to lead the advancement office, which included both the fundraising and communication efforts for the school.
His continued interest in the importance of philanthropy and the reasons why people contribute to society, as well as with support from faculty, convinced Ehlman to continue his work at Red Cloud Indian School while also working on his Ph.D. at the then-Center on Philanthropy. His focus of study and dissertation concentrated on his work at Red Cloud Indian School, and why giving increased by new and returning donors to the school during the Great Recession, the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
To increase giving, Ehlman and his team took several steps to connect donors to Red Cloud Indian School.
“We identified people who had an interest in a program or activity happening at Red Cloud at the time,” he said. “We then connected with them, listened to where their donor interests were, helped to educate them about how their interests aligned with a program or initiative of the school, and made the case why it was important for them to support Red Cloud at that time. It was a highly relational and personal approach in conducting our outreach with individuals, foundations, and corporations. It was all based on the belief that people are extraordinarily generous when you educate them with intentional communication and solicit them to support areas of the organization that they were most interested in impacting.”
This highly successful approach led to Ehlman, and his colleague, Ted Stephens III, imagining the creation of the Rural Philanthropy Institute.
“In my work, I’ve realized that the philanthropic sector is going to have an even greater impact on people’s lives than it has in the past,” Ehlman said. “As companies move to larger cities, the nonprofit sector will grow and serve larger rural areas. It will reach more people because of its flexibility, and have a greater, albeit disproportionate, impact on rural America.”
Recent research also illustrates a high level of need in remote areas where it can be difficult for an individual to access government services. The Human Needs Index, a collaboration between The Salvation Army and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, has shown in recent years that individuals who can’t access government services, access services provided by The Salvation Army. “The Salvation Army has a lot of integration with remote communities,” applied statistician Jon Bergdoll explained.
So, how to access and empower rural communities and nonprofits in those communities?
Ehlman emphasizes bringing people together—no matter the distance: “We’ve established formal and informal conversation networks, simply for the sake of bringing people together and creating safe spaces for discussion. We need people to be able to share their thoughts in order for society to flourish.”
His academic education at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and experience at Red Cloud Indian School led Ehlman to gain a deeper, practical, and theoretical understanding of the impact of rural nonprofits.
“We need to listen to people about the issues they care about and the questions they may have,” he said. “If we can collect real data, real facts and make decisions using those about our society, we’ll be able to have conversations that include diverse perspectives in order to better prepare for and manage what will happen in the future.”
In the future, Ehlman hopes to combine research, data, facts, and on-the-ground knowledge and expertise to encourage intelligent decision-making about rural philanthropy and the impact it can have.
“If we can bring people together and offer information and data with practitioners from all sectors, the public can have relevant information in order to make the best decisions for their organizations or communities.”
Find out more about the Rural Philanthropy Institute, or learn more about the “Morning Fill Up,” a monthly conversation with local, regional, and national leaders who visit The Garage at Rapid City, South Dakota. Past conversations are recorded for anyone to listen.