Funding Rural | Episode #10 | Deconstructing Unicorns with Margaret Hoffman

Margaret “Margi” Hoffman is a woman of action – not something commonly thought of when talking about Government officials – and yet she now serves as the Oregon State Director for Rural Development of the USDA. She is looking creatively at ways her role can support the state of Oregon and its rural communities to access capital from federal partners, even as small pilot projects, bringing together the “coalition of the willing” to get dollars on the ground.

“There’s a question that always comes up, which is how do you scale? How do you bundle rural?… The heart of that question is, how do you drive down the cost of rural?” — Margaret Hoffman

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More about Margaret Hoffman

Margaret Margi Hoffmann Photo

Margaret, or Margi, Hoffmann grew up on a small family farm outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a small community located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Hoffmann left Colorado and moved to Portland, Oregon, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.
Hoffmann’s professional career began working in natural resources management on federal lands. She has worked on public policy in the realms of public safety, health care, climate change, energy resilience and security, and land use. She has experience working for the public and private sector, as well as in non-profit management.

In 2012 and 2015, Oregon Governors John Kitzhaber and Kate Brown, respectively, appointed Hoffmann to serve as Energy Policy Advisor. In this position, Hoffmann developed the first-ever 10-Year Energy Action Plan for the State of Oregon and served as the Governor’s office liaison to the Oregon Public Utility Commission and Oregon Department of Energy. In addition, she served as liaison to the Pacific Coast Collaborative, a partnership between the States of California, Oregon and Washington, and the Province of British Columbia. In 2022, her work served to assist in the development of a shared Statement of Collaboration to address climate change adaptation and mitigation for the world’s fifth largest economy.

After leaving the Governor’s office, Hoffmann served as a senior management team member for the Farmers Conservation Alliance, a non-profit focused on modernizing irrigation infrastructure in the Western United States to benefit agricultural security and the environment. During Hoffmann’s tenure, the Alliance’s irrigation modernization program grew from the pilot stage to implementation across five western states and created a $1B pipeline of shovel ready irrigation modernization projects.
In January 2022, Hoffmann received a Presidential appointment to continue public service as a state director for USDA Rural Development, serving the State of Oregon. She currently lives in Bend with the love of her life, Joshua Klaus, and their 4-year-old daughter, Liesl.

“I look for the coalition of the willing.” — Margaret Hoffman

Discussion Questions

  • What does it mean to be a part of the coalition of the willing, specifically in complex community based projects?
  • How do we pick and choose one pilot project rather than funding all of the projects at a lesser amount
  • Does your organization work alongside federal or state partners? How do you get the information to ensure you know how to best support communities?
  • Real talk about needs prior to applications – how can you support communities in applying for government grants? Margi talks a lot about pre-development needs and how a small amount up front can leverage larger grant programs.
  • Communities need to be ready, what are some ways that you all help support communities you work with to be ready for programming and funding like this?
  • Are there intermediaries you could support in order to apply for larger funding?

Resources

“We need to start looking at how we work together to aggregate capital. We’re not going to do everything. You don’t need to do everything. But can we do one thing… together with the right partner? [It] Doesn’t have to be everybody, [it] just has to be some of us, and then just go do that. Because if we sit around talking about what color we need to make a tee shirt, we’re gonna totally miss the opportunity.” — Margaret Hoffman

Transcript: Funding Rural Episode #10 Deconstructing Unicorns with Margaret Hoffman

Erin Borla: 0:10
Thanks for listening to Funding Rural. I’m Erin Borla with the Roundhouse Foundation in rural Central Oregon. Today, I’m talking to Margie Hoffman. Margie is the state Regional Director for the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development Program. When I first started as a staff member at the foundation, not only did I reach out to foundation leadership, I also reached out to state and federal agencies. I thought about who communities were getting funding from, and I wanted to talk with those organizations. How are you doing that? How did organizations and communities find bigger state and federal grants? Did everybody have equitable access to those applications? I got really connected to our federal partners after the devastating wildfires in Oregon in 2020. I soon met Margie, and she and I hit it off right away. She’s a person of action, somebody who wants to get things right, but wants to understand how the system works first. That’s where I thought she and I really aligned. Her background is in policy work and braiding funding, it makes her an expert in this role. Fingers crossed with folks in leadership like Margie, we see big changes and move to access and action from our federal agency partners, it would be a huge benefit to all of our communities. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did, heads up the audio quality on this one, not as good as we’d like. But it really couldn’t be helped. My apologies for that. Be sure to stick around after the interview. And I’ll share some takeaways of my own. And as always head over to fundingrural.com for show notes and more info about Margie and her work.

Margi Hoffmann: 1:35
So I have been working in Oregon, mostly in rural places for almost 20 years. That started in working on energy policy, particularly renewable energy, energy efficiency, climate change, natural resources, forestry. And I just developed a deep love for the people that I worked with and the communities that I served. When I work with people who are starting in my field for the first time, one of the things I tell them is like go try to build something with federal capital. Doesn’t matter what it is, just go try to do it. And not just federal capital, but federal, state or philanthropic or whatever. There’s so much learning that happens when you are out there on the ground. And so when this job opportunity came up, I really wanted to take that very practical experience and weave it back into the way that we think about constructive system as a whole. Was there a place that I can have in the ecosystem of people thinking about programs, funding program delivery, from that bottom line perspectives that will help increase the efficiency with which we can get impacts in the ground that serve the people that we are here to serve.

Erin Borla: 3:03
Efficiency is like touching, it’s my favorite word when we talk about projects like this, because oftentimes, when we think about big projects, especially when we’re raising federal capital or state capital, they’re not the most efficient, even the systems are so challenging. So coming from the background, but maybe let’s step back and talk about Farmers Conservation Alliance and what like an example of a project that you’re super excited that you got to work on there, that sort of leveraged some of that capital, can you share something like that would be an example.

Margi Hoffmann: 3:33
One of the districts that I love. I’m from Central Oregon, and they’re from the just south of Smith rocks on the backside of Smith rocks. So it’s 15 farmers. Some of them are producing tons of peppermints for Colgate, or you know, they, they sell into these huge international markets, but you head out there and it’s just this humble group of 15 ranchers. There’s no executive director. There’s not even a district headquarters, the district headquarters is in the back shed of one of the guys who drew the short straw and has to serve as the board chair. And so when we had an opportunity to leverage some Natural Resources Conservation Service funding to modernize their system, absent that funding, they would have had to do $15 million worth of upgrades on the backs of 15 farmers. Nobody has an extra million dollars laying around if you’re working in agriculture. The margins are so thin, and so that grant money is absolutely essential in solving the water scarcity issues that so many of us are faced with in the American West right now. So we worked with Lonepine and we just packed, I call it the great bear hug that we assessed the skills that they have. We knew what they would need to move forward and we packed them with the right interdisciplinary team of people to be successful. We were able to use NRCS capital, leverage with the Oregon Department of Water Resources, and some funding from the Energy Trust of Oregon as seed capital to modernize their entire system. And so that project likely will wrap up sometime in the next calendar year. So districts that we have seen before that were sophisticated, were taking 30 years to go through the entire modernization process. But this district that had no full time staff was able to get, not just to secure the implementation capital, but to get through implementation itself, in a five year period of time. {Wow} That is the value of technical assistance funding right there. I just don’t think there’s a better story to articulate that.

Erin Borla: 5:54
So through your work, whether it’s through FDA when the example that you use, when we talked about the mint farmers, you mentioned some state funding, you mentioned NRCS, has there been public, private, or philanthropic partnerships with some of those before? Like some projects that you did through your previous role? Or is this?

Margi Hoffmann: 6:26
I think the big game changer and the reason that FCA was successful in accelerating the sheer amount of work that they were successful in accelerating is that energy trust of Oregon, saw the vision and invested not insignificant amount of capital to seed this. So they put money on the table for 12 districts to go through a pilot program all at the same time. So instead of having to start a program, $50,000 here, $50,000 here, $50,000 here, $50,000 here, with the delay and figuring out like, are you gonna get the grant, are you not? And the uncertainty that that creates, they were able to launch a program with $2 million of capital, and it was enough capital, that they can make mistakes. And they had enough faith and trust from their funder that they were headed in the right direction, to be able to make those mistakes and trust that funding wasn’t going to get cold. And this bright idea wasn’t going to die in its own weight, because we’re doing something really hard. Were figuring out for the first time that you need that aggregation of capital and those trusting relationships, to weather that and know that those, you know its like Brene Brown talks about failing up, {yeah}, we’re all gonna fail up together. And so I think that’s the difference maker between the old model of like, we’ll give you 75,000 or 50 or this, that, or the other thing, and we need to start looking at how we work together to aggregate capital around, we’re not going to do everything. You don’t need to do everything. But can we do one thing, or three things that we can do together with the right partner? Doesn’t have to be everybody, just has to be some of us, and then just go do that. Because if we sit around talking about what color we need to make the t-shirt, we’re gonna totally miss the opportunity, money trains going by, we’re all down on the sidelines. I think the t-shirt should be blue. No, I think it should be red. It should probably be green.

Erin Borla: 8:30
And then nobody wears the t-shirt anyway. I have a whole closet full of T shirts from different projects. Well, I think that’s so important of like, how do we, what’s the action? Right. And when we talk to somebody that’s in federal government, it’s typically not how do we get to action? It’s like, well, let’s keep talking about talking about it. So it’s exciting to hear that there are these opportunities for action. And I think, you know, in our role as a philanthropic organization, working with rural communities, we often hear people say, I’m not even interested in bridging the USDA application. It’s too much work. It’s too hard. There’s too much reporting. And so how, especially with all this new money coming down, we have so many communities that are in such need. How do we work through that together? Is that through technical assistance as well?

Margi Hoffmann: 9:20
You know, I don’t want to say that, like I don’t want there is no magic bullet in anything that we do, I think that part of it is steering resources in the right place. And part of it is, for lack of a better phrase, trusting that what needs to come together will come together when the time is right. So somebody’s saying like, I don’t want to go through the pain of accessing that capital. They might just not be ready yet. And I trust that right. They know how to operate their systems better than anybody else in the world. And if there is an easier tranche of capital for them to go after to meet their needs, I want them to have what they need in the most cost effective and quickest way possible. We work at the direction of our local leadership and we do have financial tools. So having you know, somebody who can come out and sit with you, and go through your vault and pull together audited financials, and be the liaison with the agency. That kind of technical assistance is hugely helpful, because, absent that, you’re asking somebody who already has a full time job to take on another full time job in order to get to implementation. That’s why the people who have done this successfully are unicorns. They’re putting in 60 hour weeks, they’re putting in 80 hour weeks, they’re, you know, really good at working with their board. They’re really good at raising capital, they’re great grant writers. Like, whatever that is, that secret sauce that makes them successful. So when we look at how do we replicate, how do we make this not a unique thing, but the norm, part of it is deconstructing the unicorns. What made them successful? And then understanding how we can resource that for the people who don’t naturally have that skill set?

Erin Borla: 11:13
So you have the vision for that, I think, more so than we’ve heard in the past of like. I’ve been there, I’ve been as the applicant, whether it’s through FCA or others, or even working in policy in the state. So how do you encourage our nonprofit partners, our cities, our counties, our tribes, to be able to say, yeah, that’s, I think I could do that. Or I think I could meet with someone to make that happen. Gosh, that’d be great. Like, what’s, what’s your magic way to talk to folks about it?

Margi Hoffmann: 11:50
I think that I always look for the Coalition of the Willing. I’m willing to work with anybody and everybody. And I think that it is about finding people who are willing to be those early adopters. Whether that’s a philanthropist re-looking at the role of their capital in the system as a whole. Whether that is a technical assistance provider, who is kind of nervous, but ready to scale. Whether it’s a community leader who’s like, I can only tell you what’s wrong, I don’t know how to fix it, but I know it’s gonna be really hard and I’m going to lean in, and I’m going to answer the telephone when you call, even when every bone in my body doesn’t want to. These people exist everywhere. So what I’m doing at Rural Development is convening the coalition of the willing. Looking across private equity, private capital partners, philanthropy, state government, federal government. And from that, when we put people in a room together, magic happens. I don’t know how to structure it. It’s not often tangible. But projects will come out the back end. And I think it will give us a roadmap of where we can focus our time and investment over the next 18 months, and also provide us, I think that for a lot of people, we just need to demonstrate that change is possible. So when we get to success on three or four different projects, people in Oregon, it’s a really small state, we all look over the fence and our neighbors laundry, and say, I want that, I want that I want that. How do you get there? Who’d you talk to you? Who’d you work with? How’d you get that? I want a grant. And so I think it’s about identifying the coalition of the willing, learning how we can work together, and then creating space for more people to come into that system as they’re self selecting into it. I don’t think we can take somebody who is not ready for that kind of commitment and change through that process. I think people have to get to the point where they’re willing participants and they want change.

Erin Borla: 13:49
The federal government has a huge rural funding stream, oftentimes it gets returned or not used. But that’s why you know, when you look at philanthropy and philanthropic dollars, it’s a very small percentage that goes to rural space. Ttypically, private funders or community funders fund what they know. But it’s just this whole swath of the country that gets missed. And I, so I’m sort of struggling with how to kind of talk about that. But do you hear what I’m trying to get to maybe? Yeah.

Margi Hoffmann: 14:22
There’s a question that always comes up, which is how do you scale rural? How do you bundle rural? How do you, and I think really, the heart of that question is, how do you drive down the cost of rural because so many of us are used to operating in urban environments where you have easier access to capital, you have easier access to a workforce, you have you know, you’re closer to transportation centers, your materials are going to cost less. Projects can come together more quickly. And my response is, I don’t think we do scale for rural. And rural America is where our forests are harvested, food is grown. It’s where we have our recreation based economies, you know, these iconic landscapes that are the heart and soul of our country, and people who want to live there. And I don’t think that it means that because we can’t scale, it means that we turn our back on. I think so it creates a challenge in that every project is different. We likely won’t be able to bundle you know, we might have opportunities for bundling, we probably wouldn’t. That is why Teddy Roosevelt created the people’s department, which is rural development. We are the only federal agency that is exclusively focused on how do we help support rural communities thrive. There’s so much innovation that happens. We spend a lot of time talking about what’s not working. And I don’t want to bypass the fact that there are really real challenges that we’re working with. But when I get in my car and drive all around the state, to these rural pockets, there is an enormous, there’s such an incredible amount of success, innovation, resilience that people are working on every single day. And I think that’s also a challenge because we don’t aggre we can’t aggregate and tell those stories. So I think it cuts both ways. It creates the challenge, but it also creates this kind of, I don’t know, I grew up in a rural place. It’s like I grew up on a ranch. It is like, it feels to me like the soul of America.

Erin Borla: 16:45
Yeah. Gosh, other things that you I think we’re working a lot on private and governmental partnerships, like braiding funding together. So do you have examples of things that you are excited about around opportunities to braid funding here in the state?

Margi Hoffmann: 17:01
I do. There are two opportunities that I’m really excited about that are very near term opportunities. So, one is we were able to secure $500,000 in flexible technical assistance funding. We’ve entered into a cooperative agreement with rural prosperity partners that will be our cooperator for that project. And rural prosperity partners can raise philanthropic capital. I think that’s a really good partnership example that we have with the Roundhouse Foundation. I’m very proud of that work, it did not happen overnight. And very proud of the partnerships that we have between the federal government, philanthropy and our cooperator. The other opportunity is, we received half a million dollars in technical assistance funding for our Rural Energy for America program. And this is a program where we can finance renewable energy or energy efficiency systems for agricultural producers and rural small businesses. So things like you know, I think about the packing houses in Hood River, or I think about some breweries in Astoria. I think about you know just the agricultural producers that are out there looking for any way to cut costs on their margins. This is a really amazing opportunity to not only get them new, a new energy stream that can cut their costs. Also, we’re living in an era of unpredictability where the power companies might need to shut our electricity off. We want them to do that, because we do not want the outbreak of catastrophic wildfires triggered by transmission lines when it’s too hot, to dry and too windy. And, can you imagine if the packing houses in Hood River Valley lost power for 48 hours, for a week, the millions of dollars of revenue that would be sunk. And so I also think that that program is a really healing……… And not only meeting our climate goals, but increasing our energy resilience. So that if that great needs to come down for any, any period of time, people have access to energy to run a portion of their may not power their whole operation, but it can power a pretty significant piece of their operation. That’s a really exciting opportunity, agriculture, resilience, cost savings, renewable energy, economic resilience. I think it checks a lot of the boxes that many of us are working towards.

Erin Borla: 19:42
I want to touch just briefly, you mentioned the climate resilience, I know isn’t jumping back and forth. But I think the climate resilience piece dovetails nicely into the conversation about disaster resilience, preparedness, mitigation. I know that’s something that the USDA has sort of with zillions of departments that the USDA has, including the Forest Service and others. There’s so much fire mitigation, fire preparedness, climate resilience, funding that’s coming down. What does that look like for community to access those dollars? Is it the same sort of pool of funding of like, let’s find some technical assistance providers? Or are there other opportunities to ensure that communities can build resilience themselves?

Margi Hoffmann: 20:25
I think we’re just starting to figure out what that looks like. There have not been new programs that are created specifically to address this, except for there is a new program where the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA is designating 1400 census tracts as resiliency zones. Hopefully, with that will come funding to proactively build more resilience into those communities. So that could be a potentially new funding stream. We are working really closely at Rural Development with the Forest Service, the Forest Service has a ton of money. And FEMA also has money for pre disaster mitigation funding. So it starts with the local emergency management plan and putting together often that’s facilitated by the county, writing into that plan. What are your emergency preparedness priorities for that county, and the mapping goes back to appropriate funding sources. So that’s on the prevention side. On the recovery side, I think there’s some really, disaster is never interesting. But people have done incredible work. After living through excruciating experiences in Oregon. Some of the community of, Detroit comes to mind, the city of Detroit. So if you drive through that community, 75% of the buildings are new. And we all remember what it used to look like to store burned to the ground, like many of those buildings were just totally burned to ash. They have raised money for and built a new community center. That community center has a commercial kitchen, that can serve 3000 meals a day, it can provide space for people to come and lay their heads, cot space for people, they have a triage room that’s built on the front end of the building that is easy access, that does not have the same entry point where a normal citizen would come in, and it’s got its own space. So that triage workers have the privacy and the autonomy to do what they need to do to get done to serve patients. There are ways that they have learned from a fire that they lived through and built differently, moving forward to be better prepared for those disasters in the future. There’s really, really incredible work happening in Talent Oregon with a farmworker community there who was absolutely devastated by the fires. There are culturally specific ways that people are working with that community. Architects of that community serving that community that are models, frankly, not just for how we recover post disaster, but they’re models that all of us should be incorporating into the way that we think about community and economic development in the future. So I think on the back end, there’s this emergence of how do we not build the same? How do we build smarter, better, more climate resilient? We all know what the science says, science says we’re all going to be living through harder climate swings and much tougher times ahead.

Erin Borla: 23:52
I think and that’s the way that I think philanthropy can come together with, with government entities, whether it’s state or county, or federal, or city or whatever it is. To one, elevate community, right, elevate projects like the Detroit community center. I mean, it’s something as simple as they have an eyewash station. Like, that’s something that nobody thinks about when they’re building, or the triage room of, you know, we have a triage room, but it’s in the back of the building, and you gotta go through where everybody stays, so having some of those models available. So being able to elevate those projects that are super successful, encourage communities that we may be working with, or partners that we may be working with to know they’re not the first, they don’t have to be the first to go through those things. How do we build off of projects that have already happened? And connect those people Right? We have like McKenzie Bridge, which is another community that went through those 2020 wildfires that basically has said, whoever wants to work with us, we will show them what we’ve done. We’ve done this so others don’t have to. And I think that’s our job is to be able to tell those stories and make those connections and then see how we can build funding options together to have those projects happen. But to think we consistently have to reinvent the wheel and be the first. We’re not the first. Sorry. {Totally} It’s like Darn, I wanted to be. Oh my goodness, I’m so glad you were here. Thank you so much for spending some time and talking about what you’re working on. And so thrilled to be in partnership with all the wonderful things you’re doing.

Margi Hoffmann: 25:25
Thank you as well, you’re doing really incredible work in this state. And I just feel really grateful that we’ll get to partener on so many things. So thank you so much for your time.

Erin Borla: 25:40
Thanks for listening along today with Margie and I think, you know, there were a lot of takeaways for me throughout that episode. A lot of them come back to some of those projects that she had done when she was with Farmers Conservation Alliance Talking about that partnership of those 15 different farmers here in Central Oregon. And just a little bit of technical assistance, allowed them to not only access capital for their project, and to modernize infrastructure, but how to also excel in the timeline. So if the project was completed significantly faster. I think that’s really important as a way that philanthropy can come together around some of these things and some of these projects, because if we really do want strategy and want to focus on how we can make big sweeping systems change, the reality is we need action. And to be able to have projects that we can implement on the ground, by bringing people together that are already working in that system, feels like a really great move. She used the term finding the coalition of the willing, which makes sense for us as funders find ways to amplify what’s already working on the ground, and working well with people really ready to make moves. Building on that Margie talked about deconstructing unicorns, which I think is great, studying what has worked in funding relationships and rural projects, learning from that and applying it in other projects. We all like to think we’re going to invent the wheel. But the truth is, we don’t have to, and we could use our time better by studying those who have found success, even if we have to pull projects apart. Braiding funding together, private, government funding, state federal funding to learn from disasters and build back more resilient in the future. Philanthropic organizations have an important role to play in bypassing red tape reporting requirements required by agencies. It’s not about working in isolation, private versus public funding streams, but rather how we come together to get the job done for community. In spite of different constraints different partners may face let’s be nimble. Let’s move fast and help grassroots projects experiment. Sometimes we might fail. But let’s learn from those missteps and build to something better. Thanks so much for following along. As always, you can check out FundingRural.com for a transcript of this episode and more show notes.

Published On: April 26th, 2024 / Categories: Funding Rural Podcast /