Funding Rural | Episode #12: Reconstructing Rural Policies with Tony Pipa

Over the past few years federal funds have increased to rural communities, but how are they actually getting to those communities? Tony Pipa, a Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, shares programs, leads the Reimagining Federal Rural Policy Initiative and hosts the Reimagine Rural podcast. In this episode, he demystifies the federal government and its resources, and talks about the need for a rural renaissance to ensure the available funding for rural and remote communities makes it to those on the ground doing the work across rural America.

We have to understand that there’s opportunity and innovation happening in rural communities across the country.” — Tony Pipa

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More about Tony Pipa

Tony Pipa is a senior fellow in the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution. Tony launched and leads the Reimagining Federal Rural Policy initative, and hosts the Reimagine Rural podcast. He also leads an initiative catalyzing local leadership on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Tony has three decades of executive leadership experience in the philanthropic and public sectors addressing poverty and advancing inclusive economic development in the U.S. and globally. He came to Brookings after serving as chief strategy officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and in the U.S. Department of State as a special envoy to lead the U.S. delegation at the U.N. during the intergovernmental negotiations on the SDGs. 

His work on the international stage built upon a legacy of leadership advancing community and economic development at home. He served as the first director of philanthropic services at the Triangle Community Foundation; founding CEO of the Warner Foundation in Durham, North Carolina; and a founder of the Foundation for Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. He has played a principal role in the start-up of multiple philanthropic ventures focused on addressing poverty and improving distressed communities.

Tony serves as the vice-chair of the board of directors of StriveTogether; as a member of the steering committee of the Mobility Alliance; and as chair of the Reimagining Rural Assistance Network (RRAN), in addition to several task forces and advisory committees. He grew up in rural Elysburg, Pennsylvania, in the heart of anthracite coal country, attended Stanford University, graduated from Duke University, and earned a Master of Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School.

We have to be honest about the interdependencies between rural and urban and what that means for who we are as a country… and where our future lies.” — Tony Pipa

Discussion Questions

  • Tony and Erin discuss how funders can go awry by going into a community and trying to ‘fix it.’ What processes can your organization implement to  identify and support the innovation and opportunities that already exist in rural communities
  • Tony paints a picture of future economic outcomes in our country, a clean energy economy, a sustainable future model, and he asks us to envision a future where resources are not extracted from rural communities without some of that value being put back into the rural economy. What could that look like, even within the way you handle your work in rural today?
  • Tony talks about the idea of future economic model that isn’t growth oriented or as he puts it, “bigger, bigger, bigger all the time.” How can we live in communities where economic growth doesn’t have to solve everything? Is it OK for communities to be economically sustained instead?


If we think sustainability is what we need for the future, we have a lot to learn from rural, because they’re the place where we’re going to need to understand how we conserve our natural resources.” – Tony Pipa

Transcript: Funding Rural Episode #12: Reconstructing Rural Policies with Tony Pipa

Erin Borla:  0:10  

I’m Erin Borla, Executive Director and Trustee of the Sisters Oregon based Roundhouse Foundation. I’m also a fellow for the National Center for Family Philanthropy. Policies designed in the centers of power, namely, the urban parts of the country, have always had impacts on rural communities. But it’s usually a one way street, where those policies are opaque or funding is inaccessible, especially for everyday Americans working and living in those rural spaces. That’s a problem for public funds, but also for private philanthropy, and a big part of why I’m making this podcast. Today I’m talking with Tony Pipa. He’s a senior fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institute in DC, where he launched an initiative called reimagining rural policy. He wrote a great op ed in the New York Times that will link to you on our website, And in it, he said something that really caught my ear. Current federal policy is ill suited to successfully enable US rural communities to meet the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. Tony grew up rural and tries to keep close to his roots, even as he travels in very different circles now.

Tony Pipa:  1:16  

And you know, I’m a small town boy from North Central Pennsylvania. Who now lives outside of Washington, DC and works in Washington DC and, and intersects with policymakers and people in the federal government and I try to bring a little bit of rural with me.

Erin Borla:  1:33  

I was going to ask as coming from a think tank in DC, how do you show up in a rural place and have them go cool, I’m gonna believe what you’re having to say to me? 

Tony Pipa:  1:41  

Well, I’m from a rural place. And so I have some understanding of how small towns work and how communities the dynamics of a particular community. I love towns, and I love how people come together in towns. And so I don’t come offering wisdom or advice or anything. I come interested in hearing their stories, and hearing what’s going on in their particular places, and maybe offering them some value in identifying patterns or connections. Things that I’ve experienced elsewhere that might be useful to them. And or even helping them think about conversations they might be having with policymakers or people that they want to get to know because those people make decisions on resources or other things. And, you know, hopefully offer them, offer them a chance to get to know me, just as someone who’s there to listen and learn and help and make connections. 

Erin Borla:  2:46   

Yeah, I think that’s the biggest piece, right, oftentimes, especially in rural folks are separated from other communities. And so they oftentimes think that they have to solve all those problems on their own and get hung up in some of the bureaucratic mess, that is, policy or government orall those pieces. And so having a navigator or someone that can say you’re not by yourself, there’s other people and entities that have done that work before, it’s nice to have that window.

Tony Pipa:  3:09  

Yeah, I have to say, I think people really appreciate when their experience is reinforced or affirmed. And when I say things like, well, you know, you’re probably a volunteer elected official, or you might not have a lot of people at city hall that can do all these different things. Yes, yes, somebody understands somebody. So I think that’s affirming. And I also think that, you know, there are a lot of things that a lot of decisions get that get made outside those communities that affect the environment in which those communities are trying to serve, sustain themselves, trying to sometimes you know, effect, some kind of transformation, whether it be a social or economic. And they don’t feel like they have much control over that, or don’t have insights into make sure their voices are heard in those kinds of decisions. And so I offer sometimes a little bit of a window or a point of entry into that, as well.

Erin Borla:  4:10  

Nice, what a gift Oh, my goodness, we often define equity in our organization about being distant from power. And so how do you identify communities that, that maybe have historically been left out of those conversations. And that also means our rural and frontier communities because they’re 4, 6, 8 hours away from power centers and where decisions are made. So to be able to have a window into even basic understanding of how this big system works is such a gift.

Tony Pipa:  4:39  

Yeah, that’s I love that distant from power. That’s what equity is. 

Erin Borla:  4:43  

It’s really helped to define the conversation between especially funding partners in the state of Oregon, where we’re based. A lot of our funding is based in the metro area in Portland, which is distant from a lot of the organizations that are doing work, Oregon is a big state. And we see that a lot in these other communities that are more rural or frontier is they’re farther removed. But it’s also where our energy and our food is coming from. So, talk a little bit about your you have a background in philanthropy, right? {Yeah. Yes I do.} Tell me a little bit about that. 

Tony Pipa:  5:17  

So, I my first job was as a minor league, professional tennis player, like all around the world. But let’s leave that aside. When I, when I came back to the US. the first, the first work I started doing was as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity affiliate, and then I became a staff person, their first staff person. And we were working on housing and we did a lot of great work. But I felt like all the issues that were affecting those people’s lives were more than just housing. And so I wanted to have like a bigger scale and bigger scope. And I ended up at  a Community Foundation in North Carolina in the triangle area. And I became their first director of philanthropic services. And we were, I was one of the first kind of those staff people in the nation. And it was basically working with donors who had set up funds in the Community Foundation, and then they were advising those funds, they were living donors. And so they had some, they had some agency over where those grants might go. And so I set up a program to help them, you know, be strategic about their grant making, try to maximize the impact they were having. I was sometimes helping facilitate families to come together and agree across generations even on what they would be supporting. And then I went from there to become the founding CEO of a private foundation to those donors, a husband and wife has created a private foundation to serve the entire state of North Carolina. And they wanted to focus on improving race relations and increasing economic opportunity. And I became their first CEO of their private foundation. And after having done that, and getting a graduate degree, a mid career graduate degree, right when I got that degree, Hurricane Katrina happened. And so I found myself in Louisiana, helping a small group of people out of the governor’s office incubate a public foundation, because they were receiving a lot of private donations. And that public foundation still exists. It’s called Foundation for Louisiana. And after we started it, they did a lot of work, actually, even though they received a lot of private donations, they realized that the majority of the money that would go for recovery would come from public resources. And so they spent a lot of time trying to influence how those public resources were spent, and making sure they got to the communities that were on the coast and to traditionally marginalized communities that hadn’t really seen a lot of resources before the before the hurricane hit.

Erin Borla:  7:50  

So how do philanthropic organizations go about like, I think my job here is to try and support other funders looking to build a rural strategy. So those that see the division in the, in the country and, and want to we need to build we need to build rural, that’s what we need to do we need to fix it. What do you say to folks like that when you have an opportunity to just given some really concrete examples for folks about how we can show up in those places, but I don’t think it’s so much a fixing it? 

Tony Pipa:  8:24  

No, no, it’s not a fixing. So that we, that we have to set aside. We have to understand that there’s opportunity and innovation happening in rural communities across the country. So partly, it’s to identify the opportunity and the innovation and support that right, rather than fix. I mean, concretely, some of the things that’s happening in Oregon was a great example. So a report on what are the reasons. Why local communities are having trouble accessing money? Creating a clearing house of the expertise, that communities might be able to avail themselves of. Providing some grant money to be able to do matchmaking and even buy some of that technical assistance, or that capacity building that I just talked about, and also working in concert. Like I think funders working together, learning from each other, what they’re learning from grantees. As well as creating cohorts of the communities themselves so that they can share their experiences and be a peer support network. I think is, and you see this happening in different parts of the country. Everything from what’s happening in Oregon, you’ve got you know, so like the Walton Family Foundation for their local program, creating a one stop shop office in Arkansas. You have the TLL temple Foundation, doing something similar in Texas. Even at the national level, a new philanthropic platform that’s pooling resources called Resource Rural, that then is using those funds that are coming from national foundations and getting it to those regional or local intermediaries that can, that can work with communities to help them access the money. So everything from the information that’s necessary to help those communities sort of navigate and understand what’s available and navigate and identify what they ought to try to be accessing. To getting them the capacity and the expertise to be able to do it. To be able to then make sure that they’ve got partners that can help them manage it and make best use of it, and bring them together, like connective tissue is really important. And both among funders, as well as amongst the cohorts of rural practitioners and local communities that are trying to do better by their communities.

Erin Borla:  10:46  

Yeah, I think that’s very well put. We don’t want to fix it, we want to, we want to elevate the things that are going really well. And it comes down to a big philanthropic term right now, which is narrative change, right. I love those big philanthropy words. But we. we need to elevate those stories of things that are positive that are happening in these spaces. So often, we get overwhelmed by these myths. Some are myths, some are, some are very acute, we have some some poverty issues, we’ve got some drug issues and other things that are happening in these rural spaces. But what gets missed are the conversations about the positive things that are happening and the drive and the passion and the optimism and the hope that is led from those communities and and how do we as funders and other partners, begin to elevate those stories to say, no, we have something here. And it’s worth saving? 

Tony Pipa:  11:40  


Well, first off, we have something and that something also helps power and feed the country, as you said, right. And that’s not going to change. When we shift to a clean energy economy. We are asking rural, to be the place that continues to power the country, that’s going to be where wind and solar. It’s going to be where mining for new minerals that go into batteries are. It’s going to be where battery manufacturing takes place. And so first off, we have to be honest about the interdependencies between rural and urban and what that means for who we are as a country and even for some of the key priorities that we have as a country and where our future lies, right. And I don’t think we want a 21st century version of an extractive economy that we had with fossil fuels. I think we want an economy that works in rural communities where the benefits are widely shared, where some of that value stays in those communities, so they can sustain themselves over time. And if we think sustainability is what we need for the future, we have a lot to learn from rural, because they’re the place where we’re going to need to understand how we conserve our natural resources. And we learn how to live in communities that we’re not solving everything by economic growth, like we’re economic sustained, rather than economic, bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger all the time. So I think even having that mindset as funders, we need to walk in the door with that as our mindset. And then I really do feel as if being curious and really lifting up those voices and those experiences that are happening in rural. You know, we’re at a place in our country where we don’t have a lot of relationships across different kinds of places, we tend to be siloed, right. We’ve, social media has helped us silo, even the way in which our communities, we live in our communities, we tend to be siloed. I grew up in a rural place. I you know, I graduated in a class of 88 kids. And we were all over the, we were all over the place, we had every class inside that class, right. Every socio economic class. And we all kind of had to be together in community and do what we did together as a, as a class. And we’ve kind of lost that a little bit in this country. And so the narrative is the place where we can bring that relationship back in some way. We can help people find their humanity and stories and in experiences and in sharing those experiences. And I do think it’s unfortunate that the national narrative that you know, we often hear about rural is rural in decline, now. And it’s easy to go in from the outside and say, oh, you know, a lot of blade or this place is not going to make it or there’s it’s obvious to see the social, you know, issues starting to play out right in front of me. But once you start talking to the people who live there, you find, come to find out that there’s actually a lot of positive things happening. And if you start to look at it with another eye. You say, well, I wasn’t here five years ago. And oh, well, I see the picture that she just showed me from five years ago. Wow, there’s actually a lot of improvement that’s happened over the last couple of years. And I think we’re not, we’re not sensitive to that, because we’re not in these places on a regular basis. And I think it’s too easy to be simplistic about what we think our perspective and our experience is. At the same time, there’s an enormous amount, not just of positive change going on. But innovation, like some of the most instinctively nimble leaders that I’ve met, have just been in rural places. And it’s because they have strong relationships with their community. They know the history of their community pretty well. And they’re able to come up with these interesting ideas on like, what’s important for that community to bring them along to change in a positive way. And, and I think we all have a lot to learn from that.

Erin Borla:  16:07  

We talk a lot about rural not being a monolith, I think you’ve, you’ve defined that really clearly, where it’s even in different parts of the country, in the intermountain west, and our Native American reservation communities, and then versus our deep south communities. They’re, they’re all different, and we all, but the unique thing is, through those there are some through lines. And that I think is, is the people.

Tony Pipa:  16:29  

Yes, yes. And so there’s a lot of diversity, culturally, racially, historically, like the historical legacies of what happened in those particular places. I think there’s a lot of diversity, even in economy. I mean, I think we have a set of regional economies, right. We often talk about the national economy, well the national economy is actually a set of like, lots of different diverse regional economies, and the economy in the deep south in the black belt is going to be different than the economy, in the plains amongst tribes and, and far west, where the public lands are, that leases are on and things like that. All of that is, those are very different dynamic. And they’re very different dynamics from where I grew up in, you know, northeast Central Pennsylvania. So this is the other thing that, that we don’t often acknowledge, but many people are rural by choice. Right, with the narrative of rural in decline, we feel like people are stuck there, you know, and they’re like, kind of, in a no win situation. Many people want to be in a rural place. In fact, if you look at pulling, rural places pull better than any other place in the US. If people are given the choice to say, where do you want to live, more people will say they want to live in a rural place than anywhere else, than a city or a suburban area. And many people, you know, will say that we’re here, because it’s the kind of life I want for my family. It’s the kind of community I want to be in. Now, let’s not be pollyannaish. And there are, there are real tensions that are happening in different parts of the country in rural areas. And some of that’s even outside forces coming in, around political decisions, and around cultural issues, and, and even around the resources that we talked about earlier. But I feel like that’s our national politics infecting our local politics. And what we need to do is turn that on its head. Because in many places, the local politics still work, or at least are working better than they are at other levels of governance. And people still need to come together and make decisions together, and they’re neighbors. And so they have some relationship. And we’ve got to, we’ve got to work our way through that. And have that be the way in which we think about our national politics.

Erin Borla:  18:52  

It’s the humanization, right, it’s coming back to humanity and shared humanity. And I think the unique part about living in a rural space is you don’t get to hide from something that you share at a public meeting, you’re going to the same grocery store, your kids are in the same school, you’re at the post office together, you’re in those spaces. And so you, you may not agree politically, but you have to find ways to communicate collegially. And I think there’s some beauty in that, like there’s power in disagreement.

Tony Pipa:  19:21  

Yes. It’s interesting when I ask about like, Democrat, Republican politics, when I’m going into communities, they often kind of look at me and say, well, that we’re all just trying to make sure that our community works and our community is healthy, and our community is sustainable over time. Like I want my kids to want to be able to come back and have opportunity and live here. And yeah, I think that’s the, that’s the mindset that we need to be in. I was at a township meeting in central Ohio last week where people in the public comment period who are about as close as we are across this table, you know, looked each other in the eye, their neighbors, they know each other, and asked that person to resign. That just does not happen in our political environment that much these days. And yet it was done with civility. It was done with, we think that’s what’s best for community because of what’s happening in our community. And it was done with no particular resolution, but it was able to happen face to face. And I think that says something about that community. And I think that says something about what happens in rural places. 

Erin Borla:  20:43  

Yeah, not Facebook, to Facebook. {Thats exactly right.} And I think we talk a lot about the eight second memory that we have and trying to build sound bites. And the reality is you have to live with people, and we have to be able to communicate, we have to teach our children to communicate, if we want to build that legacy of having our kids come back. I want to make sure that we touch on your, the Reimagine Rural Policy Initiative, and have you maybe share a little bit about that and what your hopes are for that? 

Tony Pipa:  21:09  

Yeah. So we’ve been doing a lot of analysis, building on what we were talking about earlier, that looks at how federal resources effectively serve rural communities, or how we could make them more effective in serving rural communities. We’re looking, we’re following the money in some respects, like, Where does money go from particular programs? How well does it get to the communities that might be able to benefit from it most, are we maximizing the public benefit of it. And then through that analysis, also coming up with recommendations, coming up with recommendations for congressional members and potentially new legislation. Working with executive branch agencies on programs that they are implementing, and trying to trying, to reach communities with. I think, you know, we’re certainly creating an audience for that. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of think tanks in Washington, DC, where rural community economic development gets a lot of attention. But there’s, there’s a small, there’s a smaller set of us that are providing this kind of analysis that I think is exceptionally important for congressional members and, and for the executive branch. But to our conversation earlier, there’s a lot of diversity in rural. And what works for their particular case in their communities might be somewhat different in other places. And I think we need to take rural and rural, equitable Rural Development up a level. And I think that’s what we’ve been trying to do through the Reimagining Rural Policy Initiative is to get folks to think not just of what’s in their district or in their state, but what rural America means to America at large, and those through lines and those commonalities that go across the diversity of rural, and how we can maximize the innovation and the opportunity and the people in those particular places. And make sure that they’re both connected to the community at large, and that the community, and their the country at large, and that the country at large is also connected to them. And that then interdependence goes both ways. And that’s not hierarchical. 

Erin Borla:  23:42  

Yeah. I think that’s something philanthropy can learn from as well of understanding all those through lines, understanding sort of the quilt, if you will, of all the different pieces of rural that come together. And I love that you touched on the information going both ways. That’s something we talk about a lot is the pathway that not only does money and infrastructure and other things need to come from urban centers to rural communities, but there’s value and power that’s coming back from those communities, and how do we establish and help lift up those pathways? So those voices continue to get heard and elevated?

Tony Pipa:  24:19  

Yeah. And I think part of the work and this is, this is maybe a challenge to philanthropy as well, part of the work is going to be around creating some governance models that are, you know, need to be innovative, or need to be a bit different. Right now, when we talk about sort of regional economic development, we tend to think about it being centered around a city or at least a large town. And then those, those places that surround it, you know, kind of feed in or they’re gonna get some benefit because they can, they’ll, they’ll be able to be the home to, you know, maybe a supplier or something like that. But generally those towns are not really at the table in an honest decision making way and having their interests really protected, or advanced as that economic developments being thought of. And I think and certainly when it comes to different when it comes to different racial groups or different classes of histories of those classes in a particular place, that can be even more difficult, right. And so it’s interesting to watch the Community Foundation in Humboldt County, California, where there’s a massive offshore wind project being planned, you know, create a table with the five Native tribes, there, some of the counties that traditionally have struggled economically, and they’re the volunteer elected officials, or, you know, they don’t have much capacity at staff, but try to bring them together collectively and say, okay, how do we shape what, what this future ought to look like? And how do we make sure that those of us who have often been on the outside looking in are actually part of this project and benefit from it, and it sustains our communities, and it’s a, it’s a benefit overall, for our communities going forward? We’re going to need much more of that. And I think, I think philanthropy is in a good place to help us think through, like when we talk about equity, what does that really mean? What does that look like? How do people come together at the local level? And how do you govern and make decisions together across jurisdictional boundaries, and across sectors and across histories and cultures? Sometimes? I think there’s a real opportunity there.

Erin Borla:  26:49  

Yeah, I completely agree. And I think some of that is the challenge to as you’re building your equitable table, and making sure that there are those that are distant and removed. So sometimes that includes making sure you have a rural person at the table. So I just really want to say thank you so much for spending some time today and chatting through all the great things that you’re working on it. It’s so great to have you join us. So thank you.

Tony Pipa:  27:12  

Well, thanks for having me. It’s been a great conversation. And I just look forward to continuing to partner.

Erin Borla:  27:25  

There’s often this myth about how rural spaces are funded. And it’s that we’re the urban centers are subsidizing rural through federal government payouts, whether that’s through USDA or others. But the reality is there’s, there’s an accessibility issue to those applications. And oftentimes, we have staff that are city staff or county staff or special district staff that are limited in capacity. So they don’t have they always are looking at that grant application going, I don’t have the ability to actually fill that out. I can’t meet the needs that are being required of our community, even though we really need whether it’s broadband or water access, or septic systems sewer updates, all those things. Those are things that are needed in those communities, but the capacity to actually apply, and then fill out the application and then project manage beyond that is beyond the scope of what’s available in those, those communities. So I appreciate what Tony’s doing at Brookings and really talking about how we look at rural policy. Be sure to check out his Reimagined Rural Podcast and the work that they’re doing at Brookings Institute. I think it’s an opportunity for funders to really look at how do we think about technical assistance for applications, whether that’s for grant writing skills and project management? Also, how do we look at pre-development? Right? Some of those applications like even right now, we’re trying to have organizations and communities apply for climate and task force work and solar energy and other green energy. But all those require assessments ahead of time and those assessments cost money, and they require someone to manage that engineer or other other project. So how do we develop and fund those so those communities are shovel ready, and can really get those dollars into play on the ground. Thanks again for listening to funding rural, check out For show notes a transcript of the episode and links to all the great things Tony talked about.

Transcribed by A.I. Please forgive errors.

Published On: May 9th, 2024 / Categories: Funding Rural Podcast /