Funding Rural | Episode #7 | Evaluating Relationships with Allen Smart

Allen Smart has years of experience working with philanthropic families and health conversion foundations across the east coast and southeast. His reputation as a leader in rural philanthropy as a consultant is strong. Join Allen as he shares some of the lessons he learned throughout his tenure as a consultant – and how philanthropic organizations can make real impact building relationships in smaller communities.

“I think being a rural funder, or even an urban funder who wants to do rural work, can be a very lonely experience.” – Allen Smart

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More about Allen Smart

Allen Smart

Allen Smart is a national spokesperson and advocate for improving philanthropic practice under his group –PhilanthropywoRx. Under the PhilanthropywoRx umbrella, he works with individual funders, Philanthropy Support Organizations, regional and national rural organizations and national non-profits on a wide range of strategy, writing/researching and staff coaching projects.

Allen is the former Interim President, Vice President of Programs and Director of the Health Care Division at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust- a $700 million statewide North Carolina funder. Prior to coming to the Trust in 2006, Allen was the Vice President of Programs at the Rapides Foundation, a healthcare conversion funder, in Alexandria, Louisiana. He has also served as Director of Community Development for a midwestern Catholic hospital system and as Grants Administrator for the City of Santa Monica, California.

Allen received his Master of Public Health from the University of Illinois at Chicago, his Master of Arts in Telecommunication Arts from the University of Michigan and his Bachelor’s in Arts in Philosophy from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

As part of his personal and professional interest in philanthropy, Allen regularly writes for sites such as The Daily Yonder, Inside Philanthropy, Grantcraft and GivingCompass, as well as presenting to national and regional organizations like Capital Link, Grantmakers in Health, Philanthropy Southeast, National Rural Assembly, National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health and the federal Office of Rural Health Policy. He is a former member of the National Advisory Committee for the Rural Resource Hub at The University of North Dakota, current member of the Board of Directors for Healthy Communities by Design, Communities Joined in Action and the Board of the North Carolina Healthcare Association Foundation. He was previously the selection committee chair for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation national Culture of Health Prize.

“You’ve got to love this stuff. It can’t just be something on your strategic plan.” – Allen Smart

Discussion Questions

  • How do you embed knowledge, rural thinking and rural ethos into a foundation thats doing both urban and rural work?
  • What do you think of Allen’s concept of a “rural quality control person” at a foundation – to ensure applications, and other work are accessible?
  • Allen talks about foundation staff being evaluated based on relationships built rather than other metrics; how would that work in your organization? What do your relationships look like?


Transcript: Funding Rural Episode #7 “Evaluating Relationships” with Allen Smart

Erin Borla: 0:10
You’re listening to Funding Rural. I’m Erin Borla with the Roundhouse Foundation. I’m also a Fellow with the National Center for Family Philanthropy, I want to take a minute and zoom out to get a 10,000 foot view of philanthropy in rural spaces. And I’ve got just the guy to join me on that journey. Allen Smart has been working in philanthropy for decades, he spent a lot of time in the south; Louisiana and North Carolina, working with family foundations. But over the course of his career, he’s established himself as a guide and a thought leader in philanthropy, specifically around rural issues, and has done consulting work with philanthropic organizations around the country, I got connected to Allen through a partner philanthropy serving organization who said, Hey, you’re working in rural, you must know this guy, the one other guy I know working in rural – Allen grew up in rural Maine, and has held on to those roots in his work by pushing funders to think about how to better support rural communities. He’s written some great stuff about it. And we’ll share links to those pieces, as well as his work at PhilanthropywoRX, a transcript of this conversation, and more in our show notes at

Allen Smart: 1:12
I got really turned down to this idea that there was something significantly different about being effective in philanthropy when working in a rural place. And that if a funder did not acknowledge that, or have people, staff, boards, who could kind of lift that up and hold that with pride, that, you know, you’re you’re destined to be to be at best kind of transactional, and an additive at the fringes. But if you want to do something significant, you really had to recognize your you were in a different place. And philanthropy could be many things to many people, but had to had to call upon kind of a set of principles that would lend itself to being effective. So I think the landscape has changed. I like to say, there has always been, been a deep presence of family foundations in rural. And that continues to be the case, although certainly many of the family members who are associated with the real work no longer live in the places where the wealth was generated. So it’s very different than being you know, having people living in the same community and providing what many cases 50 or 75 years ago was a lot of, you know, very strong kind of charitable work was very associated with the family. And now often because the family members are not in the same place, has become more of a strategic effort that would, that would mirror the larger philanthropic community in many ways. But certainly, you know, as, as you might expect, there’s there is less rural philanthropy and philanthropy in general going on in a Wyoming or Nevada, or some places that I think we know, you know, that the popular sentiment would be, oh, well, those places have fewer people, there’s gonna be fewer philanthropic assets. But, you know, certainly there, there are places and I’ll use Louisiana as an example, which is, you know, almost infamously, you know, burdened by all sorts of resource issues, and you know, poor morbidity, mortality, and, and on and on from there They are going to have in the next 12 months, the creation of a $3 billion plus foundation for the sale of their statewide Blue Cross Blue Shield carrier to similar organization, but not one that’s locally based. So, even, even in a Louisiana there will be at least a proportional basis, a significant amount of philanthropic assets that didn’t exist before. {yea} And and, yeah, so, there, there are states where if I was asked, oh, who are the fill in the rural philanthropic leaders, whether it be individuals or foundations, and, and, you know, X state, there’s, there’s, there’s still, you know, kind of 15 because of population or just the heritage of how philanthropy evolved that are, that are not part of our normal conversation. But I think 10 or 15 years ago, that 10 or 15 number may have been 20 or 25. So there’s really, it’s improving in ways I think, that are really, that can be tracked and are, are going to be significant and how and look at kind of the philanthropy over the decades.

Erin Borla: 5:04
Yeah. So how do you think place affects the funding priorities and decision making? I mean, you’ve ,you’ve had your finger on the pulse. So how that impacts when you’re, when you’re not in a place?

Allen Smart: 5:17
Yeah, I, you know, I want to put a positive spin on it in that I think there are a significant number of funders who are urban based who are doing great rural work. But I’ll also say, it’s harder, and they are committed to it. But the ability to have staff who are routinely in rural places, whether they be literally have a, you know, a physical address, or that’s they’re just tasked with being there all the time, that gets you, you know, 75% of the way there. {Yeah} And, you know, the other 25% is, yeah, it gets me thinking of the strategy and best practice, and really what you want to do with those relationships. It’s like, how do you embed kind of just rurall knowledge, rural thinking and rural ethos into the everyday of a foundation that’s doing both urban and rural work? That you, you don’t have to segregate it in a way that, that puts it almost in competition internally to the foundation? About, you know, it’s a zero sum game. And well, if the rural people get more than, you know, our urban friends are not going to get more, they’re gonna get less. And yeah, and when you get into it, certainly at certain types of funders in certain geographies, that does become an internal staff discussion about so, we believed and said, we are really going to focus on these African American urban communities. And now you’re going to take money away from that, and you’re going to go find these rural white people, because somehow they have had a similar experiences or need to be attended to just as much. And I certainly know a number of funders where that is a, I think, real staff tension that people live every day. And you know, it never resolves, unfortunately. But I think that’s a, that’s a leadership issue. But I think it is important that funders, I am often, you know, when I do consulting with funders, I’ll say, you know, it would be great if you had kind of a rural quality of control person identified internally, where say, half their job was to make sure that everything from the RFP to the review process to how the program staff are deployed, puts rural communities in a in, a fair position, and counterpoint to, you know, larger, better resourced urban places. My least favorite form of rural philanthropy, but often the one that funders default to because it’s the easiest is to identify a couple of nonprofits or a couple of people, and essentially allow those people to define what work goes on and in a rural county, or, you know, a rural region, because they know how to speak to the funder. And the funder is comfortable with the idea they have someone who knows kind of how to have healthy traditional funder community relationship is supposed to go. And I have always been hesitant, and in some cases really opposed to this idea. That, that some, some people carry that, well, funders just need to put a lot more money into rural places. Because, the you know, it’s an equitable distribution now, and we go back to the data, all true. But the idea my, my belief would be quick infusions of enormous philanthropic resources, say over a five or 10 year period, and to most places will actually reinforce the status quo, because funders will default to the folks who know how to talk to them.

Erin Borla: 9:23
And it comes down to, you know, we talk a lot about volunteer boards in our organization. And what happens when you get a significant investment in a community that is wearing, a person’s wearing multiple hats, they’re doing multiple things. It blows the organization up from the inside out, because the reality of being on a board, if you look at the federal IRS regulations is, you’re fiscally responsible for that agency. So if you get a huge infusion of cash, and I’m not by any means advocating that rural communities don’t need more money, {of course,} we do need more money, we just need to do it thoughtfully. And a blank check or an open check, it can sometimes cause problems internally. And so it comes back to, to listening, to understanding, and really hearing what communities are saying. And recognizing as a funder, that one, we might screw it up. And that’s okay. If you know from the beginning, like, I’m gonna try this and see how it works. And if it doesn’t work, I need to own that, and try it in, in a different way. I mean, we’ve all had screw ups, right. I think the other piece that’s really interesting is sometimes it’s not the check that’s needed. I had and I use this example in other, in other things as well. But we, as we were growing and getting to know organizations, I had a meeting with a person that runs an organization in again, in northeast Oregon. And we met and we met, and we met multiple times, and then our grant application opportunity came up, and they didn’t apply. And I reached out and I said, Hey, we’ve been chatting a lot, you’re going to, I like you, I love what you’re doing. I, you know, I’m anxious to see how we can support you financially. And she reached back out and she said, I didn’t need your money, I needed the three connections that you gave me to these other organizations, I’m going to come back. And eventually as I build this, this process, I’ll come back to you for funding. But that was also this moment of like, oh my gosh, we just need rural is so, is, can be so far from where decisions are made about community that we get head down and focused on I just got it you know, in the food, I just gotta get food out the door to through the food bank. I just got to make sure people get access to basic needs, I just got to make sure my kids are well taken care of in my class. And it’s day by day, that we forget that other people have done this work in different places that may mirror what we’re doing and have had experiences. So building that sort of network of interconnectivity, I think is such a powerful move.

Allan 12:03
Well, I’ll bring you back to one of the first things we talked about, which is, I think, the exact illustration of what you described, which is, if funders are evaluating programs, staff, on them delivering grants, versus creating long term effective relationships in rural I don’t, I don’t think you can, can ever get anywhere. You know, {Yeah} your, your potential grantee, maybe five years from now, just described all the values you just provided. But in standard philanthropic measurement, you know, that, that person you in this case, kind of doesn’t get any credit for all, all these this relationship building? {Yeah.} When in fact, a different type of evaluation model or some different tracking mechanisms would allow, you know, folks who are talking to say, yeah, no, this was really valuable to us in these three distinct ways.

Erin Borla: 13:11
Yeah, you know, that’s super interesting, I think, I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of it that way. Where we as, as funders are evaluating our team members on, on hard applications, right? I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of it that way. We are we’re such a relational organization that I’m like, how many people did you talk to? Who else did you talk to? Who else is over there? What else do they do?

Allen Smart: 13:32
Yeah, I think it’s, it’s still the norm for most funders, that program staff only have a latitude, the latitude to you know, to a certain extent, to work with people or to talk with people or to help people who are not going to be grantees. {Yeah} You know, the emphasis is still so much on, you know, the end, the locus of effort, it was evidenced by grantmaking. And that’s just not a good rural fit. Because in the situation, you describe, it sounds like an organization of some sort, you know, some some kind of where with all is able to use information to kind of help themselves move ahead without a grant. In other cases, there may be no reason to ever make a grant to certain kinds of organizations or communities or efforts. But there may be a lot of reason to make sure that they have, you know, the that they can text the Chief of Staff to the congressman. The special phone number, and that’s, you know, and that’s the value you just created and I think that we really miss kind of forest for the trees, we have not figured out that grantmaking is not it. Nor is grantmaking to a to all sorts of statewide or national groups who then you say you’re going to do this rural work, or the work, essentially, the work is going to trickle down to rural. {Yeah} That’s now that that can certainly be effective, I think, primarily, and kinds of policy advocacy stuff that needs to be done, you know, perhaps on a state or federal level. But the easy way out is often yeah, we’ll fund fund the one statewide group or the one national intermediary to do work that’s going to hit local, in rural, and it’s, I think, reasonably rural people do not believe that’s going to happen.

Erin Borla: 15:37
Yeah. I think as we as we, you’ve touched on so many great things, which I just I love so much. But as we come to a close here, I want to talk about one of the articles that you recently wrote where you mentioned, and the title of it is “Think About Rural America As A Place And Not An Issue.” But I want to hear your, your thoughts around this piece.

Allen Smart: 15:58
Yeah, I think I’m really bent on this idea that if funders are going to be effective in rural, they need to understand not just the people, but for example, other funders. And who are most of the other funders? Mostly other funders or governmental. So if you in a vacuum are deciding, you’re going to, you know, invest, you know, in some rural county, half a million dollars, and, you know, early childcare, but don’t have an understanding of, you know, all kind of the moving parts of who’s paying for what, and who’s really left out. {Yeah} And, you know, and the fact that that actually relates to, you know, the pediatricians just left town, you know, all this, you know, this snowball kind of thing. That, that happens, and there used to be all this church based childcare, but the pastor left at that church, so it’s not happening there anymore. Now, there are all these things, we don’t actually understand the place and the history, and how all these issues intersect. I think the chances of any of your philanthropic work being sustained past a three year grant are slim to none. {Yeah} The work that will sustain is that, that gets embedded in a way that that kind of fits the capacity of the place. {Yeah} And it’s not a kind of an add on where you funded three new positions, you know, for some, some school based health clinic, and, you know, which no one will ever pay for again. But perhaps, you know, a melding of funds, and, you know, halftime across different, different places, and some family getting involved, and you know, beyond the groundwork of understanding what’s possible versus what’s easy for us to write a grant to issue a grant and say, look, you know, we’re really investing in this community.

Erin Borla: 18:00
Yeah and then you touch on the intersectionality of work. And, you know, I’ve been a trustee on this organization for almost 10 years, and staff are just about four. And it’s interesting to see, well, we don’t fund that we’re an arts funder. We don’t fund that we’re a climate {is amazing that still goes on}. It is remarkable to me, and it just doesn’t exist in rural. I mean, I have a staff member who would say the magic happens at the intersection. And I love that because it really, truly is true. Like, we can’t talk about education, like use your third grade literacy as an example, without talking about food security, without talking about transportation challenges, {clearly} without talking about broadband access, I mean, they’re all intersectional.

Allen Smart: 18:51
Yeah, I’m certainly sympathetic. And there are certain types of family foundations, certain type of legacy trusts and similar mechanisms where, you know, the issue stuff is embedded essentially in. in the legal aspects of the creation. But in having worked with some of those folks, you know, what I’m what I’m trying to get them to think about is okay, we can’t do grantmaking to you know, on that issue, but you could certainly be relationally helping the people you are doing grantmaking connect with those people. That’s, that doesn’t cost you anything. That’s not a legal

Erin Borla: 19:31
Relationship capital, I think is what someone said about so

Allen Smart: 19:33
Yeah, so every, everyone has an opportunity to do better in that kind of community building stuff that is not necessarily about a program or protocol. Is about long term commitment. And, and I you know, hate, hate to say it, but you know, you gotta you gotta love this stuff. It can’t just be something on your strategic plan. And that’s, that’s why I’m if I’m sure and we talk about this, what’s what’s the best thing someone you know funder could do to get better at rural? I said, well, think about hiring some rural people, on your staff and that’s gonna at least get you part of the way. You know, at least you’ll have someone to check your thinking,

Erin Borla: 20:22
What do you do? Are there other things that you want to share and ensure that as we go on this journey with encouraging people to build, to build rural strategies to have funders recognize that there are there’s governmental funding? And there’s other types of funding? What are the other things that you want to make sure that people leave with?

Allen Smart: 20:42
Yeah, I think it’s, it’s, it’s, it seems obvious, but it’s actually more difficult to do than it sounds. So I think you have to, you know, kind of, kind of put it on the list. I think you have to appear in this work. I think being a rural funder, or even a urban funder wants to do some rural work in most states, can be a very lonely experience. And, you know, you need others who are in similar situations, or maybe a year or two ahead of you. Or maybe you’re helping people who are a year or two behind you. That’s how I got so excited about this is that, you know, I was able to recruit kind of group of six or eight funders, and you know, sometimes the COs, sometimes the program person, who were either just a little ahead or at our stage or little little behind, and we were all excited, you know, but needed each other. Because, you know, what, what might look as, like a mistake to your board, you at least would be able to get some consolation from four other funders around the country, said, yeah, we did that. And it didn’t work out either. And here’s why. And here’s how we’re adapting.

Erin Borla: 22:06
Yeah. I think that’s great advice. And that’s something we talk to our staff about frequently is holding yourself with some grace, holding community with some grace, but in the end, showing up and connecting. And I love speaking the rural ethos, that rural thinking, bringing that voice and the values to the to the table so there’s lower barrier for entry and better accessibility. And I’m hopeful that’s something that we can explore in this podcast, I’m hopeful there’s opportunities for folks to build out some strategy that’s going to be impactful. And I just really appreciate you helping me start the conversation today. Allen, thanks so much.

Allen Smart: 22:44
Yeah, thanks, Erin, I’ve really appreciate getting to know you over the last three or four years. And I often point to you all as like these, these people are thinking hard about it. And you know, that’s, that’s half the battle.

Speaker 1 23:06
I think the most important thing I want to underline is that he talked about rural funders needing one another. I think funders in general need one another, this landscape, and philanthropy can be very, very lonely, it’s a very difficult well, I don’t want to use the word difficult, because it’s not a difficult job, we have a very easy job, the people on the ground have the difficult work. But I think it can be lonely. And it can come down to really needing others in the same field, to have conversations and bigger conversations that can help us guide the work that we do collectively. So finding those mentors, finding those colleagues that understand the world of philanthropy. Maybe that want to shift the world of philanthropy in a way that you may as well. That’s been a huge help for me is to have colleagues that I can call, oh, my gosh, I’m struggling or I’m stuck. Being able to have that funding resource. I’ve been very fortunate that the National Center for Family Philanthropy along with Wynn Rosser at TLL Temple have been able to put together the rural peer network, the funder peer network. And we’ve been able to come together and just have a space to talk about issues that we’re seeing in in rural spaces that funders are dealing with and how we can learn from one another. And that’s how we can really, really start changing some of these things that are happening. I liked that, that Allen really talked about a rural quality control person on staff, right, somebody ensures that, that the rural voice is being heard, or that the language is being said in a way that makes it accessible for community that may be farther away from from the urban center or the power center. And also, they mean, I think that’s a way that we tried to bring in our grant evaluation committee, where it’s folks from all across the state that help us look at different applications and say, hey, the way that you asked this question, it didn’t make sense, and that’s why they answered it this way. Getting that feedback from the field has been really helpful to our process and frankly made the process more inclusive. I really liked that Allen touched on thinking about evaluating our staff internally in the foundation world on a different way, rather than based on the metrics or the number of dollars, they get out the door, but really based on the relationships that are built, and the connections that are made. You know, as a supervisor of a grants team it’s one thing that we really encourage. We want people to get out on the road and we want people to talk to one another, and really learn and connect different communities that are, that maybe are doing those same projects. So how do we build those connections if we aren’t focused on building relationships? Thanks again, for tuning in to Funding Rural, be sure to check out Allen Smart: Smart site at PhilanthropywoRx. He has some really great information about all sorts of different papers that he’s written. He writes very casually and in a way that it’s really easy to understand and implement some of the work. I think he’s just a valued asset in this philanthropic community. As always, we’ll have show notes, a transcript for our show and links to other information at

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