Cultivating Belongingness: The work of a rural community foundation

People Talking

The Wayne County Community Foundation was founded in 1991 as part of the perpetual “Ben Franklin Trust,” established to be used to benefit the citizens of the Commonwealth. As Franklin had written in his will, “I wish to be useful even after my death.” He certainly was and is.

On December 17th, 1990, Governor Robert P. Casey signed Act 1990-173 into law, approving the then sum of $834,000 to be distributed to Community Foundations in Pennsylvania. The Wayne County Community Foundation, founded by a group of community volunteers, applied for a distribution from this fund and was awarded nearly $20,000 in 1995, establishing what is now the Ben Franklin Community Service Award. The foundation ran as a volunteer service for about fifteen years. Today, the foundation boasts a staff of four and assets nearing $12,000,000.

What is the work of such a community foundation that sits in one of the least-populated counties in the state, one with a rapidly aging population? Wayne County has approximately 51,000 residents as of the 2020 census, 4,500 of whom live in the county seat of Honesdale, PA. With about 70 people per square mile, it’s a widely dispersed population. 

I sat down with President and CEO of the Wayne County Community Foundation, Ryanne Jennings, to dig in on the particular challenges facing a rural community foundation. Ryanne is an experienced nonprofit professional, having moved out of Wayne County after growing up here to live and work in Philadelphia for a time. Upon her return she took over as the Executive Director of the Cooperage Project, a nonprofit in Honesdale, PA. In October, 2019, she took over at the community foundation. 

So, what are the main problems facing a rural community that a community foundation seeks to engage with? It comes down to trying to instill and provide opportunity for meaning and belongingness for its residents. As Ryanne put it, “The sense of belonging in a place, it’s not just frou-frou, it impacts whether or not you get involved with a civic association. It impacts whether you choose to give your money back to that community.” If that is not present, “You might give your money to where you grew up, or went to college, where you did feel that you belonged.”

In order to drive this sort of identification with Wayne County, the community foundation convenes givers, doers, and the general public. Of course, mere convention will not fully bring about this change. It requires building, or perhaps rebuilding, the thing with which one might identify. This is precisely the work of the community foundation. 

Creating roots for newcomers is not the only people problem Wayne County (and numerous other rural communities) is facing. What has come to be known as “Brain Drain” is alive and well here in Wayne County. As Ryanne puts it, this was perceived to be a place where “people stayed if they had to stay or if they failed and we want to shift that narrative.”

Ryanne told me, “As a community foundation, we are talking about, we are trying to figure out how we can fund programs . . . that help people feel like they have roots here and want to put their stakes in the ground here.” So, what do some of those programs look like? 

One such program, which seeks to raise awareness for local groups, raise funds, and provide opportunities for networking and knowledge sharing, is NEPA (Northeastern Pennsylvania) Gives. NEPA Gives is a one-day “giving extravaganza,” Ryanne tells me. There is friendly competition at play to see which nonprofit is able to raise the most funds in that time frame. It is led by the Scranton Area Community Foundation in partnership with Wayne County Community Foundation and six other community foundations. The event also includes an in-person gathering to allow for networking among donors and nonprofits alike. 

Additionally, during her time at the Cooperage Project, Ryanne helped to start the “Pop-up Club” program here in Honesdale. This is an after-school program for middle schoolers aimed at changing the narrative that causes Brain Drain. Ryanne told me that it “connects middle schoolers with different entrepreneurs and business owners in their communities to help build relationships and understand that there are interesting and awesome opportunities here in their home community.” The goal of this program is “to try to change the narrative that this is just a crap place that you want to leave and never come back.” I find this program particularly inspiring given the meaning and freedom that entrepreneurship can give to a young person. Being aware of these opportunities can truly change their life. Not only does the program make kids aware of these opportunities, it helps to instill a certain pride in their community and the many great people and organizations at work in this area. 

Ryanne also told me of a summer camp the foundation is helping to fund with Johnson College this year. The college will bring a truck to one of our local community spots and teach middle schoolers about different trades and the work they involve. The program is already fully booked due to a grant from the Foundation to pay the tuition of students.

On the giving side of the equation, there is a particularly strong opportunity for Wayne County and other rural communities to take advantage of the power of planned giving. As has been noted in these pages before, the planned gift (especially the estate bequest) is the major gift of the middle class. Wayne County is solidly middle class with a median household income of around $56,000. 

The Wayne County Community Foundation is working to inspire givers and educate doers to take advantage of this opportunity to raise awareness of planned giving options and by making the distribution of those gifts easy through the community foundation itself. As we have seen, there are many projects going on, and opening up the potential floodgates of an aging middle class through planned giving presents a huge opportunity for rural communities. 

We can talk ad nauseum about inclusion, being welcoming to newcomers, and keeping our talented young people from leaving. At the end of the day, though, it all boils down to two things: 1) having something that is attractive for people to identify with (something I would say we have and is only getting stronger), and 2) helping people know that we have that! Strong community and opportunity is one thing; perceived strong community and opportunity is quite another. As the old saying goes, perception is reality.

The Wayne County Community Foundation has set its sights on these. It is a journey not yet completed, perhaps never completed, but it’s exactly the road a community foundation should be taking and a model for other rural foundations across the country: creating and supporting real value and community in the county and ensuring that value is communicated to our young and newcomers alike.

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