Rural advocate organization is shutting down

Posted February 12, 2009

The Southern Rural Development Initiative, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that for 16 years has been a leading advocate for racial and economic justice in the rural South, will shut down on Feb. 20.

In a Feb. 10 letter to friends, the SRDI board said that, while the decision was "prompted by the current economic crisis and the uncertain funding climate, we know that this is the time to end our formal work as an organization."

Sandra Mikush, an SRDI board member, says the organization's decision to close reflects a larger failure on the part of organized philanthropy and the federal government to pay attention to the needs of rural America.

"There is so little support for rural areas," says Mikush, who is deputy director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem, one of SRDI's funders.

With the departure of SRDI, which pushed philanthropic and federal officials to "see the value and economic opportunities in the rural South and in rural areas," she says, "that role is greatly diminished, and there's no one to take up that mantle in the rural South."

Alan McGregor, SRDI's Asheville-based executive director, says that while the organization received strong support from Babcock and the Ford Foundation, "in the end, that didn't add up to be enough to sustain us at the level where we could really accomplish the mission we'd set out."

Operating with an annual budget of $700,000 and employing a staff of seven people, including four in Raleigh working full-time and one working part-time, and two in Asheville working full-time, SRDI has worked to build the capacity of the rural South and help rural communities address the issues of poverty and racism.

Two key accomplishments, says Mikush, were raising awareness of economic opportunity in the region and building the capacity of community-based groups, as well as building connections among them and to federal and national resources, both public and private.

Specifically, SRDI developed a "philanthropy index" that local communities can use to identify local philanthropic potential, and a "federal funds tool" they can use to identify federal rural funding and get more of it.

Mikush says SRDI will work to make sure those tools remain available to the region.

"It's very clear there are a lot of local and statewide organizations doing very good work and they will continue to do that very good work," she says.

She says the value of SRDI and its impact lay not only in the tools it has developed but in the expertise of the staff that developed them and helped rural communities use them.

She says SRDI, which grew out of efforts in the early 1990s to generate more philanthropic and federal dollars for community-based rural development, has been working in recent years to become an institution that could sustain itself for the long-term.

But in seeking the operating support, earned income and partners it needed to do that, she says, SRDI ran into a "perfect storm" because some potential funders were reassessing their own grantmaking and could not make long-term commitments, and many funders found themselves reluctant to make new commitments in the face of the recession.

McGregor says SRDI recently decided to focus 60 percent of its program resources, accounting for most of its budget, on the coastal plains of Georgia and the Carolinas, and was building strong partnerships there with community-based organizations.

"As we got more focused on a strategy and more focused on community-based organizations, we seemed to have fewer places to go for money," he says. "There are fewer funders who have that specific focus, working on grassroots community-based change in poor rural places."

SRDI's problem, he says, "wasn't as much driven by the economy as by the priorities in philanthropy at this point."


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