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Relationships, Discernment and the Home Place

sprig by Posted in Blandin Foundation, Rural Capacity Building, Vibrant Rural

Today we welcome guest blogger Matt Rezac, director of rural community partnerships at the Sherwood Foundation in Omaha, Neb., and former Blandin Foundation staff member. He shares comments on a recent Nebraska-Minnesota rural philanthropy learning tour.

Two dozen rural community philanthropists from Nebraska hear from Blandin Foundation staff about how philanthropy plays out in this part of rural America.

A couple years ago, my wife and I made a difficult decision to leave tremendous personal and professional circumstances in Grand Rapids, Minn., and move to Nebraska where I grew up.  For me, this was a chance for our nuclear family to participate in my home place, where much of my large extended family lives.  And it’s great to be home!  It was also a pleasure to return recently for a Minnesota rural philanthropy learning tour with a busload of colleagues from across Nebraska affiliated with the Nebraska Community Foundation.  The trip has prompted some of the following musings on the art and science of rural philanthropy.

It’s About Relationships
Positive community change flows through lines of relationship.  It’s not channeled through a great idea or a proven-program-model-from-the-coast or expert technical advice.  Through relationships, shared intention can be formed, accountability held, promising ideas surfaced and revised, differing perspectives adapted, and mutual commitment proven.  Relationships allow limitations to be frankly acknowledged and met with finely-tuned support, while potential is recognized and matched with genuine opportunity.  They are where wisdom is learned, applied and passed forward.  Relationships provide the feedback that creates high touch:  when to lead and when to follow, when to mandate and when to nurture.  They are the social compost where positive community change grows.  This is essential because:

Money Doesn’t Do Much by Itself
Leadership consultant Kathy Allen compares money with sunlight.  Here on Earth, the Sun’s energy is transformed into a multitude of things that support life.  But when sunlight falls upon the moon, life does not result.  The difference is photosynthesis.  Likewise, the challenge for philanthropy is to transform dollars by investing in activities that truly support community life and not in things that are simply pretty, like the moon on a clear night.  But how does photosynthesis work in philanthropy?  I think it involves the ability to listen deeply to a wide variety of perspectives, which together reveal where real challenges and emerging innovations are rooted in community experience.  It is self-awareness of limits and curiosity to walk into the unknown.  It is the humility to ask for help and get out of the way.  It is less like a planning process and more like a jazz performance of conversation, asking questions, making guesses, and having fun while striking at hot irons.  Philanthropic photosynthesis is a public discernment among people who know their futures are intertwined.  Perhaps above all, it’s remembering that:

Being There Matters

The biggest disadvantage to my Nebraska work is I don’t live in a rural community anymore.  I’m based in Omaha (think: warm Minneapolis), which is not big but definitely not rural.  As an outsider, vital underlying community dynamics– personalities, intertwined pasts, multi-layered intersections of community roles—are opaque to me.  But they create a sort of unseen contour that any community effort must fit and emerge from in order to succeed.  Perhaps the best that can be done—for an outsider or someone in their own home place–is unleash local curiosity, rely on local expertise and support local capacity for self-determination.  I put stock in those whose life energy rises each morning and is cycled into creating the experience of their place.

Just like the good folks who hosted a busload of Nebraskans in Minnesota.


The Nebraska-Minnesota philanthropy learning tour included representatives from the Norfolk Area Community Foundation Fund, Nebraska City Community Foundation, Shickley Community Fund and McCook Community Foundation meeting with folks from Minnesota’s West Central Initiative Fund, Central Minnesota Community Foundation, and Blandin Foundation.

Matt Rezac is Director of Rural Community Partnerships for the Sherwood Foundation in Omaha, NE.  He seeks to pass forward the best of the places people call home, including and especially his own.

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