Recap From The Road

Solutions from the Ground: Reflections from Appalachia Funders Network Convening 

Written by SAFSF Communications Director Maggie Mosley 

During April, I traveled to Charleston, West Virginia for the annual Appalachia Funders Network (AFN) Convening, entitled Climbing the Mountains: Uniting Resources Inspiring Action, which brought together 165 funders, and a handful of non-profit and social enterprise practitioner leaders.  For me, it felt like a homecoming; all my growing years and my career in food and farm systems started in Appalachian Kentucky. For those who may not be familiar, the Appalachian region covers a geography of 13 states from southern New York to northern Mississippi, with the bulk of the region represented in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. During the convening, I was reminded of the region’s resiliency and how invested Appalachians are in projects that create and support a new economy beyond coal. Over the last few years, that dedication and resilience have grown even more while communities try to rebuild after disastrous floods, pointing to the larger issue we are all facing: climate change. 

Invest Appalachia (IA) published an incredible climate analysis last year that articulates climate crisis implications, projections, and solutions for the Central Appalachian region. I was surprised to see that “despite increased rates of severe flooding and other climate-related challenges, the Appalachian region is relatively well-poised for climate change-linked in-migration in the coming decades.” However, the report goes on to share that in-migration stemming from the climate crisis, presents a significant opportunity for funders to invest in rural communities as viable and necessary economic development hubs for changing demographics. Increased opportunity for investment also comes with the risk of “rural gentrification” which is a challenge for low-income and under-resourced people already living in the region.  Funders and investors can use this report to more deeply understand what is happening in Central Appalachia and what community-based solutions could use support so that together we can “build equitable markets, increase resilience, and safeguard our future”. 

Appalachian Community Capital’s (ACC) President and CEO, Donna Gambrell announced at AFN’s Convening that her organization was “selected for a $500 million award from the EPA Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund CCIA program to catalyze green energy investments in low-income rural communities impacted by declines in the fossil fuel industry. ACC is using that funding to create  The Green Bank for Rural America which will provide financing and technical assistance to underserved rural communities across the country while prioritizing 582 Appalachian counties and Native communities. 

One keynote that particularly stood out was by Stephaine Tyree, Executive Director of The West Virginia Community Development Hub, who shared their recent report Barriers to Federal Investment in Rural Communities which shares survey findings from development practitioners in West Virginia who solicit federal funding. Notably, the survey found that “52% of …respondents highlighted [federal] match requirements as the primary barrier to their community seeking and receiving federal awards.” Federal agencies use matching funds as a demonstration of an organization’s dedication to a project as a form of risk management. “However, for distressed and rural communities,” the report states, “a lack of capital match severely discredits a community’s need, commitment and desire to successfully complete a project.” To address this issue, the organization challenged the Appalachian Regional Commission to “create new funding programs to pilot new match reduction strategies” and include “language in Notice of Funding Opportunities that expressly states available processes for seeking match waivers for applicable programs.” Both these tactics could be employed by private philanthropy as well to empower more small rural nonprofits to better compete with their larger, urban counterparts for federal funding. 
In one day, I was reminded of the beauty that exists when a room full of passionate people convene in their home region. I was impressed by how funders and grantees interacted with respect and trust in a way where it didn’t seem like the two groups were separated by the clear power dynamic that exists. I loved the reconnection, but more than that I felt an overwhelming amount of pride for the work shared and appreciation for the funders who are continually supporting it.