"The Funders Network has been the place where I’m among people who know that Appalachia matters."
How did you first become interested in philanthropy?
I am a social worker by background and training. I’ve spent almost three decades working in communities to reduce health disparities and improve the lives of those around me. At first, I was on the other side of the funder-practitioner equation. I was the one who wrote the grants to better serve people in West Virginia. In this role, I sought philanthropy as a partner and began to build relationships with funders.
I taught grant writing in communities and at WVU, because I saw nonprofits seeking grants were struggling to tell their stories. The passion and need were there, but people needed more support to tell the issues of the people they served to foundations. Through this work, I saw that it’s really through collaborative effort that we make greater impact: when I engaged with partners across sectors, we worked strategically to solve the needs of the whole community. Otherwise, it’s maybe not the neediest project, but the best grant writer, who receives the grant award.
Later, I worked for a community foundation in WV (Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation). I was involved in a broad range of areas and saw a much wider impact through the work to strengthen community development. As Senior Program Officer, I managed donor advised & designated fund grants and discretionary grants focused on arts, recreation, health and human services, and education. Then, I moved into a different type of funding role when I ran the state AmeriCorps program for the Governor’s office. There we had a range of projects that created read-aloud programs, initiatives to prevent summer learning loss, programs working with homeless, and community revitalization. Previously, I was fortunate to run a couple of AmeriCorps and VISTA programs in West Virginia. These AmeriCorps programs were of great leadership value, and one of the best jobs programs for communities that I have seen. I saw many single moms come into the program with no prior job experience and really blossom through the program. It’s amazing what happens to communities when you empower a bunch of moms and watch them lead.
Now, I am the Health and Human Services Program Officer at the Benedum Foundation, and have a statewide focus. I’ve spent about 15 years in three different kinds of philanthropy: community foundation, for the state, and now in a private foundation setting.
What do you see as the role of philanthropy in the Appalachian transition?
I’ve been in West Virginia my whole life; I have been lucky to live in the heart of Appalachia. I think Appalachia sometimes gets written off by many in government. It suffers from the pervasive perception that Appalachia is embedded in poverty and progress is hopeless. It’s also too small in population to bring in the same amount of impact on numbers of people as denser areas may, so it’s often less attractive for those federal dollars. Conversely, others may write off Appalachia because they perceive us as having big challenging issues that they think they don’t have enough money to fix.
Well, philanthropy is an answer to those challenges of perception, because we have the opportunity to highlight all the successes that exist. There are great things happening in every hollow, yet the people are so busy working towards those successes that they don’t toot their own horn. Philanthropy can be the region’s story teller; we can shine the light on the positive things happening in this wonderful place where we live. Philanthropy can also lift up the best practices we learn, share our knowledge base, and get people to the table to push for fair and equitable access to resources. Philanthropy can provide upfront financial support to build the capacity of communities, convene diverse actors, tell the story of successes, and evaluate projects to prove that they are indeed impactful.
Can you tell me about how you first got involved with the Appalachia Funders Network?
The Benedum Foundation was one of the original organizers of the Network. And it was my coworker, Mary Hunt who was more involved. At first, it was focused on economic development. I asked, “What about health?” Health matters for economic development because people need to believe they have economic opportunities as they go through school, so that they don’t pursue more risky behaviors. I came to the 2012 Gathering in Berea, KY to push the integration of health and economic development, because after all, we need healthy places to live, work and play. We call it “health in all policies” in the health world. Health can also be a driver for economic transition as a lot of money is spent in the region to build up the healthcare sector. Health didn’t get traction until the 2013 Gathering in Asheville (which I didn’t get to attend) when it became a working group.
Since then, we’ve been building the health workgroup, and it is really interesting to see the intersections with the other workgroups like the food systems working group; because we both have interests in supporting the population’s access to good, nutritious food.
The Funders Network has been the place where I’m among people who know that Appalachia matters. I sometimes struggle with some of the national funder associations we belong to because I think they write off Appalachia and Rural. At national conferences, if you say you’re from West Virginia, people walk away because they assume you have nothing relevant to share if you’re not from a city like Chicago or New York. I enjoy being with like-minded people who believe that all lives matter - including Appalachian lives.
How has your involvement with the Appalachia Funders Network influenced or affected your work as a Program Officer with the Benedum Foundation?
I’m naturally a collaborative person, so engaging in the Network is an extension of how I work. I value the partnership with other funders. We all have knowledge, skills and connections to national efforts; and we have more leverage when we use those things together. This peer network allows us to bounce ideas off each other, share best practices and ask tough questions. It strengthens my role as program officer because I learn from others, and they kindly share useful information.
Trust is a big thing. I know I can call anyone in the Network and not worry about competition or common understanding, because we recognize that this is a group of people that want collective impact to promote the region and then bring that back to our grantees and potential grantees.
What inspired you to serve on the Gathering Planning Team this year?
I’m thrilled to serve on the conference team, partly because it’s in West Virginia, my home state. I get to bring local resources to bear and offer my knowledge of the area because I know the state. I’m excited that this year will be the strongest integration across the working groups because that’s what I’ve been wanting to do all along with health: integrate our knowledge to come to collective strategies across sectors that do more. This year, we’re spending more time at a deeper level across the working groups to get to know the work that each of us are privileged to so each day.
What excites you most about this year’s Gathering?
I mentioned it above – it’s the integration of all the working groups’ learning. When each working group works in isolation, we’re missing things. I’m excited that this year will connect us.
What do you like to do in your free time?
First and foremost, I like to spend it with family because I work and travel so much. I am blessed that my parents who are in their 80’s live 40 miles up the road. They still live on the farm I grew up on, so when I’m there, I get to drive tractors, bale hay, talk to the cows, and get dirty. I’m an outdoor girl. I even build in stops during work travel to take walks and be outside. I also love to garden, grow flowers and feed and watch the birds.