Ray Daffner, Appalachian Regional Commission

What started your interest in Economic Development?

I started out as a biochemist doing research in labs and did that for a couple years and though it was intellectually interesting, I found it to be isolating to be doing a lot of work in research labs, so I started to look around at different communities for work and there was a group in NC called Self-Help, which had two employees at that time. Self-Help was doing a lot of interesting business development work and said, ‘Well, you know,  if you want to do this kind of stuff, community based economic development, business formation, cooperatively owned business, and employee owned business, there is this really good business school you can go to.’ So I went and got my MBA and continued my career with the private sector, non-profits, and government all around the idea of working with business and economic development.  I have been involved in some business start-ups, venture financing, and led non-profit organizations in other parts of the country around economic development and business formation, and now I am in a role with a public entity. 

What has spurred your interest and investment in Central Appalachia?

I work for the Appalachian Regional Commission, so by statute by Congress, we focus our investments in Appalachia. Congress requires the Appalachian Regional Commission to extend a substantial portion of our resources to the most economically distressed portions of Appalachia, which tend to fall within Central Appalachia. That is our mission. My personal interest is that I think business and enterprise development is an important tool in underserved areas to address the challenges communities face.  If communities can have the economic wherewithal—whether that’s income for individuals building their assets for families or robust businesses that spawn new enterprises—that infrastructure in the communities can help address the many other problems, such as health and educational problems.

What do you like about working with the Network?

I think what I like about working with the Network, more than anything, is being able to appreciate different skillsets, different perspectives, and approaches that members bring. Some of them might have really interesting strengths in the way they lead groups/teams, and the way they think about program development.  I appreciate working with a group of peers that are really good at what they do and that I can learn from. The personal skillsets that each individual brings to the table is interesting and I enjoy learning from folks about how they go about doing what they do. For example, a number of folks have really tremendous group dynamic skills and I appreciate the way they sort through what needs to happen. Bringing together all of these skills to do things as a group that we cannot do individually can create deeper and lasting impact in the Region.

What are the investment needs in Appalachia and what are the opportunities to bring various projects together to identify and leverage investments?

The investment needs are many in the area. It has experienced significant disinvestment over decades and decades. This disinvestment comes in the form of healthcare systems, education systems, and natural resources revenues that are not reinvested into the region. But there are a huge number of opportunities to invest in the region too. Some of the emerging opportunities in the region are around the key sectors The Funders Network has identified. New energy opportunities, for instance, whether those are around energy efficiency, which has only received limited investment in Central Appalachia, or renewable energy, which is ripe for additional investment. Other investment needs are in the healthcare sector to address the challenges in the region such as the limited per capita service that is provided in Appalachia when compared to the nation.

Additionally, I think there is a huge opportunity to invest in the natural resource and natural amenities in the region, though this isn’t a particular focus of the Appalachia Funders Network. If we look at rural areas across the country, there are communities that have done a tremendous job of investing in their communities and attracting people to these beautiful rural areas. And Central Appalachia is beautiful and it’s proximate to urban areas. So, what can we do to invest and help protect that natural beauty and to make it appealing to folks? I think these types of investments—preserving the beauty of Appalachia while making it appealing to people, coupled with investments in education, healthcare, high speed internet access and entrepreneurship will make it much more attractive for development that will create and sustain infrastructure in the region.

Is there any particular quote that influences your thinking about philanthropy, community development, or social change?

When I’m not sure about what to do next or am a bit confused, I take the two block walk from my office to the Indian Embassy. In front of the Embassy, is a statue of Gandhi. And on the base of the statue is his Talisman quote. So when I am confused about things, I go over there and read the Talisman quote and it becomes much clearer what I should do next.  The quote says, ‘When you’re uncertain and unsure what to do, and your self becomes too much, think about how your actions will affect the poorest of those that you seek to serve, how your action will give them a sense of respect and self-reliance.  Then you will find your doubts and self melt away ’.  In many ways I have found this to be very helpful advice over the years.