Rural Partnership Program: an opportunity for community-driven development

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to share this guest post from  Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.

By Emery Cowen, Becca Shively, and Tyson Bertone-Riggs, Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition staff

Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition is a network of rural, community-based organizations and allies dedicated to improving land management practices and policies so that they equitably work for both human and natural communities. 

We support collaborative planning, project implementation, and policy solutions on both public and working lands. As part of this work, we partner with entities like the Rural Assembly to amplify rural perspectives and priorities within federal decision-making spaces.

Our coalition has long advocated for improved federal funding to support the needs of rural communities. This includes flexible investments that can best meet locally defined needs and that recognize the important bridging role nongovernmental organizations play in small, rural communities. 

Today, we have an opportunity to see those needs addressed through the proposed Rural Partnership Program (RPP) included in the Congressional reconciliation package.

What is the Rural Partnership Program?

The RPP proposal would allocate $4 billion over the next ten years to a new, flexible grant program to support rural community development, including in Tribal Nations. The proposed program has two parts: grants to support direct activities and projects, and grants to support the organizations responsible for providing technical assistance and capacity to administer the grants. 

The Rural Prosperity Development Grant Program – the majority of the funding – would offer multi-year, flexible funding designed to offer long-term investments for community-driven rural development. A second, complementary Rural Prosperity Innovation Grant Program would fund organizations that support Rural Prosperity Development Grant recipients, allowing them to provide capacity and technical assistance. The RPP offers a new, potentially transformative model for USDA Rural Development that would represent a major win for rural communities and the organizations that serve them. 

Why we care:

A cornerstone objective of this program is to provide equitable access to federal funding to traditionally underserved rural areas. The program is built flexibly to fund diverse, community-driven priorities that promote economic resilience and recovery. Grants are multi-year and are available to a range of partnerships, including those between local governments, non-profits, for-profits, institutions of higher education, and other community-based organizations. The program has been designed to minimize barriers to access and reach the communities that need it most. For example: 

  • Grant funding will be allocated to areas based on a formula that considers poverty and rurality, ensuring funding will target rural communities with the greatest needs.
  • Funding is delivered through grants, not loans, which are especially useful to underserved communities that may struggle to access capital through lending opportunities.
  • Grant dollars can be used for organizational operating expenses, planning costs, technical assistance, and capacity for tasks like grant writing and financial management — all crucial activities for successful rural development efforts that often prove difficult to fund through other sources.  
  • By investing in organizational capacity, the funding positions communities to seek out and apply for other public or private funding opportunities that can support additional progress toward their goals.
  • The program includes flexibility in matching requirements that are often a barrier for lower-resourced applicants and communities. Features include waivers to the 25% match for applicants or areas of severe economic distress, the ability to meet match with in-kind contributions, and the ability for a portion of the grant funding to be used to satisfy other federal matching requirements.

 

The future of the Rural Partnership Program:

The RPP proposal is just that for now — a proposal. With some members of Congress calling for cuts to overall funding in the reconciliation package, the fate of RPP is undecided. Now is a critical time to show support for the creation of RPP as a transformative investment in both rural and Tribal communities, and in the way USDA Rural Development operates grant programs. 

What you can do to show support for RPP:

Advocacy from rural constituents is needed to get this program over the finish line. To show your support for the RPP, email or call the office of your local federal elected official (Representative and Senators) to share with them how important you think the creation of the RPP would be in their district/state.

Outreach is most important to…

● Democrats serving on the Senate or House Agriculture committees

● Moderate members – anyone in the Blue Dog Caucus

● Any member up for re-election whose district includes rural areas

What to mention:

  • The importance of this program as an investment in economically distressed small towns that enables rural communities to decide for themselves how to achieve long-term prosperity.
  • The need to keep the program at current funding levels. With 60 million people living in rural communities – or about 20% of the US population – $4 billion represents less than $7 per person per year over the life of the funding.
  • When possible, give a specific idea of projects in your community that could be funded by this program, or a general issue that could be addressed in the elected official’s district or state.

The proposed RPP offers an important new vision for how to support rural economic development – through empowering community-led solutions, developing collaborative capacity, and recognizing the critical role of local nonprofits and other technical assistance providers in these efforts. We hope you’ll join us in expressing support for this vision.

To learn more:

See the recent article by Tony Pipa and Natalie Geismar for the Brookings Institute or contact RVCC staff with questions:

Tyson Bertone-Riggs can be reached at Tyson@wallowaresources.org

Becca Shively can be reached at ay Becca@wallowaresouces.org 

RVCC engages in policy, peer-learning, and communications work that aims to find and promote solutions that support the health of rural landscapes and communities through collaborative, place-based work. RVCC is also a member of RA’s team of strategic advisors. For more information about RVCC, visit ruralvoicescoalition.org. 

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