Monday, July 30, 2012

Working Together for Maximum Impact: NeighborWorks Rural Initiative

David Dangler,
NeighborWorks America,
director of Rural Initiatives

 The NeighborWorks Rural Initiative in 2012 is a far cry from the dozen or so rural groups who came together in the early days of the NeighborWorks network. Now there are 91 organizations participating in the Rural Initiative – and they include many of the network’s most productive members. In 2011, Rural Initiative members made direct investments into their combined communities of over $1.574 billion in 45 different states. When we drill down into the statistics, we find the Rural Initiative members are consistently in the top 25 producers in the NeighborWorks America network. This is supported by the data below, taken from a recent report on the NeighborWorks America Network entitled "It Takes a Network." All data is for 2011.

These high production figures become even more impressive when measured against the relative size and population density of many of the communities being served. For example, Wyoming Housing Network (WHN) runs a statewide program which created more new homebuyers in 2011 than any other NeighborWorks chartered network member. That in itself is impressive, but the story is larger than that. For many of the rural communities WHN served, their new homebuyers represented a significant percent of the total market activity. To illustrate, let’s use a purely fictional town we’ll call Antelope Falls, Wyoming which represents real towns I’ve seen throughout our rural network. There may have been only 10 total first time homebuyers in Antelope Falls in 2011, and of that 6 people were buyers educated by WHN – meaning WHN’s work affected 60% of the total market. In many urban environments the total number of homebuyers educated might be larger, but the percentage impact on the market is often smaller.

Another key element of the Rural Initiative network’s success has been collaboration across markets and lines of business. For example, we’ve been working closely with CFED and the  Ford Foundation to create asset-building opportunities with factory built housing in rural and urban environments.  These efforts have supported two of the most innovative and impactful social enterprises in the community development field ROC USA and Next Step. ROC USA helps residents purchase their manufactured home parks from absentee owners, and Next Step helps to replace substandard manufactured homes with Energy Star rated factory built homes. To succeed, both ROC USA and Next Step rely upon the NeighborWorks network for key lines of business – community building and organizing, home ownership education and training, rental property development and management and affordable lending.
Members of the NeighborWorks Rural Initiative, Rural LISC
and RCAC at the June conference in Visalia, California
Another key program component, which our partners have come to rely upon, is the rigor of the NeighborWorks standards for evaluating lines of business and organizational health.  Our member organizations are assessed regularly and measured against their peers and industry standards.  In addition, NeighborWorks Rural Initiative members share best practices with one another at events like this year’s June rural conference in Visalia, California. At this event, we not only collaborated within our own network, but also with two other major rural networks – Rural LISC and the Rural Communities Assistance Corporation (RCAC).

Looking ahead, we’re excited about expanding our asset-building strategies to include rural rental housing and a range of green applications that will be good for both built and natural environments. I’ll be writing more about these efforts in future blogs so stay tuned. You can subscribe by entering your email in the right side of this page.