Building Funder Capacity to Work with Communities: A Rural Environmental Justice Case Study

View this Publication


When people and organizations in underinvested rural communities and Native nations seek funding for their work, they are often required to learn and use specific language, processes, practices, and measures of success to conform to funder expectations and systems. This process can be difficult, intimidating, and frustrating — and it requires community members to adopt strategies toward success metrics that don’t always match what the communities prioritize.

Recognizing this, some funders are shifting gears to learn communities’ language, processes, and practices, enabling more equitable partnerships and impactful projects that meet community needs.


Respectful engagement with rural communities and Native nations on their own terms is essential to environmental justice. Fair treatment and meaningful involvement require agencies and funders to build their own capacity to engage communities effectively. Some funders are working to build their capacities by learning from communities, shifting power to communities (trust-based philanthropy), and changing the way they operate to better meet community needs. Philanthropic funders, especially, are well-positioned to experiment with new models that can then be adopted and adapted by larger institutions like federal agencies. 

Featured in this case study: Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation in rural southeastern California is a leader in this movement, modeling and demonstrating ways to collaboratively build capacity across agencies, funders, organizations, and communities. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) is an example of a federal agency structure that can be leveraged to implement successful models.

“For me, it’s always been about developing trust through a community-building approach. What I’ve done is really looked at power building with the underinvested communities.”

Roque Barros, Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation

related resources

map icon
Regional Analysis and Action

Public and private policy, investment, and incentives encourage and stimulate collaborative regional action and the capacity of regional efforts to address shared cross-community economic, social, and health challenges and opportunities.

dollar bill stacked icon
Ready Rural Capital Access and Flow

Public, private, and philanthropic financial capital and durable funding streams are reliably available, easily accessible and affordable, and consistently and strategically invested in rural people, places, organizations, and economies.

equity graphic icon
Rural Stakeholder Equity

Governments, businesses, and institutions operated by individuals and owners outside rural communities establish balanced relationships that produce mutual and fair value for the rural community, Native nation, business, and worker stakeholders.

justice and document icon
Balanced Development Outcomes

Policymakers and investors in rural and Native people, places, and enterprises define and measure development success as decreasing economic and racial inequality and reducing poverty while building local wealth, sustainability, and resilience.

rural voices icon
Rural Voice in Design and Action

A robust, representative, diverse and powerful network of Native nation and rural leaders, practitioners, and doers consistently engage in advising and influencing narrative, policy design, and action agendas across sectors and levels of government.

Aspen CSG’s consultant Rebecca Huenink led the writing process for our What’s Working in Rural series. We are grateful for her contributions.

Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group
Latest From Aspen CSG
Steps Towards Equity: Voices from the USDA Equity Commission

Aspen CSG's analysis of the USDA Equity Commission's final report, plus quotes and insights from rural development leaders appointed to the commission.

Community Foundation Approaches to Housing Impact Investing

Apr. 29th, 2024, 2PM

Come share and learn how community foundations are finding innovative ways to use investment portfolios to partner with local developers & increase housing stock.

Case Study
Communities Need Safe Drinking Water: A Rural Environmental Justice Case Study

This short case study has insights on what will it take for rural communities to drive their own clean water solutions and breaks down the structural challenges that keep rural communities from accessing clean water solutions.

Agricultural fields at sunrise
Funders Shift Thinking to Meet Community Needs

Apr. 11th, 2024, 2PM

Fair treatment and meaningful involvement require agencies and funders to shift gears and meet communities where they are. What does it take to make this shift so that communities are treated fairly and meaningfully involved in the funding process?

Do New FEMA Rule Changes Align with Equity Principles?

FEMA announced big changes to federal disaster assistance programs. Do these changes create more equitable outcomes for communities after natural disasters?

Broadband technician working
Broadband Resources

A collection of broadband resources for funding, advocacy, and community program opportunities for rural community leaders.