Connecting the Silos: Building a Rural Grants Program

Introduction

Rural America has long struggled economically (Flora & Flora, 2013): it is often portrayed as deteriorating downtowns, closed factories, and declining populations. These circumstances provide tremendous opportunity for development work. However, not surprisingly, rural communities have long lagged behind their urban counterparts in development efforts. In a recent report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service estimated that the value of U.S. foundation grants to benefit rural areas was 6% to 7% of total domestic grants in 2010. This correlates with research findings that large foundations awarded $88 per capita (2010 dollars) in rural areas, as opposed to $167 per capita in metropolitan counties. While there is little data on exactly how much federal and state money goes toward rural projects, the continued decline of rural areas across the U.S. would also indicate that rural agencies do not receive as much federal or state funding as is needed (Shah, 2014). Yet, more than 20% of the U.S. population lives in a rural designated area (Cromartie & Bucholtz, 2008).

The definition of “rural” is perceived often as a simple one, with a pastoral image of an open field, swaying grass, cows in a pasture, and a quaint small town in the background. However, from a government agency standpoint, more than a dozen definitions of the word currently exist (Cromartie & Bucholtz, 2008). The Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) reports that most definitions of “rural” utilized by government agencies are based on geographic units (Coburn et al., 2007) and fail to capture many of the cultural and environmental elements of rural communities.

Cromartie and Bucholtz (2008) note that when additional elements are used to describe rural communities, the common tendency is to describe the fundamental and inherent features of these communities rather than the characteristics they share. Some of the most common mutual characteristics include small size, sparse settlement, limited choices (employment, shopping, services, education, and healthcare), distance from population concentrations, limited educational attainment, and an economic base that often relies on traditional occupations such as agriculture or manufacturing (Monk, 2007).

Other commonalities reflect the environmental and cultural aspects of rural communities. For example, their geographic isolation can result in a common unwillingness to work with outsiders (Flora & Flora, 2013). Communities looking for funding often do not have a comfort level in asking about grant opportunities from outside agencies, such as their state governments. The members of these communities may also be unwilling to work together if they cannot agree on how to move forward. Small groups formed around political, religious, or social beliefs—all with their own agendas—are common in rural communities (Brown, 2011).

In addition, fear of change and innovation resulting from the presence of long-established employers who have provided jobs across multiple generations may slow progress in rural (Ohio University, 1993). A rural community whose livelihood has been built on one or two industries may fear outside organizations offering unfamiliar opportunities or opportunities that could potentially threaten existing means of employment. Rural nonprofit agencies can be similarly hesitant about change: many exhibit fear and reluctance to phase out or change long-standing programs (Zimmerman & Bell, 2015).

Many rural communities are also experiencing a loss of young talent or “brain drain”; many youth leave their hometowns looking for opportunities more readily available in urban areas (Shah, 2014). Population loss, particularly among those from 25 to 35 years in age, continues to be a trend in most of rural America (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). According to Henderson (2015), “although 759 rural counties in 42 states lost population between 1994 and 2010, more than 1,300 rural counties in 46 states have lost population since 2010.” Many who stay often view advanced education as a low priority, leaving the skill base stagnant and the community without the capacity to support innovation and economic development.

 

Rural Challenges and Development Barriers

These characteristics of rural environments make advancement of any kind difficult. They translate to overarching barriers that impede a rural community’s ability to seek funding to facilitate development (Flora & Flora 2013), including the following:

  1. Limited human resources to get projects started. Small communities often have fewer human resources to develop and coordinate development projects (Global Change, 2014) due to low levels of skill sets and “brain drain.” An individual must coordinate the project team and look for a qualified person to coordinate the project and support project activities. Development, fundraising, or grant seeking activities may not be at their best—or even be possible—simply because few have the time, knowledge, or funds to hire others to focus on these activities. These limited human resources result in rural agencies receiving less grant funding than their urban counterparts (Pender, 2015).
  1. Limited funds to get projects started. Most rural communities have significantly less financial capital to leverage for outside or contractor support for grant research and proposal writing (Cohen, 2014). Furthermore, if no matching funds or donors are willing to support projects, then success with larger grants, when matching funds are required, becomes even more difficult. Today, funders often expect some level of matching funds and broad collaboration with community partners (Cohen, 2014).

 

  1. Limited knowledge about grants and competition. Because of their isolation and limited human resources, rural community organizations and agencies often have limited knowledge of a broad base of funders. They are, therefore, competing with urban counterparts with more talent, resources, and funding. This places them at a disadvantage in understanding the level of innovation that today’s funders look for in grant projects, particularly evidence-based delivery models or in activities used to engage a population (Reschovsky& Staiti, 2006).
  2. Limited capacity. Management standards by federal, state, and private agencies require increased time and reporting for managing grants (U.S. Accountability Office, 2016). Rural agencies often do not have the federal or state experience to fully understand the expectations of managing grants. They may also have limited knowledge of how to use technological tools for measuring and tracking outcomes, and lack financial resources to purchase project and grants management software, online reporting forms, and other technological tools.

 

  1. Lack of comfort in looking beyond the community. Parochial attitudes can cause rural communities to isolate themselves from new or developing ideas (Holton, 2007). A community may be complacent with the way “things have always been” and bringing in new ideas, resources, or partners to collaborate on development projects may make many community members uncomfortable. This discomfort is also true for rural nonprofit agencies. If a national or state branch agency based in an urban area comes to a rural location to implement a program that has worked well in an urban setting, rural nonprofit agencies may not “get it” or understand how it is relevant or deliverable in their area.

 

  1. “Silo-ed” community agencies. Parochial attitudes can also threaten local agencies, group collaboration, or simply the “current standing” (Holton, 2007). A limited economic base in a rural community means limited economic opportunities or jobs. A limited amount of jobs, therefore, may result in community members doing whatever is necessary to retain their current employment. Nonprofit organizations also act in this way; collaboration can often be viewed as consolidation which then threatens jobs. Therefore, many agencies will not collaborate with other organizations in fear there may not “be enough to go around.” Over the long term, many rural agencies become comfortable “doing their own thing” rather than collaborating to develop new or expanded projects. This low interest in collaboration also results in limited communication and low visibility for projects.

Rural communities face a number of socioeconomic challenges that limit their capacities to navigate the development spectrum. When grants professionals understand the environment and culture of these communities, they can strategize and use their networking, organizational, and resource development skills to improve fundraising success in these communities.

Rural Development Strategies

Understanding rural environments and cultures is a prerequisite to establishing a development plan. Anticipating common rural community challenges and barriers is critical to making a productive start. Consequently, strategies to overcome these challenges must be developed to support success in developing funding. The following section examines four strategies, each supported with resources and tools, to support rural grant program success.

 

Strategy 1: Start where you are.

“Let’s just get a grant!” is a commonly heard phrase in small, rural organizations. They know grants exist but are not sure how to get started or all they entail. Rural agencies with limited human resources and grant development skills have limited organizational capacity. An agency with a staff stretched thin and with limited financial resources and volunteers may become “stuck” trying to determine how or where to begin in developing a project or finding the right funding mechanism. In addition, rural agencies often do not participate in broader networks where innovation and collaboration opportunities are visible (Flora & Flora, 2013). Grant professionals should start, from the beginning with a rural organization, using basic elements of strategic planning to determine the current state of the organization, its needs, and its long-term goals. This process should include investigating opportunities for collaboration and small-step pilots.

Grant professionals can apply one or more basic planning tools during this process:

  • Needs assessments that clearly outline a project’s purpose and expected outcomes can help an inexperienced group become organized and get them on the right track (Strengthening Nonprofits, 2010). The National Association of City and County Health Officials (NACCHO, 2016), Rotary International (Rotary International, 2012), and Community Action Partnership (Community Action Partnership, 2016) all have assessment tools with proven track records.
  • Concept papers can facilitate the research, outreach, and cultivation of potential funding sources (Geever, 2012). While developing concept papers may seem a basic step for an experienced grant professional, a rural organization may have little experience in grants or may only be in the “concept phase” of a project. This simple tool provides an opportunity for grant professionals to build relationships with rural agencies as they organize their plans.
  • Broader organizational, community, or government plans can be useful tools. Feasibility studies for capital campaigns and local and state development plans are examples that can help when developing projects (Cohen, 2015). Even aligning a small, rural project with a broader state-level plan can increase chances of funding, as a case can be built on how the project will support statewide goals. Opportunities can be explored with other agencies outside the local community. Either way, this approach provides rural project coordinators with experience in collaborating outside of their immediate communities, introduces outside collaboration to rural communities, and accelerates capacity building with new partnerships and resources.
  • Pilot projects are a mechanism that can help rural agencies get started with grants, since they require smaller amounts of funding and fewer resources to deliver and manage the projects. Pilot projects may even result from the use of some of the aforementioned tools, such as concept papers. Many grant makers are more willing to fund smaller, pilot projects proposed by agencies that have limited experience in grants development. These projects have a higher likelihood of success than a large stand-alone project that has not been tested. Pilot projects, like the example provided in the case study below, can help an inexperienced rural agency take small steps to build a project over time, become comfortable working with other organizations, learn about grant monitoring and reporting, and build organizational competence and confidence.
  • Technical assistance from rural support agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Rural Assistance Center (RAC), provides tools to help rural organizations get started on building their grant funding. These agencies are familiar with rural culture and the challenges rural organizations face in developing projects and therefore can provide technical assistance and build capacity in rural communities.
  • Collaborations with other organizations can increase capacity and increase competitiveness in grant applications. Where hesitancy to partner exists, grant professionals must encourage agencies to develop a comfort level with outside agencies by familiarizing them with the work of these organizations, removing barriers, coordinating opportunities for representatives to get to know one another, and providing examples of how other organizations benefit from collaborating.

 

  • Identifying sub-grantee opportunities for rural agencies is a good option. Organizations with secured awards, such as state and federal grants, can link smaller agencies to established and evidence-based models which, in turn, provides effective guidance and support in achieving their project goals. Connecting a rural agency to a sub-grantee opportunity allows the agency to gain experience with grants while supported by experienced grantees and to build connections to new funding streams outside of the community.
  • Collaboration with funding agencies that understand rural program development and capacity building may be willing to work with an inexperienced group to get a project going. Some of the “usual suspects” who may be helpful include small, local foundations, state rural development programs, USDA, RAC, the Appalachia Regional Commission (ARC), and the Office of Rural Health Policy.

Grant professionals should educate rural stakeholders about the various types of program models and grants that can help get their projects started. Providing education on the differences between foundation and government grants, particularly on management requirements that can be problematic with limited human resources or grants management experience, is essential to this process. It also provides an opportunity for grant professionals to build relationships and trust with rural agencies.

Strategy 2: Manage well, play well.

In order to build and maintain a grants portfolio, it is vital to demonstrate an organization’s capacity to successfully coordinate grant projects (Grants Managers Network, 2013). However, small organizations in rural communities can be overwhelmed by a lack of knowledge of how to properly manage funds while trying to implement programs.

Grant professionals must provide guidance to these organizations on grant management protocols from the outset to demonstrate worthiness for future grants. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has well-established and comprehensive guidelines that, when followed, ensure compliance with record keeping and budget management; USDA, RAC, ARC, and other agencies also provide guidance specific to rural communities.

Rural communities frequently struggle with working well together as they compete for limited resources for development projects. If one organization feels like another has too much control or is getting more than its fair share, disputes can quickly arise (Flora & Flora, 2013). Roles and responsibilities of collaborating rural agencies must be as clear and equitable as possible in order to survive in a competitive environment with limited resources.

Grant professionals should use project management tools such as committee charters, Gantt charts, and rolling action item lists (RAILs) to define responsibilities, deliverables, and timelines across all collaborating organizations and to keep projects on track (George, Maxey, Rowlands, & Price, 2004). A standing committee or team meeting to review these materials regularly will reinforce adherence to sound project management. Developing project workbooks to track grant activities, progress, and expenditures can help project teams to prepare and deliver concise reports and demonstrate management capacity. Tools such as “plan, do, check, and adjust” (PDCA) worksheets also help solve problems if program activities are not yielding anticipated results. PDCAs are designed to help projects identify weaknesses in a program, decide on needed adjustments, and assign tasks. These tools are designed to limit conflict.

Strategy 3: Be visible.

Everyone desires to be a part of a successful venture, including grant funders. Publicizing project successes creates interest and can serve to increase future grant funding (Benson, 2011). However, many rural organizations do not make their project successes visible to potential partners, beneficiaries, and funders as the result of geographic isolation and limited connections outside the community. Media outlets may also be more limited; a small town newspaper usually has limited distribution. Even social media outlets are only as effective as their followers and network. Grant professionals must assist rural agencies to become comfortable with visibility, as well as helping to find avenues beyond the community to promote the success of their grant projects and create “buzz” and interest from potential new partners.

Increasing rural agencies’ comfort with visibility is a challenge. Grant professionals should implement a multi-phase communications plan to guide them and ease reluctance, beginning with local outlets and moving progressively outward to regional and state levels. As interest, partnerships, and additional funding develop, rural agencies will become more comfortable—and even excited—about this part of the process. To promote the good work of a grant project, a solid communications plan should be built around venues and means, then aligned with project timelines (University of Kansas, 2016). Venues should include print, online, social media, and new media outlets, as well as face-to-face meetings and presentations with local, state, and federal legislators and civic organizations. Means of communication should include print stories, video clips, in-person presentations, and project summaries available through these venues.

For example, organizations should share human interest stories with local media outlets such as regional newspapers or morning radio programs. Organizations can also post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other relevant outlets. Producing short videos featuring the work of the grant is another excellent method; smartphones are prevalent in all communities and expanded cellular coverage in rural areas makes this technology more accessible. Face-to-face engagement also increases the visibility of a grant project; organizations should present at civic group meetings and conferences to promote a project’s impact and create interest.

Government relations work is not commonly done in rural communities, particularly at the state or federal level. This is a missed opportunity for rural communities to not only create visibility around a project, but to gain visibility in general for the social service and other support their community may need. Rural organizations should be encouraged to undertake regular engagement with legislators and to participate on state and federal committees and foundation boards and initiatives. By engaging these entities with regular visits or participating on their committees, boards, or teams, organizations can cast a broader net for funding and partnership support.

Strategy 4: Welcome friends.

Throughout the processes of planning, developing management capacity, and expanding visibility, grant professionals must guide organizations in building and expanding rural partnerships. Collaboration is increasingly required for grant funding eligibility (Gose & Donovan 2014) but many rural organizations often exhibit skepticism in partnering with other organizations.

Grant professionals should start by outlining the benefits of partnering and how potential partnerships can benefit the project. Next, the grant professional should assist with identifying potential partners for a developing project. This analysis will ease anxiety and create interest.  A “project champion,” or an individual who is known to the project team and is trusted, can encourage partnerships and collaboration especially if he or she can bring beneficial connections to the project. Furthermore, as discussed above, the project team can seek new partnerships by identifying a larger-scale project with a sub-grantee opportunity, which can lead to not only a new collaboration but also provide the team with an easier start for a new project.

Clearly identifying partner roles and confirming terms of agreement early in the process will help ease concerns of rural organizations new to partnerships. Tools such as project charters and memorandums of understanding (MOUs) establish guidelines that direct the project throughout its duration and ensures an environment of trust and cooperation. Such partnerships can not only help a rural organization identify additional funding sources for the project but can also lead to future funding opportunities for other projects and programs.

Case Study: Adena Health System’s Baby-Centered Recovery Program

 

Adena Health System’s Baby Centered Recovery program in rural Ohio serves as a valuable case study of how a rural team successfully utilized strategies of planning, cooperation, management, and communications to bring a new project to reality. The project’s team members, seeking to address growing addiction issues in their rural community, started by examining their options, as they had little experience with fundraising and grant projects. With the guidance and support of a grants professional, they secured a small pilot grant that was managed well with Lean Sigma tools—a methodology that relies on a collaborative team effort to improve performance—and delivered strong outcomes. By making these successes visible through media articles and government relations, the team was connected to additional, larger funding and sub-grantee opportunities that have helped the project serve more than ten times as many women, as well as influenced new legislation providing funding specifically for rural communities dealing with similar issues.

Background

The Ross County area in rural, Appalachian, southern Ohio began seeing a spike in drug-related crime and overdoses in 2007, due to growing heroin use. By 2012, the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) was more than three times higher than in previous years. The regional medical center of Adena Health System (AHS) convened a work team made up of an OB/GYN, a social worker, and grant specialist to develop a project to address the issue. Not having experience in developing this type of project, the team was unsure where to start.

Planning

 

After initial discussions, the team agreed to start small by researching models of care that had demonstrated success in reducing the withdrawal symptoms of the infant while encouraging the mother toward a path of sobriety, which was the primary goal of the care teams. The team soon identified a relevant model developed by Kaiser Permanente. The grant specialist’s assignment was to outline a similar model for the project team and to find funding to start a program at AHS. Having limited experience with such a project, the grant specialist recommended that the team start with a small, pilot grant to develop and optimize the program for the rural patients served by the medical center. After some research and inquiry, a small, pilot grant program from the CareSource Foundation was identified as a potential source of funding. The team applied for and received a grant in mid-2012 for the pilot Baby Centered Recovery project. By using Strategy 1 planning tools and selecting a pilot phase approach, the team successfully secured this first grant for the project.

Implementation

 

The project’s model integrated elements of the CenteringPregnancy® (Centering Healthcare Institute, 2015) with traditional group-based addiction counseling. The pilot grant supported the coordination of a group of 12 women experiencing opiate addiction issues and in similar stages of pregnancy. The women met weekly to receive education on healthy pregnancy, childbirth, and new baby care. In addition, they engaged in group addiction counseling. A weekly health check and drug screening occurred, including a prescription for Subutex, a mixed narcotic agonist-antagonists (WebMD, 2015) which helps prevent withdrawal symptoms caused by stopping other opiate-type narcotics. As a result of the pilot project, all of the babies born to the mothers in the program were born at term and without NAS or other drug-related issues. By managing the pilot project well with Lean Sigma tools and delivering these strong outcomes, the team successfully utilized Strategy 2 tools to demonstrate their capacity and competence for administering and implementing grants.

The project team leveraged this success by working with the health system’s communication team to compile and promote stories about two of the program participants and their experience in the program. The team also kept local social services providers informed about the program and invited them to participate in educational sessions with the women to promote their agencies’ services. In addition, AHS’s government relations liaison informed local, state, and federal legislators about the project, its outcomes, the developing partnerships, and the growing waiting list of women seeking support from the program. These legislators, already at work developing potential intervention programs, used this information in their efforts to create policy and funding avenues.

Funding and Future

 

These Strategy 3 approaches to build visibility helped the project team to secure $125,000 in funding in late 2013 from the Ohio Department of Medicaid’s Strong Start Ohio project as a sub-grantee under the Ohio State University. With this additional funding, the Baby Centered Recovery program has since served 225 high-risk and addicted pregnant women. Success rates continue to be high, and the team is developing two partnerships with addiction treatment centers for fathers and women who are not pregnant. Pledges for grant funding from local, state, and federal resources continue to support an expanded addiction treatment network. Recent federal legislation, including the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (Senate Bill 524) and Protecting Our Infants Act (Senate Bill 799) has been influenced by the Baby Centered Recovery program. Congressman Steve Stivers also referenced the program on the House floor during testimony for Senate Bill 799 (U.S. Congress, 2015). By using Strategy 4 tools of developing partnerships, serving as a sub-grantee, and building wider networks, the team successfully secured additional funding and strengthened future sustainability for the project.

Conclusion

The economic decline in rural communities and the related increase in social service needs are well-established and, unfortunately, continue to challenge these communities. Funding support through grants for development projects is a valuable opportunity for community improvement. However, rural communities continue to lag behind their urban counterparts in securing grant funding and developing healthy grant portfolios due to a variety of challenges related to a lack of experience, capacity, and collaboration. This does not have to be the case. Grant professionals must utilize their many skills, strategies, resources, and tools to support rural agencies to improve funding capacity and program success. Grant professionals must consider the cultural and environmental elements of rural communities in order to align the most appropriate resources to fit the communities’ needs and capacity levels. By understanding these needs and challenges, particularly those involving relationship building and visibility, grant professionals can build knowledge and reduce fear in rural communities which will lead to funding success and growth. This success, in turn, can ultimately increase community capacity and turn the tide on declining rural communities.

Silos

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Originally published in the Journal of the GPA Fall 2016.

 

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