Heartland Fund’s Rural Climate Initiative aims to leverage climate investments in small towns and rural communities, to spur sustainable job development that will allow communities to protect what they love about the places where they live, and build communities strong enough for young people to want to make homes there. Through grantmaking, technical assistance, policy advocacy, communications, and organizing, the Rural Climate Initiative will address climate change through a place-based, sustainable job, and economic development strategy.


The Challenge and Opportunity

The destructive power of climate change disproportionately impacts rural communities. Fires, floods and droughts, rising temperatures and sea levels—all disrupt both daily life and the production of food and raw materials on which rural communities depend. Furthermore, decades of disinvestment and political neglect have exacerbated many of the common challenges small towns and rural communities face—one-dimensional economies, dwindling and aging populations, crumbling infrastructure, and lack of access to health care, broadband, and other critical services.

The Heartland Fund and its 501(c)(4) partner, the Rural Victory Fund, were launched in 2018 to build progressive power and change the political and issue landscape in rural America. Since 2019, the Heartland Fund has made more than $18 million in grants to more than 100 organizations in 20 states. In both Georgia and Wisconsin, Heartland and Rural Victory Fund have invested more than $1M in rural civic engagement. Building on this strategy, the Heartland Fund’s Rural Climate Initiative aims to make progress on climate policy in rural America by building organizational strength and connecting with supporting climate-forward rural leaders with resources necessary to bring change to their communities.

All of the work of RCI will incorporate organizing strategies that build on Heartland’s successful civic engagement work. Many existing Heartland partners and grantees already include climate justice in their

organizing and other programming. Engaging existing partners, as well as new organizations and leaders, in RCI will strengthen Heartland Fund’s long-term work cultivating leaders and building power.

In the coming months, Congress is poised to consider spending packages designed to create jobs through transformational investments in infrastructure, expansion of clean energy, increasing resilience, and addressing the legacy of environmental injustices. While the scope of these investments remains to be decided, it is clear that a combination of new federal policies, congressional appropriations, and other administrative actions creates a unique opportunity ahead.

Small towns and rural communities are positioned to benefit from these efforts in ways that will catapult economic development and sustainable job creation—and at the same time accelerate the transition to clean energy and strengthen their own communities’ resilience to the effects of climate change. It is especially important that federal funding and programs help reverse generations of practices and policies that have disadvantaged low-income and rural residents of color.

Clean energy offers a significant opportunity to diversify rural economies while reducing energy costs through energy efficiency and generating affordable, renewable power for rural homes and businesses. Wind, solar, and other renewable energy projects help revitalize rural communities by taking advantage of their rich energy resources. New tax revenue from these projects helps shore up local infrastructure, like schools and emergency services, while reducing the local tax burden on rural people. Meanwhile, farmers and landowners receive land-lease payments from energy project developers, a significant support in an unpredictable farm economy.

Finally, rural politics will either enable or stop progressive policy progress. In the 2020 election Joe Biden underperformed in Michigan and Pennsylvania, compared to Hillary Clinton, in urban areas, but higher turnout and support in small cities and rural areas across those states reversed the outcome. In Georgia, Black rural voters were key not only to the presidential outcome, but to control of the Senate. The same rural voters in the same states that were pivotal in 2020 will be so again in 2022 and in 2024 and beyond.

Simply put, we can’t win on climate change without rural America, and rural America can’t win without embracing climate-forward job development strategies.

Theory of Change

The long-term health of rural America depends on place-based, sustainable economic development; the long- term health of the country and the planet depends on rapid deployment of clean energy and other climate solutions. New federal policy and spending initiatives present a symbiotic solution to both distinct challenges.

To overcome years of disinvestment and job losses, rural communities, organizations, and leaders need the capacity to receive and deploy significant new investments effectively—by engaging trusted local leaders, building local capacity, and shaping investments in ways that recognize the unique, place-based strengths and challenges of each rural community. Without creating this capacity in an inclusive way, implementation of federal policies and funding could fail in rural communities.

Successful deployment of new federal resources must result in equitable economic growth, accelerated adoption of clean energy, regenerative agriculture practices, and other climate solutions.

Strengthening both the economies of rural, underserved communities, and the community-based organizations that can drive positive change in these critically important places, will in turn help shift the balance of both economic and political power in those states away from a small, entrenched group of leaders to a broader, more diverse constituency.

Through investments in rural based and focused organizations and rural economic development hubs, the Rural Climate Initiative will help ensure federal funding is deployed in ways that will spur economic growth that reflects local priorities, promotes racial and economic equity, and advances clean energy and climate solutions. Simultaneously, Heartland Fund will provide communications and capacity building support to help raise the voices of rural communities and ultimately shift the rural power dynamic toward support for clean energy and addressing climate change.

Heartland Fund’s Rural Climate Initiative Goals

The Heartland Fund was founded in 2019 with the goal of connecting rural leaders with funding partners to build the permanent civic infrastructure needed for rural communities to thrive. Between 2019 and 2020, Heartland Fund and the Rural Victory Fund, its 501(c)(4) affiliate, regranted more than $18M to more than 100 groups in 20 states. In addition to grantmaking, Heartland serves as a hub for rural communications research and strategy to both counter misinformation and shift narratives about rural communities.

Many Heartland Fund grantees are multi-issue, multi-racial groups that also work on climate and climate justice policy advocacy at the state and local levels. The Heartland Fund’s new Rural Climate Initiative (RCI) seeks to build on the experience and expertise of Heartland’s work and lessons learned over the past two years listening to, working with, and building trust with rural organizations and leaders.

The Rural Climate Initiative has four primary goals over the next four years:

  • Build and deploy capacity in rural communities to learn about and advocate for climate policy and investments across venues, racial communities, and geographies;
  • Accelerate the transition of rural economies to sustainable, low carbon, and clean energy jobs;
  • Gain and exert political and economic power at the local, state, and federal level; and
  • Increase philanthropic and public funding to advance climate solutions in rural America.

Rural Climate Initiative Strategies

  1. Advocacy and organizing designed to build power and influence policy;
  2. Communications designed to elevate the voices of climate-forward local leaders and counter misinformation;
  3. Technical assistance designed to amplify and accelerate locally-driven work;
  4. Job development to increase the number of low-carbon and clean energy jobs; and
  5. Donor education and organizing designed to share lessons learned and increase the resources available for rural civic engagement and climate work.

Objectives

The work of the Rural Climate Initiative will be centered on specific opportunities, triggered by federal policies and investments, that meet urgent needs in our priority states. All of the work of RCI will incorporate organizing strategies that build on Heartland’s successful civic engagement work. Many existing Heartland partners and grantees already include climate justice in their organizing and other programming. Engaging existing partners, as well as new organizations and leaders, in RCI will strengthen Heartland Fund’s long-term work cultivating leaders and building power.

The objectives that anchor our work include developing climate-forward job development plans; expanding adoption of regenerative agriculture practices that increase soil health and reduce carbon emissions; accelerating shifts to renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency; and accelerating the shift by rural electric co-ops to clean energy. In each state—and even within states—the leading opportunity will likely differ. In communities where fossil fuel extraction has been a leading economic driver, climate economic development planning and implementation will be the primary objective, while in farming and ranching communities regenerative agriculture will be the organizing focus. In addition, we will work to reposition climate mitigation and climate-forward industries as drivers of sustainable job development and prosperity and to educate and connect donors.

Our ability to achieve our objectives is triggered by the availability and flow of federal dollars targeting climate mitigation and carbon emissions reductions. Funding available through USDA rural development programs, the Economic Development Agency at the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Energy will be made available to help communities accelerate deployment of clean energy and create new jobs and economic activity in extractive communities. The USDA has already announced pilot grant programs to support climate- smart agricultural and forestry programs. Finally, the USDA will likely make $10B available to rural electric co- ops to retire debt incurred by building coal plants; this presents a need—and opportunity—to support co-ops to push for transitions to renewable energy and energy efficiency as opposed to gas. As the initiative evolves and federal policies and spending come into sharper relief, this list may shift or expand.

Support Sustainable Job Development that Enables Both Short-term Carbon Reductions and Long-term Community Prosperity

  • To leverage federal climate investments, RCI will support partners to convene racially
    and culturally diverse leaders in target states and communities, to develop place-based job development designed to remediate rather than exacerbate existing inequities. These coalitions will receive funding to support the planning process, and technical support to navigate federal funding opportunities through the USDA, DOE, and other federal agencies.
  • ŸRCI will support policy advocacy at the local, state, and federal level to focus economic development resources on climate-smart investments.
  • ŸIn fossil dependent communities, RCI will make investments designed to increase public and philanthropic resources for equity-centered strategies that enable economic transitions to low-carbon jobs and seed small businesses, as well as accelerate adoption of clean energy.
  • ŸAlthough place-based job development plans will differ from community to community, advocates and organizers will face common obstacles. RCI will stand up a coordination HUB for sharing best practices, lessons learned, and training/support for rural-focused and -based organizations.


Support the Expansion of Regenerative Agriculture and Other Climate-smart Farming, Forestry, and Ranching Practices

  • RCI will seek out partners able to strengthen and expand technical assistance to help farmers adopt healthy soil practices. This can include working with local agriculture extension offices, farmers unions, and other organizations.
  • ŸIn many communities, younger farmers, farmers of color, and owner-operator farmers have the greatest appetite for healthy soil and other climate-smart practices, but they lack the experience and resources to compete with larger farm businesses for federal conservation dollars. RCI will support organizations able to provide training on conservation planning that will elevate disadvantaged farmers seeking conservation dollars.
  • ŸExisting federal funding streams, for efficiency and renewable energy installations, are underfunded and need stronger standards to prevent agribusinesses from using funds for already planned operating expenses. Recent policy changes have enabled advanced payments for historically underserved farmers, but fail to address the inequities in the grants processes. RCI will support research and advocacy in advance of the next farm bill to make the case for stronger standards and increased funding.


Accelerate Shift to Clean Energy and Significantly Increase Energy Efficiency in Small Towns and Agriculture Operations

  • Despite the enormous potential for renewable energy development on or near small towns, farms, and ranch land, there has been increasing opposition in recent years to siting of both distributed and larger scale wind and solar power throughout rural America. RCI will organize farmers to build demand for co-location of renewable energy as a supplemental revenue source and small business owners interested in increasing energy reliability through decentralized solar.
  • Ÿ  RCI will work with local leaders and small business organizations to help businesses secure funding to make investments in energy efficiency as well as collect stories that demonstrate the ability of these investments to increase profit margins.
  • Ÿ  As a part of climate-forward job development planning, RCI will connect technical assistance providers to local communities seeking to incorporate weatherization and efficiency investments into their plains.
  • Ÿ  Currently, only 3-percent of efficiency dollars available through the Rural Energy Assistance Program support wind power development. RCI will partner with local organizations to provide assistance to farmers seeking additional revenue, with a particular focus on younger farmers and farmers of color.


Accelerate Rural Electric Cooperatives’ Transition to Clean Energy and Ensure Democratic Practices and Good Governance

New USDA leadership, and billions in congressionally approved rural electric cooperative coal debt relief, present the opportunity to significantly reduce carbon emissions by securing shifts to clean energy. RCI will support partners in targeted rural communities and states to leverage this opportunity, and organize and engage co-op members to push for an accelerated transition from fossil to clean energy. In these same targeted co-op territories, RCI will support existing organizations and build new capacity, to further drive the clean energy transition, secure democratic practices and good governance reforms, and shift the board composition to achieve these objectives at the individual co-op level. The RCI seeks to accomplish this by:

  • Providing technical assistance to rural-based and rural-focused organizations in select rural electric cooperative territories, so as to hold cooperatives accountable to their members and secure reforms that result in cleaner energy and better governance practices.
  • Supporting partners to advocate for state policy reforms to increase rural electric cooperative transparency and accountability, improve governance and democratic practices, and accelerate the transition to clean energy.
  • ŸProviding tools and assistance to partners in select communities to shift the board leadership and management culture of cooperatives reliant on coal-intensive generation and transmission partners. Supporting rural-based organizations with campaign expertise to engage in targeted, non-partisan, rural electric cooperative board elections will both establish governance that is more diverse and representative of the co-ops’ customer base and build power.
  • ŸConnecting and strengthening a network of rural advocates to develop and share best practices. Facilitating the exchange of information and strategies to drive clean energy and democratic reforms at rural electric cooperatives will ensure they serve and represent the interests of economically vibrant rural communities.


Support a Rural Jobs, Clean Energy, and Climate Communications Campaign

Effective communication on climate in rural areas presents several interlocking challenges: overcoming misinformation about the climate crisis and the many possible solutions; moving past misperceptions that tackling climate change requires sacrifice in rural communities; and bypassing the Fox, One America, and other conservative news outlets where selective, biased coverage that repeats lies creates a common but distorted understanding of politics, climate science, and progressive activists in rural communities. RCI’s communications work will be designed to position climate mitigation and adaptation as drivers of long-term, sustainable jobs. To advance this goal in the context of the unique communications challenges in small towns and rural communities, RCI’s communications strategy prioritizes identifying trusted messengers and reaching people through alternative communications channels, over other traditional communications tactics. Our approach to rural communications will include:

  • Recruiting local leaders in small towns and rural communities willing to talk with their neighbors about the promise of federal climate investments, partnering with organizations and individuals able to do high-touch, individual outreach in target communities.
  • ŸTraining of local leaders, which will start by listening to local concerns, opportunities, and histories—and then customizing message materials to be effective in each local context. Our materials will build on the work done by the Jobs Narrative Project, RuralOrganizing.org and others.
  • Collecting and documenting success stories—of communities and individual businesses that have been able to bring jobs, revenue, or savings to their communities by embracing climate- forward practices—will be an ongoing and central communications function. This may include producing national or regional reports that can bolster local conversations.
  • ŸDeveloping trusted messengers to counter misinformation will be critical. We will also provide them with resources to empower these messengers and networks to effectively dismiss misinformation.
  • ŸReaching rural communities where they are will require identifying and building relationships with daily communications channels and outlets, from community listservs, rural social media accounts with concentrated local followers, radio, weekly newspapers, and regional trade press.


Donor Coordination and Education

The Heartland Fund has unique expertise, understanding, and a track record of supporting organizations to engage in civic engagement and advocacy in rural communities. We deepened our understanding of the most persuasive messages and messengers for rural Americans through our leadership of a rural jobs narrative project that launched this spring. As part of the Heartland Fund, the Rural Climate Initiative is positioned to share this knowledge, and also facilitate funder education and coordination based on ongoing rural learning and evaluation. We seek to expand both the number of donors and the scale of investment in rural America through the Rural Climate Initiative. Donor stewardship strategies include:

  • ŸProviding regular funder briefing, reports, and webinars highlighting successes and lessons learned.
  • Connecting state donor tables, climate funders, and economic development funders in order to increase alignment and share knowledge.

Priority States

Taking both a shorter- and longer-term view, the RCI will support organizing, communications, advocacy, and capacity building in 6–8 states initially, with the intent to scale over time as resources and capacity allow. We have reflected states where early progress is possible on our near-term program priorities— successfully driving economic development
centered on place and race by leveraging federal climate programs and funding in rural communities, and accelerating a clean, carbon free, and democratic transition of rural electric cooperatives. Investing in these states will also pave the way for achieving our long-term goals of capacity and power building in the field, developing climate champions and decision-makers in rural communities, countering the opposition, and contributing to a necessary cultural shift on climate in rural America.

Additional criteria for selecting our priority states include (a) rural capacity: existing rural capacity that is available to build on and/or there is a clear path or momentum to invest in new capacity in rural communities, (b) national political significance: building the capacity and power of rural organizations for both civic engagement and climate economic development education and advocacy can change outcomes, and (c) states with rural communities whose economic livelihoods are directly connected to addressing climate change in one or more of the following areas:

  • Fossil Community Economic Transition: shuttered coal plants, former steel facilities, abandoned mine lands, and orphaned oil and gas wells.
  • Significant Clean Energy Job and Equitable Economic Growth Opportunities: significant untapped wind and solar potential, opportunities for major upgrades, manufacturing infrastructure that could be shifted to clean energy equipment production.
  • Agriculture Has Outsized Economic Significance: farming and agriculture are the backbone of these rural communities, and economies, and can be a part of achieving net zero emissions.
  • Opportunities to Address Past Environmental Injustices through job and community development.

Our 15 priority states are reflected in the map below. They represent a cross section of three regions—the South/Interior West, Upper Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic/East Coast—and different leading rural economic conditions that dictate priority strategies for investment (described above). We are in the process of identifying our specific geographic focus within each state, with input from local and state-based rural organizations and experts.


Rural Climate Priority States: By Region and Tier

Upper Midwest Region

  • Agriculture is an economic driver and politically influential
  • High concentration of rural co-ops ripe for transition
  • Renewable energy siting in rural communities and high jobs potential

South/Interior West Region

  • Oil and gas have a stranglehold on rural communities
  • Rural economic development and clean energy jobs are the future
  • Rural counties in these states are in the top 10 counties for greatest wind/solar potential in the U.S. in 2030

Mid-Atlantic/East Coast Region

  • High intensity coal and gas in the mid-Atlantic
  • Rural co-ops and agriculture in the Southeast
  • Clean energy jobs potential is high in rural areas of PA, NC, and GA

Priority states
Tier I States: AZ, CO, MN, WI, MI, PA, NC, GA
Tier II States: NM, TX, IA, MO, IL, WV, VA