An emerging model can make public and private funding go farther—and reach the communities who need it most.
Federal grantmaking is at an all-time high, reaching $1.2T last year. But despite the unprecedented flow of dollars, inequity still persists. This raises several questions: How can this massive influx of funding flow to the communities that need it the most? How can it reliably be directed to its best and highest use? And how could it transform economic mobility for American families? An emerging set of models begin to answer these questions and showcase philanthropy’s critical role in bridging the divide between federal funds and the communities in need of them.
Despite unprecedented grantmaking, competitive federal funding remains a twisted maze to navigate. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlights barriers that hinder access to federal funds, finding that many communities that lack the resources and capacity to apply for federal grants are either disadvantaged or fail to benefit at all.
Grantmaking itself is evolving. Today’s federal funding model demands visionary proposals for system-wide transformations. Take the CHIPS and Science Act, for example. This $53B investment in boosting U.S. competitiveness in critical technology sectors has the potential to uplift students and families across the country by preparing them to work in high-tech jobs. Fulfilling this goal requires core involvement from K–12 and workforce partners; the capacity to bring together public, private, and social sector stakeholders in a strong coalition; and a clearly articulated plan with meaningful and measurable outcomes.
But building these partnerships requires considerable time and effort. For communities already grappling with limited resources, this legwork can be impossible to perform. The federal government is getting increasingly ambitious about accomplishing big things, but, ironically, this ambition exacerbates the very inequalities they’re trying to end. This conundrum demands action and philanthropies are rising to the challenge.
By supporting under-resourced communities, philanthropies not only make federal funding more accessible, they also build the skills necessary to make future grant wins more likely for these communities. Federal funding holds transformative power that strengthens community organizations’ capacity to further their mission and create lasting change.
There are several emerging philanthropy-funded models seeking to address these challenges. The Community Funding Accelerator (CFA) is one of them, among others like the Local Infrastructure Hub and Greenlights Grant Initiative, and regionally-focused initiatives like the Nevada Grant Lab. Their approach is to leverage philanthropic dollars to help communities win competitive federal grants by building awareness of funding opportunities, transforming early ideas into fundable projects, and assembling strong coalitions to deliver the work.
What does this look like in practice? Poplar Bluff, a rural community in the Missouri Delta region, is a great example. With 67% more people employed in health care than the national average for a labor force of the county’s size, Butler County, where Poplar Bluff is located, is a healthcare “hub” for surrounding counties. Residents are older, hold lower socioeconomic status, and face higher rates of chronic illness than their more metropolitan counterparts—greatly increasing the demand for healthcare in the area. However, national data shows that 80% of people in the ten counties surrounding Butler live in a healthcare desert, lacking access to either a health center, a hospital, or both.
As of 2021, the state of Missouri retained only 21.5% percent of medical school graduates. A nursing staff shortage is due to several factors: confusion about how to enter the profession, disjointed career pathways, a lack of supportive services for nurses and faculty, and a shortage of educators and experienced practitioners. Additionally, turnover rates are high for those who do enter the field. These healthcare access issues lead to an increase in hospital closures, more limited services, and greater difficulties recruiting and retaining providers.
The challenges plaguing Poplar Bluff are nothing new. The Department of Labor runs the Workforce Opportunities for Rural Communities (WORC) grant that aims to help communities like Poplar Bluff strengthen their workforce and fill the critical healthcare roles necessary to provide care to their communities. But Poplar Bluff faced significant barriers to accessing that funding. “Although stakeholders for this grant all live in a small community and shared common interests, they lacked putting all the pieces together to bring about an effective program,” remarked Maria Alcala, Program Director of Heartland Forward, a community-based nonprofit that applied for the grant. This is where philanthropy steps in. The Community Funding Accelerator (CFA), a philanthropy-funded organization, helped Poplar Bluff build a coalition of local school districts, hospital networks, and community colleges with the shared goal of strengthening the healthcare workforce in the area.
The consortium, led by Heartland Forward, went on to assemble and submit a competitive application aiming to introduce 1,050 students—with an emphasis on veterans and their spouses and first-generation, low-income, rural students—to a potential career in nursing. It will also provide ongoing wraparound support, such as childcare and transportation, as students complete the nursing program.
The consortium’s hard work paid off. In September, they were awarded $1.49M in funding to build pathways from secondary schools to nursing in the Poplar Bluff region. Alcala attributed some of this success to the TA program’s support model, saying “CFA brought . . . community leaders together and facilitated fruitful discussions that led to a successful program for this rural town in the Delta region of Missouri.”
So far, initiatives like CFA have seen an impressive return on investment by stretching philanthropic dollars to leverage competitive federal grants. In the case of Poplar Bluff, technical assistance to the grant-winning consortium delivered an ROI of 520%. And even when communities don't win grants, this support has significant value. Communities emerge from the experience with greater familiarity with federal grants, and stronger networks in the form of partnerships and coalitions built during the process—connections that will outlast the application sprint. Communities and coalitions have a completed proposal to reflect on, and pivot to seek other funding.
Early results indicate that the model is on to something. So far, the Local Infrastructure Hub has helped 1200+ cities and towns across the U.S. access more than $700M in federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Beyond Poplar Bluff, CFA has helped two communities secure funding and designation from the Department of Commerce as Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs (Tech Hubs). This status paves the way to potentially win up to $75M in federal funding for economic transformation next year. Each of these consortia has built a strong backbone aligning K–12 education with future workforce needs, while reaching the underserved communities that typically face the greatest barriers to educational advancement and economic mobility.
The takeaway is clear: without philanthropic intervention, dollars will continue to flow to communities that are more affluent, privileged, and well-resourced. Through models like CFA and The Local Infrastructure Hub, philanthropies can help ensure federal funds go where they're needed most, giving every community a fair shot at a big bet.