All small nonprofits face challenges, but rural nonprofits face added difficulties. Here are three common challenges and how to address them.

Rural nonprofit


STP means everything is run by or supported by the Same Ten People.  They serve on church boards, volunteer with Little League, steer the tree committee and run the food shelf.  They don’t want to control everything, but when someone needs help, they step up. In rural areas, there are simply a finite number of potential leaders.  People age, they move or they choose to engage with their own children or grandchildren’s activities.  Leaders of small, rural nonprofits need to get creative.

Action:  Grow the pool.  It’s a long-term problem that requires a long-term solution. Get new people involved as volunteers.  Ask new individuals to donate.  Tell them why you participate and bring them along to meetings or events. Be sure to look at nontraditional populations for possible leaders.  It doesn’t matter that you’ve never had a high school student or a member of an immigrant group, or a seasonal resident on your board.  Maybe it’s time.

Join Our Board!

Board membership is not the only way to be involved.  One mistake I see small nonprofits making is asking anyone who shows the slightest interest in their organization to be on the board.  Don’t do it.  It can work out great, but it often ends poorly.  Maybe they don’t have the skills or interest to be a board member, but they love to run a grill or a cash register.  Maybe they aren’t really passionate about the organization overall, but they care deeply about the winter coat drive or keeping the office clean and organized.

Action:  Engage people so they are successful and contribute the most.  For some, that will be as a member of the board, but engage new supporters in the way they want.  Let them plant flowers, audit your filing system, or share your posts on social media.  Wouldn’t you rather have a supporter for twenty years than a board member for three?

So, You Are New to Town?

Rural nonprofit leaders smell new people in town like Minnesota mosquitos smell blood.  They ask new residents to get involved with every organization, donate to every cause and attend every event. It may be a great “opportunity” for them, and they might “love” your organization, but let them settle into town.  When new residents get the hard sell, they can become over-involved and burn out.  They need time to learn the community, make friends and find their own way to organizations.

I also try to remind clients that not every new resident is a treasure.  I’ve seen it happen more than once.  A new person gets involved in an organization before people have a sense of who they really are.  They seem great initially, but as time goes on, it becomes clear they are a bad fit.  Once a person becomes a volunteer or a board member, it can be incredibly tough to break ties.

Action: It may be hard, but resist the urge to recruit new residents to volunteer immediately.  Be welcoming in a sincere, neighborly way.  Get to know them and support them as they make their way in town.  When they want to get involved, help them find the organization that matches their passion.  Don’t just steer them to your groups.  Also, be sure to give them a little time to develop a local reputation.  While we all have to make our own judgments, that reputation will help you decide if they may be a good fit for your organization as a volunteer or board member.



Jerritt Johnston is the Owner of True North Consultants, which promotes organizational, individual and team growth for businesses, nonprofits, and governmental agencies.  True North is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.  Want help finding your way?  Let True North be your guide.