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  • Writer's pictureAri Betof

Philanthropy Supports Revitalizing Cities, One New Resident at a Time

As reported in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, major philanthropic foundations, seeing the potential for growth of small and mid-sized cities and towns, are offering incentives to workers who want to relocate from busy urban centers to these areas. These programs provide cash funding to entrepreneurs, tech sector employees, artists, and other types of workers who can do their jobs from virtually anywhere.

Why? Everyone wins

The benefits to the towns that receive the new influx of talent are many: increased economic development, a group of skilled new residents with more disposable income, an offset to declining local populations, and a burst of fresh ideas to spark a renewal of civic participation, culture, and the arts. Also, entrepreneurs can create multiple jobs when they bring their business with them.

Attracting individual tech-focused, creative, and remote workers translates to fewer upfront demands on cities. By contrast, the quest to attract major corporations to relocate to an area typically hinges on a city providing a guarantee of tax abatements, existing cohorts of skilled workers, and other costly preconditions.

It’s a win for participants, too. Many pursue these grants out of a strong desire to achieve greater work-life balance in a slower-paced environment. They also find that homes are more affordable as well, after being priced out of inflated markets in cities like San Francisco and New York. In addition to the lower tax rates and lower costs of living, there’s also the sense of fulfillment and purpose that comes with being part of a movement toward creating positive change in communities with fewer resources.

Cities and towns typically partner with foundations to fund the relocation gifts to these new workers. Communities in Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Vermont, and beyond are offering anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, often with added gifts such as vehicles. Requirements typically include a commitment to stay for a stated minimum period, often one year, to keep the cash.

You no longer have to live where you work

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and put remote work into overdrive, competition for these types of grants was already strong, often with hundreds of applicants for every slot. Now, the current remote workforce is estimated to be on the verge of doubling over the next few years, and experts note that this has drawn even more attention to the option of relocating to smaller communities.

Ascend West Virginia wants new West Virginians who can “give back”

Ascend WV is working to strengthen West Virginia communities by providing more than $20,000 in cash incentives to workers who successfully complete its application process. Brad D. Smith, executive chair of Intuit in Silicon Valley, is the West Virginia native who founded Ascend WV, along with his wife. The couple’s $25 million contribution to the organization pays these incentives to “digital nomads” and others willing to relocate to the largely rural state while also supporting the growth of outdoor recreational programs.

Smith has noted that today’s technology infrastructure, as well as emerging new paradigms about the nature of work, have afforded far more “geographic freedom” to workers than ever before. For people looking to build a rich, meaningful life on their own terms, Ascend WV and similar programs can become life-changing experiences. The Smiths’ goal is for Ascend WV to bring in a new population dedicated to “giving back” to the state that will be their new home.

As of fall 2021, Ascend WV was in its second season, accepting applications for relocation to the city of Lewisburg while its initial cohort was preparing to leave for Morgantown. The program is set up to help more than 1,000 remote workers relocate over the next half-decade.

Tulsa Remote pioneered a successful model

The George Kaiser Family Foundation was an early adopter of this type of funding. In 2018 the foundation began supporting Tulsa Remote, which offers $10,000 to remote workers who move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, under its auspices. Successful applicants also receive desk space at the coworking facility 36 Degrees North and can network through associated local community-building programs.

So far, Tulsa Remote has relocated about 1,000 people, and by fall 2021 was moving forward to fill an additional 750 openings. The Kaiser Foundation has put $4 million into the project, which has since become a benchmark for other cities and foundations creating similar partnerships.

Life Works Here brings needed know-how to Arkansas

In early 2021, Life Works Here selected its first group of 25 individuals to relocate to Northwest Arkansas. More than 26,000 people from all 50 states had applied for the $10,000 grants.

Supported in large part by the Walton Family Foundation (the philanthropic organization established by Walmart founder Sam Walton), Life Works Here also draws on help from the Northwest Arkansas Council, whose leaders have noted that the role of philanthropy was crucial in its development. The program launched in 2020, infused with a $1.5 million gift from the Walton Foundation. With the area already experiencing steady population and economic growth, it would have been a hard sell to secure government funding.

The council takes a longer view, saying that without the 21st-century skills brought in by skilled tech and other remote workers, the region’s development will stagnate. More than 2,000 jobs requiring a background in STEM go unfulfilled in local companies due to the lack of applicants with the needed qualifications.

The Northwest Arkansas Council describes its first group of program recipients as people with backgrounds across a range of professions, including digital marketing, technology management, music and gaming production, and the culinary arts. They come from large cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Denver.

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