How 5 Community Foundations in Kansas Are Bringing the SDGs Home

For decades, rural towns across Kansas have turned to community foundations to tackle everyday challenges—from hunger and housing to education and environment. Now, five community foundations are turning to the SDGs to connect their local action to global ambitions.

In rural counties across Kansas, community foundations are helping families overcome urgent and universal challenges, from rising hunger and housing prices to a lack of accessible, affordable health care and child care.

Now, five community foundations in the Sunflower State are examining local problems — and solutions — through a global lens by using the Sustainable Development Goals.

If you ask Conny Bogaard, Teryn Carmichael, Karly Frederick, Becky Nickel, or Yazmin Wood what unites their five counties in rural Kansas, each of them would tell you that the typical Kansan likes to get things done.

As leaders of community foundations that span the state, these women know the challenges facing families in rural Kansas — and how sustainable development can help. They serve some of the state’s smallest towns (Bird City’s population is 450) and its least densely populated counties (the entire county of Greeley is home to just 1,200 people). Some of these foundations have been around for decades; Bird City’s foundation started with funds left over from the town’s centennial celebration in 1985. Others are relatively new; the Peabody Community Foundation was launched in 2000. Each foundation relies on local donors and local residents who represent varied interests, but all five share one ultimate goal: to build resilient communities that can thrive in the 21st century.

The challenges facing families in small towns and cities across the Midwest are not so different from the rest the of world: A lack of access to affordable housing, food, child care, and employment opportunities are among the top priorities across rural Kansas. The SDGs offer a global blueprint to tackle these universal problems with an interconnected lens.

Now, as part of a two-year pilot project launched by the Kansas Association of Community Foundations with support from Wichita State University and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, they’re joining forces to learn how rural community foundations can turn the UN’s ambitious global Sustainable Development Goals into local action by swapping insights and connecting with SDG advocates worldwide.

In a series of interviews with the UN Foundation at the start of the project’s second year, all five women shared their perspectives about how the SDGs can be a blueprint for small towns and big cities alike. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about your community foundation and the people you serve.

Conny Bogaard, Western Kansas Community Foundation (WKCF): WKCF serves 15 counties in southwest Kansas. These counties are very much driven by agriculture and the beef industry, which brings in lots of people from around the world to work in the beef-packing plants. So we have incredible diversity here. The high school in Garden City, for instance, has 26 languages spoken in a town of 35,000 people. And it’s not just racial or ethnic diversity, but also geographical diversity. Our region includes very small towns as well as bigger, more urban areas. We recently helped one of our counties start a daycare because that was a really big need there. In other communities, it’s housing. Housing needs are everywhere. All of the diverse ethnic groups that are coming here for the beef industry, they need affordable houses as well. Then think of food programs. The number of kids that depend on these meal programs is chillingly high in our area.

How familiar were you with the concept of the SDGs before this project?

Karly Frederick, Rice County Community Foundation: I had never heard of the SDGs before. But essentially, you think of everything that’s a really big, hairy problem — that’s what the SDGs are all about. Being from a small town, we are people who are doers, not talkers. So talking about it enough sometimes doesn’t occur. How can we make sure that we’re setting up a system that is self-sustaining and doesn’t need fixing five years down the line? Having a tool like the SDGs to help us look at data-driven stories and draw people in is really powerful for our community.

Can you give us some success stories or examples of the SDGs in action?

Yazmin Wood, Legacy Regional Community Foundation: In the last two years, our community has been able to make tremendous strides in early childhood literacy, including a bookmobile that takes the library out into our neighborhoods. It followed the bus taking out free meals this summer and also met kids at our local summer camp, which is where 160 kids can get affordable child care. That building is next to our public pool, where kids can also receive swimming lessons. That’s the kind of collective impact that, to me, the SDGs are really all about.

From funding the construction of a new daycare center to providing scholarships for local students, community foundations are investing in the future by focusing on children and young people.

What drew you to participate in this pilot project around the SDGs?

Teryn Carmichael, Bird City Century II Development Foundation: How we got into the realm of the SDGs is we’re heavily focusing on housing right now. You could move out here prior to COVID and buy a house for anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000. Now we have homes going for over $130,000. We have never had this happen. The SDGs have played a big part helping us with our approach to making sure everyone can afford homes. We want to make sure that we’re making housing here sustainable.

What were some of the lessons you took away from this experience?

Becky Nickel, Peabody Community Foundation: As it relates to the SDGs, making the language accessible to our communities. If you come from multigenerational agriculture producers — and these folks have been running their operations the way their dads and grandfathers ran them — when you start talking about “sustainability,” they may hear “regulations.” We have to connect sustainability to our community so people understand why we need our population housed so we can continue to have the hardware store they depend on, the bank that they depend on, et cetera.

What were some of your favorite moments from the first year of this project?

Karly Frederick: One “aha” moment was a learning session with a woman from a community foundation in England. She described it so well and so simply when she said you have to make the SDGs bite-sized. It’s not just one huge project. Let’s make some good happen and let’s build up to that systemic change.

"You have to make the SDGs bite-sized."

Karly Frederick

Rice County Community Foundation

Where do you see exciting opportunities or areas for growth as it relates to the SDGs?

Teryn Carmichael: We’re starting to hone in on supporting remote work and entrepreneurship, which relates to SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. We’ve been big advocates for entrepreneurship because it’s not like you’re going to get Amazon to move here. So the mentality is supporting what’s homegrown. With the expansion of broadband, for example, we now have a marriage and family therapist who is growing her practice both ways, seeing patients in person and remotely, too, thanks to the telehealth world expanding. Now those people she’s pulling from different communities as new patients are going to our restaurants, they’re shopping at our grocery store before they leave, they’re helping support us.

How do you see your work with the SDGs evolving in year two of this pilot project and beyond?

Conny Bogaard: There has to be a data component to all of this because how else are you going to measure success? So we’ve identified 10 SDGs to help track our grantmaking. For example, Garden City has a seven-year turnover rate, which means every seven years, people are coming and going, including people who retire and move away. So a lot of money — and I’m talking about millions of dollars each year — is leaving because retirees are following their kids who pursued a college education elsewhere and never came back. All of that constant migration causes a huge loss of resources and transfer of wealth. So our state started this campaign, “Keep 5 in Kansas.” If we can capture 5% of people’s assets to be reinvested in our communities through community foundations, it would make a huge difference. So how can we use what we’ve learned through the SDGs and make these investments most effective? Like starting in those counties that are being hit the hardest by this transfer of wealth.

Where do you see some of the greatest challenges when it comes to localizing progress on the SDGs?

Yazmin Wood: One of the challenges is that our resources are more limited. And not just funding. ​​I was actually going to preface our interview with: “I hope the Internet works well for us today.” Another challenge in our rural communities is that whenever there’s a good idea, we want to do something about it — and that can be self-defeating in its own way. We were really intentional in having our SDG team at the Legacy Foundation meet with other prominent funders in our community because we want to help them see how if we all work together, we can collectively enhance all of our work and do more.

At the heart of this work—and of the SDGs—is collective action. Each of these community foundations relies on the support of local residents, volunteers, donors, and leaders to succeed.

How has this SDG framework changed the way you approach your work?

Becky Nickel: We’ve done over 50 stakeholder interviews in the community, and everyone feels that housing is a super big need. So we’re focusing on housing, but we’re also showing how this goal is also about infrastructure. It’s about education. Employment. These things are connected.

As a community foundation leader, why do you think it’s important for local organizations to embrace the SDGs as a blueprint for progress?

Conny Bogaard: You have to build progress locally. Every community foundation goes about it differently — and that is the beauty of this field and the flexibility of what’s possible in our work. No two towns are the same. What the SDGs show is you start with the people who need your help the most. And, of course, the people who live here know where the need is the most.

Karly Frederick: Community foundations are so nimble in how they can do things, whether it’s broadband or day care or housing. We’re flexible problem solvers. We can grant and loan dollars, so that makes us more nimble than traditional nonprofits or governments and municipalities. Our five-person team can have a real impact, but we have to make sure it’s sustainable and that we’re implementing the SDGs as we go, because it’s the little actions we take that build upon each other to make lasting change.

Yazmin Wood: Everyone can find something in the SDGs that they’re passionate about and see how it relates to building a better, more sustainable community for the future. I have this big part of my heart that wants to go out and save the world. And I realize I am one person and the place that I can best save the world is in my corner of it. Kansas is where I was planted and where I do my best to cultivate and bloom alongside everybody else. And I feel so much that our community is right-sized and ripe to make a difference.

Becky Nickel: Utilizing this SDG framework has really empowered our board and it’s made our Foundation much more visible in the community. We’re meeting with the City Council. We’re meeting with our senior citizens. We’re actors and agents of change now whereas, before this project, we weren’t.

Teryn Carmichael: All of this is about trying to grow and sustain our community — no matter what — so people can stay here. The way we look at it, if it’s not us, then who’s it going to be?

Photos provided courtesy of: Bird City Century II Development Foundation; Legacy Regional Community Foundation; Matt Grogan; Peabody Community Foundation; Rice County Community Foundation; and Western Kansas Community Foundation.

This story is part of a larger project launched by the UN Foundation and the Brookings Institution to build and support American Leadership on the SDGs.

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