Darla Moore came from humble roots. She grew up in Lake City, S.C., an agricultural community with a population of 6,675.
After college, she moved to New York, where she achieved tremendous success in finance. She was the first woman on the cover of Fortune magazine. And with Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, she became one of the first two female members of Augusta National Golf Club.
About 10 years ago, Ms. Moore began spending more time in Lake City, where her grandparents had farmed and her father, a school principal and coach, was a local leader. She attributed her success to her upbringing among a diverse group of people who worked primarily in agriculture.
But it seemed that Lake City’s best days in the tobacco and cotton trade were behind it, and Ms. Moore was determined to fix it up. In the last decade, she said, she has given about $100 million to support the town.
Many once-great towns and neighborhoods in America have lost their luster. But the challenges of turning around a community are complex and may deter many philanthropists. For one, the job calls for more effort than just giving money. Experts say the person leading the charge needs to be part of the community, or substantial change will be difficult to accomplish.
On her return to her hometown, Ms. Moore found that philanthropy takes finesse. “I didn’t walk in and say, ‘I’m back, and I’ve brought a bunch of money, so let’s fix ourselves up,’” she said. Instead, she paid for a study to see if anything could be done. It turned out there was a lot.
Ms. Moore is the sixth generation of her family to live on the same farm, where she has upgraded the farmhouse substantially and transformed the farmland into the Moore Farms Botanical Garden.
Her bona fides as a philanthropist are well established. She has given $70 million to the University of South Carolina, which named the business school after her, and made a $10 million gift to Clemson University, where her father was a star football and baseball player.
But Ms. Moore knew she was going to need the town’s constituents, regardless of age or race, to buy into a vision they all could share. There were more than a few doubters, she said.
“I had a lot of credibility in the town because of my father and grandparents, not because of my resources,” Ms. Moore said. “You couldn’t do it without that. I’ve known people who’ve gone into towns with a large amount of money, and it failed. It’s hugely complex.”
Like much in philanthropy today, many of these makeover projects require a mix of giving and investments with a social return so they can be sustainable. That combination helped Hamilton, Mo., population 1,809.
In 2008, two of Jenny Doan’s seven children gave her a sewing machine designed for quilting. Twelve feet long and seven feet wide, the machine was too big for the family’s home. So they bought a building to house it. Real estate was cheap because the town was struggling and many buildings had been neglected.
At the suggestion of one of her sons, Ms. Doan began to make YouTube videos on how to quilt. The videos took off. She kept sewing and making videos, and the family enterprise, the Missouri Star Quilt Company, kept buying and fixing up buildings.
The company now owns 26 buildings, including 14 quilt shops, three restaurants and a quilting retreat house for women, where up to 40 visitors can stay.
“We bought as many buildings as we could,” Ms. Doan said. But they all required extensive work before the Doans could use them.
She said the company had poured all of its profits back into the town for many years. It even put in the sidewalks along Main Street. Missouri Star Quilt now employs 450 people, mostly from the town.
“This was one of the poorest counties in Missouri, and now people have a job,” Ms. Doan said.
Rebuilding a civic space can be daunting and take years, if not longer, said Paul S. Grogan, president and chief executive of the Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations. He said it was important to record small milestones.
“The little victories add up to something significant,” said Mr. Grogan, whose background is in community development. “It becomes substantial. In a neighborhood accustomed to failure, you generate some success.”
Ms. Moore said she had started with the Bean Market, a historic building that was “spit and taped” together. It is now a central event space for Lake City. She moved on to the old feed and grocery store, which is now a Smithsonian-certified art gallery that hosted an exhibition of the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya in 2014.
But she has also funded less-glamorous tasks, like running high-speed fiber-optic lines into town.
For community leaders who lack resources, Mr. Grogan said, rehabilitating just one house or creating a community garden can have a catalytic effect. “You think, ‘How could those things possibly make a difference?’” he said. “But they do.”
Eventually, though, these towns need to attract outsiders to keep them viable. Ms. Doan’s quilting stardom — her YouTube channel has nearly 500,000 subscribers — drew tourists to Hamilton. That, in turn, brought in other businesses.
“In the beginning, not everyone was happy we were turning our farm community into a quilting community,” Ms. Doan said. “For those people who weren’t happy, we hired their children, and now they love us.”
In Lake City, Ms. Moore knew she had to create an event to bring in visitors. Plenty of people go to nearby Charleston for its historical charm and opera festival and to Myrtle Beach for its golf and 60-mile stretch of coastline, but Lake City was not on anyone’s must-see list.
In a meeting with advisers, some of whom she had known since she was a girl, one talked about an art festival in Grand Rapids, Mich., that is supported by members of the DeVos family, whose wealth comes from Amway, the multilevel marketing company. Ms. Moore thought that doing something similar with art from Southeastern states might work in Lake City.
That festival, ArtFields, is now in its sixth year. When it opens next Friday, 400 works of art will be on display in buildings that Ms. Moore has renovated and in downtown shops.
One shop owner, Barbara Miles, met with controversy last year when she selected a provocative tapestry from the festival to hang in her store, the East Main Market. But Ms. Moore said she had decided the artwork should stay. “It was a real humdinger of an image,” she said.
Some philanthropists are drawn to the challenge of renewing neighborhoods in big cities.
Marcus Samuelsson, the world-famous chef who owns Red Rooster in Harlem, started Harlem EatUp!, a weeklong food and cultural festival in the neighborhood, four years ago.
He said the festival, which draws attendees from the city and beyond, helped 80 businesses in the neighborhood. But Mr. Samuelsson said he was proud that 40 percent of the events were free, up from 20 percent when the festival started.
Harlem is a neighborhood with a deep cultural history, but Mr. Samuelsson saw this festival as a way to highlight its businesses. His goal has been to use a week of fun to bring economic benefits to Harlem and Spanish Harlem by connecting event sponsors with local chefs and restaurant owners.
“It’s a great place to live, to open a business, to create jobs,” he said. “But it’s also important that the restaurateurs meet sponsors like Ernst & Young or Citibank. That’s massive because the next time they need a business loan, they might be coached by Ernst & Young and get the loan from Citibank.”
That added benefit of opening up people’s eyes to a community is something all of these endeavors have in common.