Is Rural America Philanthropy’s Final Frontier?

ruralamericaEditor’s Note: Updated 12pm November 2, 2015.

Institutional philanthropy in the United States has long neglected rural communities. As recently noted by the Nonprofit Quarterly, it seems rural philanthropic investment levels may be at a low point, despite much talked-about recent efforts to steer funds into rural communities. In a rare breach of the live-and-let-live relationship usually maintained between politicians and the philanthropic sector, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called foundations to task for their complacency. His comments should turn heads, and hopefully, remind philanthropists that the sector’s broken promise to rural communities is a political and moral failure that will take a concerted campaign of organizing, educating and persuading to correct.

In 2004, NCRP released Beyond City Limits: The Philanthropic Needs of Rural America, and followed it in 2007 with Rural Philanthropy: Building Dialogue from Within. The latter showed that about 1 percent of grant dollars and 0.3 percent of grantmaking foundations were devoted to rural development purposes. Since then, the data on rural philanthropy has been sparse. But most sector leaders agree that, if it has changed at all, it’s gotten worse – even though roughly a fifth of Americans live in rural areas, and rural residents are more likely to be poor than their urban counterparts.

Why are foundations ignoring the needs of rural Americans along with the investment and innovation opportunities that abound in rural communities? NCRP’s 2007 research highlighted a few challenges:

  1. Misperceptions of rural people and places.
  2. Rural communities’ isolation from the foundation world.
  3. Philanthropy’s reliance on big numbers and scaling up.
  4. Rural social sector capacity issues.
  5. Weak local infrastructure.

A few of these are issues of foundation perception or knowledge – issues funders can and should change. An opinion poll commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg foundation in 2002 noted that many funders held what one rural nonprofit director call the “Norman Rockwell picture of rural America.” Self-reliance, mutual aid and pastoral splendor certainly are facets of rural life, but just as common are struggling education systems, environmental degradation and generationally entrenched poverty. It is up to sector support groups like NCRP, as well as foundations themselves, to commit to discerning and disseminating an accurate picture of rural needs.

Just as important, however, are rural opportunities. Rural giving offers a chance for foundations to strengthen rural nonprofit infrastructure through grants, and spark the economies of capital-starved rural communities through mission investing. As the editorial board at the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gazette put it, “There’s a compelling case to be made … that answers to some of our biggest collective issues – climate change, clean energy and global food security – will be found not in a city center, but farther afield.” The dearth of funding for rural communities deprives the social sector of opportunities to develop innovative solutions to pressing problems.

The rural funding gap makes clear social sector leadership has failed rural communities. In 2007, then-Montana Senator Max Baucus, chair of the committee with legislative oversight of the foundation sector, called for a doubling of philanthropic investment in rural communities, as reported by Nonprofit Quarterly. This was followed by silence and a disappointing lack of follow-up from Baucus himself. Rural philanthropic investment only declined.

In 2011, the trade association Council on Foundations — arguably then the most powerful organization in the sector — signed a memorandum of understanding with the USDA to inject capital and other resources into rural communities. A handful of summits and research products followed, but once again rural philanthropic investments declined.

It’s time we acknowledge that institutional philanthropy is unlikely to embrace rural funding through a top-down approach. In hindsight Senator Baucus’s demand looks like cynical political posturing. And the Council is, to a large extent, governed by its foundation members, not the other way around. It will take a grassroots campaign of organizing rural voices to demand foundations live up to their public trust and move institutional philanthropy toward a more just, effective strategy in rural America.

A campaign for rural philanthropic investment would mobilize underrepresented voices to educate foundation leadership about the reality of life in rural America, and about the opportunities that exist there. It would build the power of rural organizations, connecting them both with one another and national funders. It would suggest ways to measure impact that don’t rely on raw numbers or the potential to rapidly scale up. And it would remind foundations that they ought to invest in rural social sector capacity – instead of using its relative weakness to excuse their neglect.

Secretary Vilsack’s comments distilled over a decade of frustration with the philanthropic sector from rural constituents and their champions. Now it’s time for leaders like Vilsack, and others in the social sector who care about equity and opportunity, to build a campaign that will make philanthropy pay attention.

Ryan Schlegel is research associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter.

CC image by Jon Payne.