Reversing the Current of Underinvestment in Rural Communities

Written by: Aaron Dorfman

Date: May 16, 2016

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from NCRP Executive Director Aaron Dorfman’s keynote speech to the 2016 Central Minnesota Nonprofit Summit, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits on May 5, 2016. Read the entire speech here.

In the short time we have together this morning, I promise you two things. My first promise is that you’re going to get mad, maybe even really mad, about how, in spite of the noble efforts of many, there is still a chronic under-investment in rural communities by the vast majority of our nation’s grantmaking foundations. My second promise is that I’ll suggest a handful of ideas about how we can all help turn around this terrible situation.

It’s no secret that outside America’s cities people are faring worse than their urban counterparts. Rural Americans are more likely to be poor on nearly every measure. Rural children are poorer, rural senior citizens are poorer, rural single mothers are poorer, and rural people of color are poorer. One in five children in rural America are living in poverty. One in three Black Americans in rural areas is living in poverty. Nearly half of households headed by a single mother in rural America are living in poverty. And perhaps the most distressing statistic: fully 85 percent of the counties designated by the USDA as “persistently poor” over the last 30 years are rural counties. We know this is just the tip of the iceberg. The rural poor are likelier to have less access to healthcare, to quality education, to fulfilling work, to healthy food and to all the other opportunities that contribute to economic mobility and general well-being. Nowhere are those conditions worse than in places with concentrated, decades-long entrenched poverty. The Great Recession reversed the trend of improving rates of poverty in rural areas. To put it bluntly: Our rural communities are being left behind in an economy and a political environment that has not prioritized their needs.

And what are the nation’s grantmaking foundations doing about it? Sadly, not much.

In fact, we face chronic under-investment in rural communities by philanthropy. The philanthropic community could help begin to address the challenges in rural American but hasn’t. It is an issue that is important to many of you who work in rural Minnesota, and one that NCRP has been calling attention to for years. Unfortunately, since we released our report Rural Philanthropy: Building Dialogue from Within in 2007, very little has changed. The philanthropic sector continues to neglect rural communities. A changing national economy, entrenched racial inequity and foundations’ reliance on a strict interpretation of strategic philanthropy has meant philanthropic resources for rural communities are few and far between, just when the opportunities for change are most urgent. This has to change if we want to see progress on the issues we all care about.

So how much funding do rural organizations get from foundations? Not very much. A previous study by NCRP found that only about one-half of one percent of all foundations in the U.S. make any grants that even have the word “rural” in the grant description. That means that 99.5 percent of all foundations make zero grants where the word “rural” is in the grant description. A rigorous study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture released in 2015 estimates, generously, in my opinion, that about 6 percent of all grant dollars given by U.S. foundations primarily benefit rural populations. Six percent might sound not too bad until you consider that 19 percent of the U.S. population resides in rural areas. My sense, and I think other observers agree, is that the amount of funding for rural communities has probably been declining in recent years, in spite of some much publicized conferences on the subject sponsored by the Council on Foundations.

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.” Our rural communities are full of potential. I know it, and you know it. It’s time for the philanthropic sector to realize it, too.

Keep reading.

Aaron Dorfman is NCRP’s executive director. Follow @NCRP on Twitter. Read the entire speech here.