By Todd Cohen
Rural America faces huge challenges, yet it seems to be off the radar of much of organized philanthropy.
While a 2005 study by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers reported a “rapid rise in rural philanthropy,” a study two years later by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy concluded grantmaking behavior and trends were “skewed heavily toward support for urban-based or urban-focused programs.”
And last summer, at a Council on Foundations conference on rural philanthropy, former President Bill Clinton said “foundation activity in rural American has been woefully inadequate.”
So depending on one’s perspective, the rural-philanthropy glass may be half full or half empty.
Either way, it is not nearly big enough.
While home to an estimated one-fourth of the U.S. population of over 300 million people, rural America lags urban and suburban America in investment in the infrastructure that is critical for success in a fiercely competitive global marketplace.
The good news is that efforts are underway to try to change that.
Rural America itself “needs to change the way we are viewed,” Sherece West, president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in Little Rock, Ark., told nearly 600 people attending the annual conference hosted in Raleigh last week by the North Carolina Rural Center.
“We need to dispel misconceptions among national funders about rural America,” West said.
Rural groups, for example, should push for more equitable distribution of charitable and taxpayer dollars so that rural America is not treated as an afterthought by lawmakers and grantmakers, she said.
She called on foundations to be stronger “advocates, activists and accelerants” for rural philanthropy.
And she urged rural groups and local and statewide foundations to push their national counterparts to better understand and support the needs of rural America, she said.
At last week’s conference, the Rural Center released a new study that says local communities themselves represent a “potent sources of funding that often goes unrecognized.”
In particular, the study says, community foundations can “help lead the transformation of rural places to economic sustainability and cultural vibrancy.”
To do that, the study says, community foundations “will need to more aggressively build their assets and form partnerships with community development leaders.”
Also key to “capturing rural assets,” the study says, is “increasing knowledge about complex issues surrounding donations and bequests of real property, particularly land and timber resources.”
That, in turn, will involve “expanding the current professional education for financial and legal advisers to include rural-specific issues and increasing the number of qualified advisers available to rural donors.”
Community foundations in the state also “need to become increasingly inclusive and broad-based through their governance outreach to donors, community-engagement processes and programs.”
Private foundations can help, making grants to help community foundations, for example, increase their capacity to engage local givers and retain philanthropic assets in their communities.
To strengthen America overall, foundations need to wake up to the needs and economic potential of rural America and invest more time and attention to building its philanthropic capacity.