March 7, 2018; Philanthropy News Digest
The Lilly Endowment, one of the world’s largest private foundations with assets of more than $10 billion, recently announced a $10 million grant to the new Center for Rural Engagement at Indiana University Bloomington. This investment is both encouraging and thought-provoking, raising important questions about the glaring geographic disparities in rural access to such private investments, the effectiveness of academic institutions in stimulating and supporting community level change, and the track record of large foundations in sustaining rural investments over the needed long haul.
Based in Indianapolis, the Lilly Endowment is perhaps best known for its grants to strengthen pastoral leaders and congregational health in Christian churches across the country. But about two-thirds of its annual grantmaking supports community development/philanthropy and youth/education in Indiana, with the majority of investments going to Indianapolis.
Lilly’s path to seeding the Center for Rural Engagement began in 2014 with its support of a Strategic Plan for Economic and Community Prosperity in Southwest Central Indiana undertaken by the global consulting firm, Battelle. The next year, the Endowment invested a total of $42 million to support a regional workforce/education initiative, an Applied Research Institute (which coordinates “multi-institutional defense research collaborations), and a planning process to create the IU Center for Rural Excellence. The stated goal of the Center for Rural Engagement is “to improve the lives and opportunities of Hoosiers by working with partners to discover and deploy evidence-based, data-informed and scalable solutions to common challenges facing rural communities.” It will initially focus on R&D, workforce and education, and quality of life issues in the 11-county target region.
Universities have long engaged in rural development. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Land-Grant College Act, authorizing the sale of federal land to finance the creation of public universities in every state, with a focus on benefitting “agriculture and the mechanical arts.” In 1914, Congress added to this program by passing the Smith-Lever Act, creating cooperative extension in every state. These centers today employ over 10,000 full-time staff operating in every county in the US, supported in part by $1.5 billion in annual appropriations from the US Department of Agriculture. Nonetheless, private philanthropy has often failed to leverage this existing public investment.
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Though the southwest central Indiana region targeted by Lilly lags behind the state in median household income (averaging $46,851 across the 11 counties vs. $50,433 for the state) and population change (averaging -0.6 percent compared to the state’s 2.3 percent for 2010–2016) and endures slightly higher poverty rates (averaging 14.5 percent vs. the state’s 14.1 percent), it is certainly not a persistently poor rural region like the Mississippi Delta or Central Appalachia. Its population is more than 95 percent white. Though the region has lost manufacturing and agricultural jobs over the past decades, it is home to a public campus of nearly 50,000 students, the third-largest Navy base in the world, and centers for entrepreneurship, advanced manufacturing, and innovation. This is a rural region with resources and opportunity.
NPQ has long reported on the disparate level of private philanthropic investment in rural compared to metropolitan America, as well as large foundations’ preference, when investing in rural, for “already reasonably well-funded nonprofit organizations—for example, private universities or the private foundations of public universities—and groups with the purported education and capacity to apply for, receive, and manage foundation support.” Clearly, there are exceptions to these patterns of rural philanthropy. The Duke Endowment, with assets of more than $3 billion, invested $10.6 million in the 2002–2007 Program for the Rural Carolinas, supporting 20 challenged rural communities to undertake large and small collaborative projects for economic and community revitalization. In 2003, the Northwest Area Foundation launched an ambitious program to build leadership capacity to help nearly 300 rural communities deal with the challenges of poverty. The Kellogg Foundation and the California Endowment also launched significant multi-year rural initiatives. These large philanthropic initiatives, despite producing important learnings and some results on the ground, did not endure, and the targeted rural communities, once again, were left without significant philanthropic resources.
A different model of philanthropic investing in rural communities that is focused on a single or just a handful of counties over the long haul is now being tested by both community foundations (supported by the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group’s Rural Development Philanthropy Learning Network) and health-conversion foundations. These place-based funders have a long-term relationship with their rural communities, are often interested in building diverse and grassroots leadership and organizations, and have the potential to catalyze and support significant change in their rural places. The Danville Regional Foundation, for example, created in 2005 by the sale of the community’s nonprofit hospital, has invested more than $80 million through more than 260 grants for health, education, and well-being in two rural counties. It’s here for the long term, says Karl Stauber, the foundation’s president. “Just look at early childhood education. There are improvements in early childhood education scores in the region and it’s clear that the benchmarks suggest we’re moving in the right direction. But, given the nature of that work we will not know if it’s successful for 15 or more years until we see these same children crossing the stage getting their diplomas and becoming successful adults.”
That’s the kind of philanthropy we need to help rural communities move forward—philanthropy that thinks deeply and comprehensively about rural community change and is in it for the long haul. Whether IU’s new Center for Rural Engagement will be able to translate the university’s expertise into long-term prosperity and sustainability for its 11-county rural region and serve as a model for the nation alike is an important question to be tracked and pondered.—Deborah Warren