Philanthropy ideas
Paradise Garden in Chatooga County, GA / USDA

Stories about foundations serving rural America don’t often make it to the front page—or anywhere else for that matter—in national and regional newspapers. People living and working in rural America, however, know what access to philanthropic dollars means and sometimes how difficult it is for small, nonmetropolitan communities to access foundation support.

Mary Anne Davis, a member of the editorial board of The Union, the newspaper of western Nevada County in California, writes enthusiastically about the creation of the Penn Valley Cultural Center, which will house a 562-seat performance hall, a 5,000-square-foot library, a visitor’s center, meeting space for nonprofits, and a permanent art gallery. She credits the Penn Valley Community Foundation for this initiative while acknowledging that half the funding will be from a USDA Rural Development Program loan. The population of Penn Valley is 1,621; of Nevada County, 98,200.

In northern Idaho, the Panhandle Alliance for Education, a community foundation modeled on the Seattle Foundation, has been putting about $500,000 a year into the Lake Pend Oreille School District for teacher grants (for purchasing books, musical instruments, and classroom technology items), the hiring of a guidance counselor, reading and writing programs, plus a full-day kindergarten and instructional coaches. The district centers on the city of Sandpoint, population 7,577, the county seat of Bonner County, population 40,699.

Community foundations like Penn Valley and PAFE exist largely due to the charitable generosity of local residents, but rural communities, particularly lower income rural areas, don’t often generate much in the way of community foundation assets. The result is frequently very limited charitable grantmaking. Unlike metropolitan areas, rural America doesn’t get much in the way of foundation grant support from major private foundations, a circumstance that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted as a frustration in his comments at the National Rural Assembly in Washington last week.

Where are the major foundations? Where is institutional philanthropy in toto in response to the needs—and the opportunities—of rural America? That was the topic for four dedicated rural grantmakers at last week’s National Rural Assembly: Justin Maxson, the president of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Kathy Annette, the president of the Blandin Foundation headquartered in Grand Rapids, Minnesota; Jamie Bennett, the executive director of ArtPlace America; and Heeten Kalan, a senior program officer of the New World Foundation. Their increasingly non-rural foundation peers have much to learn from their insights, summarized below:


Why so little rural philanthropy—and why is it declining even further?

New World’s Kalan suggested that one of the problems is that philanthropy follows demographic shifts. With more movement and attention to metropolitan areas, rural falls prey to the foundation sector’s obsession with metrics—there are more people in metropolitan areas, thus foundation money for metro projects yield bigger numbers even if the meaningful impact may be much less than the headcount. However, Kalan turned the argument around in an interesting way, suggesting that if grantmakers are aiming to change federal policies, with the demographic shift toward urban, they focus on urban to the detriment of rural.

Annette suggested that part of that problem is not just counting numbers, but vision. She suggested that the vision for rural America—and for rural foundations and nonprofits—has not been well articulated to Blandin’s peer foundations. ArtPlace America’s Bennett suggested that the narrative is that rural communities are “broken” and need to be “fixed.” It is a negative narrative, underplaying or missing the models and opportunities in rural communities that can and should be recognized as valuable for the entire nation, rural and otherwise.


Getting foundation staff into rural communities

The wrong-headed rural narrative may reflect a limited willingness of foundation program officers to go to and experience rural communities for themselves. Kalan said that New World puts a large emphasis on fieldwork, spending time with people where they live, including rural areas. He offered that he didn’t think a lot of other foundation people did that, meaning that they missed understanding both rural struggles and rural strengths. Maxson said that the key is for foundation staff to understand “place” and “context.” Without that, he suggested, it is going to be difficult to move foundations toward more rural grantmaking.


Pressure from within and without

Surprisingly, all of the foundation discussants were somewhat at a loss to think of venues where rural funders could organize and promote their collective vision. Annette mentioned her commitment to build relationships with other funders and simultaneously shake things up. As a member of the board of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, Annette described her role as to specifically ask rural questions of her foundation peers. Bennett added that the role should also be to give rural projects a national spotlight so that other foundations might see opportunities to emulate or replicate.

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