At Nonprofit Quarterly, the research staff available to an individual writer is that writer himself or herself alone. To do real investigative work, you need funding, and that is a rarity in journalism nowadays. Most nonprofit journals can’t redeploy writers from their daily responsibilities and put together a team to do detailed, research-based investigative work unless they have regular backing like the philanthropic wealth of the Sandler family that supports ProPublica or the Knight Foundation, which backs a number of local nonprofit news outlets, albeit none dedicated to covering the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. For that reason, it makes us feel just a tiny bit proud to see the various articles on rural philanthropic grantmaking that NPQ has published over the years, suggesting to no one’s surprise that rural was getting the short end of the stick, validated by a new research report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The efforts of the Economic Research Service (ERS) economists who generated Foundation Grants to Rural Areas From 2005 to 2010: Trends and Patterns, started around 2011, near the time when the Department of Agriculture signed a memorandum of understanding with the Council on Foundations meant “to create new sources of wealth in rural America, identify community assets that can be used to produce economic opportunities, promote new partnerships in workforce investment strategies, and promote a series of joint activities including meetings, webinars, and teleconferences to advance common work.” The memorandum followed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s presentation at a COF rural philanthropy conference, reported on by NPQ at the time, and the USDA has been quite sensitive about the limited product emerging from the MOU.
In 2014, HUD and USDA announced the first Secretaries’ Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships, an effort with a clear focus of connecting philanthropy to the program priorities of the federal agencies. The winners were mostly urban save for the clearly exemplary rural selections of the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio and, in Michigan, the Barry Foundation, though the description provided for the latter project on the HUD website didn’t use the word “rural.” Recognition of exemplary rural funders is one thing, but hardly the same as a significant boost in philanthropic activity by the U.S. philanthropic sector. The boost in rural grantmaking still isn’t there despite much attention from the foundations’ national trade association (the Council on Foundations) and some parts of the federal government, and the evidence is in the report from Agriculture on rural philanthropy.
The ERS report covers foundation grantmaking during the period of 2005 to 2010. It shows that, given the trickle of foundation dollars into rural, whatever boost the Memorandum of Understanding might have made in rural philanthropy would have been important for rural America. According to the report, foundation grants to rural during that period accounted for 5.5 percent of domestic grants by large foundations, the roughly 1,200 to 1,400 largest foundations whose grants are tracked and tabulated by the Foundation Center. Adding in an estimate of the rural share of grants that went to urban recipients, the study boosts that total to 6.2 percent, though does not subtract the urban-focused portion of grants that went to rural grant recipients, such as colleges and universities located in micropolitan or nonmetropolitan areas. Based on a sample of grants from smaller foundations, the ERS authors boost the rural percentage of overall foundation giving to a bit over seven percent.
NPQ’s rural observations always focused on grants for rural community economic development. The ERS report puts the proportion of rural grant dollars going to “community improvement/capacity building” and “housing, shelter” at a combined 5.69 percent of total rural grantmaking of $5.45 billion by large foundations between 2005 and 2010, or roughly $310 million. As a percentage of all large foundations’ domestic grantmaking during that period ($98.85 billion), it is truly tiny. In light of the USDA findings, it appears that the NPQ rural philanthropy estimates that were based on the foundation fundraising of the nation’s most successful rural community developers may well have overestimated the rural generosity of U.S. foundations. The larger USDA number for rural grantmaking includes not just grants to rural development but to all kinds of rural activities and for institutions based in rural communities, such as colleges and universities, beyond NPQ’s limited focus on rural d