The more things change, the more they stay the same in philanthropy, it seems. A few years ago, foundations were hot to trot in response to Montana Senator Max Baucus’s call for the foundation community to double its measly grantmaking to rural America in a five year period. So what happened when the incoming chair of the Senate Finance Committee conveyed his concerns about the philanthropic pittance reaching rural states and communities?

Rural communities are getting no more money from foundations today than they were at the time Senator Baucus made his plea at the Council on Foundations annual conference in 2009.

As one Nonprofit Quarterly wit put it, foundations responded with “the appearance of intense activity.” There have been two rural conferences, one in Missoula, Montana in 2007, to make a show in the Senator’s backyard, the next in 2009 in Little Rock, Arkansas, perhaps based on the assumption that then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was all but a shoe-in to become the 44th president.

In addition to the conferences saluting foundations’ best practices, the Council on Foundations issued a glossy publication on rural philanthropy, selling for $35 a pop, offering different short takes on how best to promote rural grantmaking. There was a big emphasis in the conferences and in the book on rural philanthropic bootstrapping—rural communities looking for the latent local assets that in the intergenerational transfer of wealth might yield a little bit for new donor-advised funds in community foundations.

We hope no one is particularly shocked to discover that rural communities are getting no more money from foundations today than they were at the time Senator Baucus made his plea at the Council on Foundations annual conference in 2009.

A good barometer of the foundation sector’s response to the Baucus challenge is their grantmaking to the better networked, higher profile nonprofits engaged in community economic development, the rural CDCs that work with national intermediaries such as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the NeighborWorks Network. These tend to be the stars in the community economic development field. Past surveys have revealed foundations reluctant to make or increase grants in rural America because of a belief that rural nonprofits are capacity-deficient. The nonprofits linked to LISC and NeighborWorks include some of the most capable, professional, productive CDCs in the nation, rural or urban, and would likely be among the top beneficiaries if foundations were responding positively to the Baucus challenge.

It would be nice to ascribe foundations’ grantmaking to the rural CDCs from 2005 through 2008 to a Baucus bump, but the opposite is true.

Stellar is no understatement in describing these organizations. Among the LISC rural partner organizations are the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) in Berea, Kentucky, Mississippi Action for Community Education in Greenville, Mississippi, Self-Help Enterprises in Visalia, California, Coastal Enterprises based in Wiscasset, Maine, and Chicanos por la Causa based in Phoenix, Arizona. Among the NeighborWorks rural groups are the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont, the Colorado Rural Housing Development Corporation in Westminster, Colorado, Tierra del Sol Housing Corporation based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises in Berea, Kentucky. On both lists are top flight rural CDCs including South County Housing Corporation in Gilroy, California, Quitman County Development Organization in Marks, Mississippi, Centro Campesino Farmworkers Center in Florida City, Florida, and the Umpqua Community Development Corporation in Roseburg, Oregon.

For both the LISC-affiliated and NW-affiliated rural CDCs, foundation grant dollars increased appreciably between 2003 and 2005, from $3.0 million to $5.7 million for the LISC group, from $2.9 million to $3.8 million for the NeighborWorks CDCs. It would have been nice to ascribe that increase to the Senator, but he made his pitch to the Council on Foundations in 2006. Foundations’ grantmaking to the rural CDCs from 2005 through 2008, a period in which two of the years would have been expected to show a Baucus bump, reveals the opposite, as demonstrated in the table below:


LISC Rural Partners

% change from previous year

NeighborWorks Rural Initiative members

% change from previous year

All foundation grantmaking % change from previous year