In light of the deep and growing rural-urban political divide, and the consequent villainization of rural people, a new coalition of donors who are sympathetic to today’s rural communities is desperately needed.
Two weeks ago, I diagnosed some of the greatest struggles facing rural America – from the opioid crisis, out-migration, and isolation among the elderly to economic revitalization and other serious social and financial struggles. Last week, I wrote about what is being done, and not done, by philanthropic foundations to address these pressing challenges. Today, I hope to propose some projects or ideas to help donors and foundations with a commitment to rural revitalization and the flourishing of its communities.
As some of the examples in last week’s article suggest, there is a growing recognition among some funders, at least, that the philanthropy establishment’s typical prejudices stand in the way of their being more generous and effective patrons of rural communities.
The industry’s literature and reports often warn would-be rural funders that numbers-driven measures of success will need to tweaked or dumped; that program models will have to be locally adapted and deeply rooted in local mores if they are to work; that building trust within the local community is essential; and even that locals often come up with the best ideas (e.g., in one instance, the simple idea of posting volunteers at voting centers to ask those in line to identify those community needs which aren’t being met).
Alas, many philanthropic institutions are not well-equipped to adopt these points of view. Aside from the ideological contempt with which many of their grant officers regard country people, they are the heirs to a philanthropic logic that by its very nature has tended to denigrate locally adapted, small-scale, humble, personalist approaches for those which promise, however implausibly, large-scale, once-and-for-all solutions.
Systemic change and thirty-thousand-foot views are the coins of the realm in modern philanthropy, and have been for more than a century. Rural peoples have historically borne the brunt of this high-modernist (to use James C. Scott’s terminology) way of thinking, and are unlikely to flourish under its reign.
If conservatives wish to take up the banner for rural philanthropy, and rural life more generally, a localist vision is essential. They must ask to what particular place they are accountable now, or will hold themselves accountable to in the future, and immerse themselves physically and spiritually in that community, living and loving and suffering with those they wish to serve.
And once committed to a place, their funding process must be as simple, direct, and un-bureaucratic as possible, even at the risk of “wasting” some resources.
What sorts of projects or ideas might a rurally focused, localist funder support? The list is doubtless a large one, and should vary by place, but a few possibilities suggest themselves:
1. The return of the talented. Rural communities cannot flourish if they continue to hemorrhage their most able young people. More thinking needs to be put into how to slow and ultimately reverse rural brain drain. There have been some efforts to bring the smartest young people back home—scholarships for local high school graduates to attend the local community college; debt-forgiveness programs for those who return— but nothing terribly innovative, and nothing on a large scale.
2. Capital and credit for small businesses and entrepreneurs. The model of the Maine Harvest Credit Project, which provides loans to local farmers in order to grow their businesses, and similar efforts, should be tested by funders, and information shared regularly between those operating in different areas. Peer lending circles like the one promoted by the Mission Asset Fund in San Francisco could be studied and implemented in communities nationwide. Some targeted legislative lobbying might also help open up new financing pathways for rural business people.
3. The growth of small farms and local food economies. As writers like Joel Salatin have pointed out, from child-labor regulations to food inspection, government bureaucrats have extraordinary power over what food is available in the local marketplace. Their system favors industrial, global, corporate food systems, precisely the sorts of systems which have contributed so much to the decline of rural America. There has been progress here, with the number of farmers’ markets growing by 180% from 2006 to 2016, reaching 8,200 nationwide, and local food sales rising to $6.1 billion. Sustainable/local food has become something of its own philanthropic program area in recent years, with funding in this area growing by 52 percent from 2011 to 2013. Something seems to be working, and rural-minded conservative donors could add significant funding to the cause while ensuring that the needs of rural people are balanced with those of rural landscapes and farm stock. The same could be said of open-space funding, another funding area where conservative institutions and donors are conspicuous by their absence.
4. Embedded rural “missionaries.” As a response to the working-class social and familial breakdown they witnessed by living in rural and small-town Ohio, David and Amber Lapp have argued in First Things that what is most fundamentally needed is a “deeply personal encounter” between would-be helpers and sufferers. They suggest that young couples might intentionally live in areas where stable loving marriages are in short supply; that older married couples might befriend and offer informal mentorship to younger ones; and, more importantly for our purposes, that charitable foundations ought to “partner with a church or nonprofit to subsidize ‘charity organizers,’ who would live in working-class neighborhoods and perhaps even take working-class jobs. They would help couples in their communities share stories, identify problems, consult with peers, and decide on initiatives.” This promising idea could be tested, perhaps in partnership with existing, missionary-minded faith-based organizations.
5. Anything that promises to combat family breakdown. Localist, rural-focused conservatives should not hesitate to contribute to health-care and economic initiatives that promise to lessen the pressures felt by fragile rural families, including some of those mentioned earlier. They can add not only much-need funds to such initiatives, but they can also broaden them to include components that might otherwise be ignored, such as faith-based counseling, while also providing a source of funding for programs that do not set themselves in opposition to rural places’ more traditional moral values.
In light of the deep and growing rural-urban political divide, and the consequent villainization of rural people, the inflow of philanthropic resources from establishment funders is likely to continue to slow.
Nor are the forces that have contributed to the decline of American rural life likely to spontaneously reverse. Rural America may, as Kevin Williamson says, be increasingly taking the shape of a dysfunctional slum. But its residents do not deserve that fate any more than our wealthy urban cities deserve theirs. A new coalition of donors who are sympathetic to today’s rural communities is therefore desperately needed.
 See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), and Jeremy Beer, The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2015).