At a time when rural America may need it more than ever, foundations have reduced their investment in rural programs and places.
Last week I wrote about the challenges facing rural communities – from health care, the opioid crisis, and isolation among the elderly, to brain drain, out-migration, poverty, single motherhood, and other serious social and economic struggles.
So what has been the philanthropy establishment’s response to this state of affairs?
At a time when rural America may need it more than ever, foundations have reduced their investment in rural programs and places. Various experts in the field, as well as former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, have examined the data and concluded that the share of philanthropic dollars “going to rural,” as the shorthand puts it, has declined since 2004, when a study by the left-leaning National Center for Responsive Philanthropy showed that 1 percent of foundation grant dollars went for rural development, and that .3 percent of foundations listed rural development as a priority.
This decline has come despite a 2011 memorandum of understanding between the Council on Foundations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in which both parties promised to inject more capital and resources into rural communities.
In that same year, the Nonprofit Quarterly reported that grant dollars to rural development had declined by 3.5 percent between 2004 and 2008, despite an increase in overall grant dollars of 43.4 percent.
Rick Cohen’s analysis of rural philanthropy has been the most comprehensive. Cohen reported in June 2015 on an Economic Research Service (ERS) study of foundation grantmaking from 2005 to 2010. That study revealed that among the 1,200 to 1,400 largest foundations in America, 5.5 percent of domestic grant dollars went to rural causes or organizations, or about $5.45 billion.
This is bad enough, in that it reveals that 19 percent of the U.S. population receives 5.5 percent of large foundations’ grant dollars. But the truth is worse. Of that $5.45 billion, only $310 million went for rural community economic development, Cohen estimated. Most of the remaining funds went to colleges and universities located in rural areas, the Oberlins and Grinnells and Sewanees of the world—hardly what anyone means by rural America.
In an earlier, much-cited article, Cohen listed among the reasons why rural philanthropy was decreasing that certain large foundations which used to emphasize rural giving, especially Kellogg and Ford, no longer were.
He also noted that there is now no strong rural philanthropy advocate among leading philanthropic institutions. Four of the top ten rural grantmakers in the ERS study were more or less conservative: the T. Boone Pickens Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, and the Walton Family Foundation. But these funders’ grantmaking to rural has tended to be incidental to their several visions, rather than a manifestation of a commitment to rural flourishing as a top mission priority.
Rural nonprofits already face serious structural disadvantages in trying to attract donor dollars.
Only 3 percent of the nation’s foundation assets are located in rural areas, for one thing. Furthermore, foundations are more devoted than ever to using their funds to achieve maximum measurable impact, a trend pushed by the hyper-utilitarian Effective Altruism movement, at its most extreme, but also unreflectively by MBA types of all political stripes. Since it is hard to report big impact numbers in areas with low population densities, the rise of this philosophical/management ideal imposes a high price on rural communities.
Rural nonprofits face yet other disadvantages. Grantmakers often only want to fund projects, rather than organizational infrastructure, and since rural nonprofits already barely secure enough funds to keep the lights on, this philanthropic prejudice is often enough to disqualify them.
Rural groups’ physical distance from funders means that they aren’t as able to form personal relationships with donors and foundations.
Finally, those rural areas which have comparatively few minority residents are often overlooked by big foundations because they don’t check the diversity box.
Of course, there is yet another reason why major philanthropists and mainstream foundations have tended to underfund rural communities: they may not much like, understand, or trust most of the people who live there.
In 2014, in the midst of his analysis of rural philanthropy, Rick Cohen asked, “Is a trend emerging that foundations that lean toward the liberal view are writing off rural? If so, that would be a disturbing phenomenon of political and geographic bifurcation.”
Whether or not it would be disturbing, it’s entirely understandable. Why would foundations want to provide funding to the folks that brought them Trump? Folks who are apparently incorrigible racist and xenophobic trans-phobes? Wouldn’t it be better if they were brought into the cities and suburbs, where they might be re-educated and civilized, or else left to molder and die in their crumbling shacks? As Cohen himself reported, “One top foundation executive has been widely reported to have said that the best thing that can be done for rural people is to give them bus tickets to cities.”
The NCRP has called for a “grassroots campaign of organizing rural voices to demand foundations live up to their public trust and move institutional philanthropy toward a more just, effective strategy in rural America.” But of course the NCRP would be horrified by the results of any genuine grassroots campaign in rural America, given its disgust with the result of the last presidential election.
The political-philosophical gap between funders and the rural people whom they would serve is revealed in the language spoken by foundation leaders, a language utterly alien to most rural dwellers. It is a sterile idiom of equity gaps and economic development and public-private partnerships and resource flows, completely lacking in the earthy, faith-tinged idiom used by actual country people.
And the gap is revealed in how careful mainstream funders are to concentrate their rural-funding efforts in healthcare and economic development initiatives—and to steer clear of efforts to preserve and promote rural culture.
This is not to say that foundations and major donors aren’t funding some interesting or promising projects in rural America. We should pause to take note of some of them here, so that we might better consider how those of us in greater sympathy with rural values and perspectives might complement and supplement such efforts.
In the area of health care, the rural opioid crisis is being addressed by programs like Project Lazarus, which builds coalitions between health-care workers, religious groups, and police to help addicts and provide training to local authorities.
Beyond opioids, a group called Remote Area Medical holds giant medical clinics in places like Wise County, Virginia, where access to healthcare is limited. As we reported here at Philanthropy Daily, hundreds of dentists and doctors converge every July at the Wise County Fairgrounds to serve about 2,000 patients, some of whom camp out for several days to be treated. The Medical Missionaries of Mary and dentists associated with the Mission of Mercy provide much of the manpower, and the Virginia Dental Association Foundation much of the funding.
The rural elderly are served, in rural Arizona, by a group called Mom’s Meals, which deploys specially trained FedEx drivers not only to deliver food but also to check personally on those to whom they deliver. Follow-up “reassurance calls” are then made by a local social service agency. Similarly, the Orange County Rural Alliance in North Carolina delivers hot meals to impoverished rural seniors, but also makes minor home repairs and takes time on each visit simply to talk. Various ride-sharing programs serving the elderly and infirm have been launched in recent years. Lyft partners with a couple of national caregiving nonprofits to help get patients to and from medical appointments. And in farflung Wickenburg, Arizona, a couple of local foundations have funded the Freedom Express, which gives free rides to those sixty and over five days a week.
On the economic front, one potentially promising model is offered by the West Central Initiative in Minnesota, which acts as a community foundation for nine rural counties. It has helped save jobs, and allegedly spur economic growth, by making $35 million in loans to local businesses, purportedly creating or sustaining 6,000 jobs.
A more innovative model has been developed by the Maine Harvest Credit Project (MHCP), which we featured at Philanthropy Daily last year. They provide loans to local farmers in order to grow their businesses. Started by Sam May and Scott Budde, the project is in the process of becoming a full-fledged credit union that will provide the capital loans that banks generally won’t because of their lack of sector expertise. Budde notes that an institution like the one he and his partner are creating would have already existed one hundred years ago, when there was a wealth of local financial institutions who understood their local economies—in this case, farming. But today, the lack of such institutions, caused in part by a complicated and stifling regulatory regime, means that small farmers trying to grow their production often go unfunded. The MHCP is a social enterprise rather than a nonprofit, and May and Budde emphasize the need for nonprofits to make relatively riskier loans to help those whom even the MHCP won’t be able to serve.
Despite not being a nonprofit, the MHCP has been funded by several local Maine foundations. That is noteworthy, because foundations are among the most intrinsically conservative institutions on earth. Facing no competition, needing to respond to no markets, often a generation or more removed from the donors who provided their capital, foundations have few incentives to be innovative or even energetic. One of the most fascinating things about them is their general laziness. But a few have realized that if they truly want to serve rural people, they will need to get out of their expensive ergonomic chairs and into the field. Bader Philanthropies, based in Wisconsin, offers one such example. Bader’s radical philosophy “is to go to the grantees and not expect them to come to us.” One of the programs Bader funds, as a result, is the Faith in Action program, which organizes volunteer caregivers to serve the homebound, the elderly, and the sick.
The Colorado Association of Funders offers another excellent model. CAF’s Rural Philanthropy Days is a three-day conference held twice per year in various rural Colorado locations. The point of the event, which includes twelve core funders, including conservative stalwarts like the Adolph Coors Foundaiton, Anschutz Family Fundation, the Daniels Fund, and the El Pomar Foundation, is to allow rural nonprofits and community leaders to get to know the state’s philanthropists, and vice versa. The result of Rural Philanthropy Days has been a sizeable increase in funds going to rural areas from these twelve funders each year.
Next week, I will propose some projects or ideas to help donors and foundations with a commitment to rural revitalization and the flourishing of its communities. Stay tuned.
 See “Heartache, Pain, and Hope” for more about these and other programs.