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Rural philanthropy builds assets, hope

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By Ellen Barclay and Barry Gaberman

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 5,000 evacuees have been housed and cared for, not by official relief agencies, but by the Pointe Coupée Enrichment Fund.

The fund, established in rural southern Louisiana by local residents in 2002, is an effort that crossed racial and economic lines in a small and largely poor community and raised $200,000.

Now, the fund is coordinating disaster relief efforts.

The community has taken in the hurricane’s victims – increasing the town’s population by nearly 20 percent – and the fund is coordinating efforts to help them find jobs.

The Point Coupée Enrichment Fund is part of a growing trend and proof that one of the most important and lasting sources of change in rural communities can come from within, in the form of rural philanthropy.

Rural places are increasingly tested as government resources dwindle, population declines, and wealth continues to migrate to urban areas.

Historically, rural communities have received little help from traditional philanthropic organizations: Only 3 percent of foundation assets are directed toward rural areas each year.

However, America’s rural areas have long been known for helping themselves.

A new report from New Ventures in Philanthropy, an initiative of the Forum of Regional Association of Grantmakers, demonstrates that rural philanthropy is growing rapidly across the country and raising billions of dollars to address community needs.

For example, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, community leaders turned to philanthropy to build a permanent endowment, $300,000 and growing, that has transformed a reservation long plagued by poverty and unemployment.

Tribal members capitalized on artistic assets and created the annual Harvest Moon Ball and Art Auction to raise money from the sale of Native American art.

In many rural places, residents are joining forces with innovative community and private foundations, with impressive results.

According to new Aspen Institute data included in the report, community foundation affiliate funds – local philanthropic funds created by and for a specific community – have increased by 132 percent in the past six years.

Three-quarters of these affiliate funds serve primarily rural areas and have endowed assets of approximately $1.5 billion.

Private foundations are also investing in rural philanthropy to great effect.

The Ford Foundation, for example, leads a national initiative to connect dozens of community foundations to rural community development and endowment building.

As part of this effort, coordinated by the Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group, hundreds of rural-focused community foundations have benefited from intensive learning opportunities offered by the Ford-funded Rural Development Philanthropy Learning Network.

The Ford Foundation has seen first-hand how investing in rural philanthropy helps rural places build permanent assets and create lasting change.

Community and private foundations can play a key role in supporting the growth of rural philanthropy in years to come.

Rural philanthropy positions rural communities to be able to respond to both unforeseen crises and ongoing needs.

Because whole communities – not just the wealthy few – are engaged in rural philanthropy, it generates more than just money: It offers optimism for the future.


Ellen Barclay is president of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, which houses the New Ventures in Philanthropy Initiative.

Barry Gaberman is senior vice president of the Ford Foundation and chair of the New Ventures in Philanthropy Advisory Committee.

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