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Philanthropy neglects rural America

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[Editor’s note: A longer version of this article was published in the Cohen Report, a publication of The Nonprofit Quarterly.]

Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen

Despite lip service and conferences, rural America is the forgotten landscape of the U.S. political arena and certainly in American philanthropy.

Foundation grantmaking and federal government support to rural communities should be a continuing, serious priority in the nation and within the nonprofit sector.

Just three years ago, Sen. Max Baucus called on foundations to double their grantmaking to rural communities.

But unfortunately, for the moment, it appears rural philanthropic grantmaking, particularly for rural communities, is tanking, not just because of the economy but because of its low ranking in the priority lists of foundation grantmakers and some public decision-makers.

This is contrary to common sense: Investing foundation dollars in rural communities is a sensible, constructive part of a philanthropic agenda for social progress, social justice, and economic recovery.

Rural nonprofits, including the nation’s top rural development organizations, have had to be exceptionally entrepreneurial in order to survive these difficult foundation fundraising times: Nearly every report on foundation grantmaking during this prolonged recessions concludes that foundation grantmaking is declining in 2009 compared to 2008 and will drop again in 2010.

And the otherwise impressive and progressive budget proposal for fiscal 2010 from President Obama contains a pretty heavy urban feel.

Besides the tepid rural content in the fiscal 2010 budget proposals, activists know how difficult it was, and how much lobbying it took, to push rural development in the economic stimulus bill.

Perhaps implicit in the Administration’s rural stance — and in philanthropy’s perhaps as well — is a theory akin to the “MetroNations” concept.

In a nutshell, the concept, presented to the incoming Obama transition team and to many gatherings of high level foundation decision-makers, is this:

Metropolitan areas “contain and aggregate key ‘drivers’ of local and national prosperity,” with the 100 largest metro areas accounting for two-thirds of U.S. jobs and three fourths of the economic output of the U.S., despite containing only 12 percent of the population, so an economic stimulus strategy would do well to concentrate federal investment in these “key drivers” of national and local prosperity.

If this is a strong motivation behind the Obama Administration’s budgetary allocations, why should philanthropy be all that different?

The debate is not one of taking away from foundations’ urban grantmaking to fund rural or to continue to starve rural in order to follow a MetroNations public and private investment strategy.

The challenge should be at the nexus of public policy and philanthropic practice to push for policies that get a half -trillion in foundation assets more directed not just at rural development, but at the needs of people who are most adversely affected in the economic downturn.

Key for philanthropy — and for nonprofit community developers — is to recognize a major change in federal relations with the philanthropic sector emanating from the Obama White House and the implications of that for rural development.

Elements of President Obama’s strategy reflect a policy model that connects philanthropy and public policy in a way that has not been seen for quite some time.

President Obama has returned to something like the traditional approach of the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations: Philanthropy supports and tests a model, and then government picks it up, adopts, adapts, replicates, funds and expands it.

Philanthropy and government are seeing and funding models that are intensely urban, several explicitly built into the 2010 budget proposal.

Until and unless philanthropy puts big money into compelling rural models that the nation could emulate and readily expand, attention to rural development in foundation grantmaking and government programs will lag and be subject to trickle down benefits.

So whatever reaches rural development will be a result of the multiplier from urban investments, as opposed to a revival and expansion of major direct investment in rural America.

Rural community foundations and rural community development corporations have roles to pursue, such as the philanthropic bootstrapping strategy of seeking and leveraging indigenous resources and wealth in rural areas that can be transformed into charitable assets and philanthropic endowments to be deployed for social change and social justice in rural communities.

But community development corporations and their community foundation partners can also organize within philanthropy to promote the resuscitation of the national foundation attention that Baucus has called for so that the rural contribution to economic revitalization and social justice get the investment and replication they clearly warrant.


Rick Cohen is national correspondent for The Nonprofit Quarterly.

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