Rural giving focus of new effort

Jason Gray
Jason Gray

Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In 1933, mainly through the efforts of North Carolinian Hugh Hammond Bennett, the federal government created the Soil Conservation Service to protect a critical rural asset devastated by the 1920s’ Dust Bowls.

Today, rural advocates aim to protect another asset – local philanthropy – they believe is critical to rural North Carolina.

“Rural philanthropy is analogous” to soil conservation, says Jason Gray, director of research and innovation at the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center in Raleigh. “We are looking to keep that money from blowing off somewhere else.”

The center is working to grow rural giving and preserve assets from eroding as children who inherit wealth leave rural counties.

Community foundations will be key to that effort, which aims to better connect rural philanthropy with rural economic development, Gray says.

North Carolina’s 22 community foundations, which in 2007 held assets totaling $1.5 billion, directly serve all but five of the state’s 85 rural counties, says a new Rural Center report.

The Raleigh-based North Carolina Community Foundation, for example, manages over $100 million in assets and operates 60 local affiliates serving 66 counties, most of them rural.

Most rural funds, however, are small and in the early stages of development, the report says.

Gray says critical challenges for rural communities are to better identify and tap local philanthropic assets, and expand their idea of philanthropy from giving cash to include preserving and growing assets such as real estate, volunteerism and in-kind support.

Equally critical, he says, will be recognizing that “philanthropy isn’t something that only the wealthy do.”

NCGives, for example, promotes giving among communities of color, women and young people, Gray says, while women, often working with community foundations, have formed at least 14 funds throughout the state that pool their giving and grantmaking.

The Rural Center has formed a 12-member roundtable of leaders and experts to better connect rural development and philanthropy.

Jennifer Tolle Whiteside, president of the North Carolina Community Foundation and a member of the Rural Center board and its new philanthropy roundtable, says it will be critical for rural communities to define their own assets and develop strategies for growing them.

“Folks living in rural communities have to take a stand and be involved in what happens in their community,” she says.

Teaming with community foundations, the center plans to develop training about rural philanthropy for economic-development leaders, financial advisers and community-foundation leaders.

It also will study possible policies, such as a charitable tax credit, that might spur rural giving.

And it has commissioned a study to measure household net worth in rural counties and set goals for preserving that wealth as it moves between generations.

Household net worth in rural North Carolina totals an estimated $322 billion and is expected to grow to $486 billion by 2020.

But like soil erosion, wealth inherited by rural residents who move away represents “leakage out of the community,” Gray says.

The new initiative, he says, represents a “philanthropic-assets strategy to help retain and minimize that leakage.”

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