Letter from America: Philanthropy has neglected rural America - and it hurts

Efforts to find new sources of funding for rural community and economic development appear to have fallen flat, writes our US columnist Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

Rural America has a panoply of social needs crying out for philanthropic attention: lower levels of educational attainment, closures of rural community hospitals, higher rates of poverty and lagging job growth.

But getting these needs onto the national agenda is not easy. Last year Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, listened in vain for the word "agriculture" to occur in President Obama's State of the Union address - although he did hear the word "rural" once. The implicit message is heard loud and clear by US foundations.

After Nonprofit Quarterly reported in 2004 that foundations were devoting less than 1 per cent of their grants to rural development, Senator Max Baucus of Montana challenged them to double that in five years. Institutional philanthropy responded with three conferences and a glossy publication about the good things foundations were doing. But between 2004 and 2008, rural development grant-making fell by about 3.5 per cent, while total foundation grant-making grew by nearly half.

Since then, the nation's two largest grant-makers for domestic rural groups - the WK Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation - have terminated their dedicated rural programmes; the National Rural Funding Collaborative went out of business; and researchers at the Brookings Institution promoted to the Obama administration - and to foundations - the MetroNation strategy, which posited that the best way to propel the US economy forward was to concentrate investment in the nation's largest metropolitan areas; rural areas would somehow just tag along.

In 2011, Vilsack's department signed a memorandum of understanding with the Council on Foundations, pledging to work with grant-makers to identify new resources for rural community and economic development. But evidence of action in pursuit of that agreement remains negligible.

Now non-profit rural advocates are getting impatient. The National Rural Assembly, comprising more than 500 organisations, wants to put philanthropy's benign neglect of rural communities high on the agenda at its 2015 annual conference, scheduled to take place when candidates for Congress and the Presidency are gearing up for their 2016 campaigns. These groups aren't likely to be silenced by conferences, glossy publications or happy foundation talk.

Rick Cohen is national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston, Massachusetts

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