The history of the United States is a history of wealth created in rural America: timber and wood products in the Northwest and Northeast; fossil fuels in Appalachia, the Southwest, and Rocky Mountain region; textiles in the South. Related philanthropic funds have been created alongside these industries — often in the form of multi-generational family commitments to rural communities. With the renewed focus today on the challenges and opportunities confronting rural America, it's a good time to take a look at how rural philanthropy fits into the philanthropic field as a whole, as well as at how the evolving field of rural philanthropy is helping to support more and better philanthropic investments in rural communities.
One narrative about rural philanthropy holds that rural America has received far fewer philanthropic dollars over the years on a proportional basis. This is true. The best data we have indicates that rural philanthropic investment comprises just 7 percent of total private foundation grantmaking, while rural America accounts for 20 percent of the U.S. population — and 90 percent of the land! An equally compelling narrative, however, is that rural-serving foundations — often family-governed — are a strong and consistent factor in helping rural communities face the future with a sense of optimism. Over the years, family foundations like the Blandin Foundation in Minnesota, the Ford Family Foundation in Oregon, the LOR Foundation in Wyoming, the Orton Family Foundation in Vermont, and the T.L.L. Temple Foundation in Texas have made long-term commitments to rural community success.
A question I'm often asked is: How does rural philanthropy differ from urban foundation work? The answer lies in both tactics and cultural context. Much urban philanthropy is focused on the development and implementation of large-scale best-practice models around specific issues — health, education, early childhood development, and so on. Grants are made to large staffed nonprofits with the aim of reaching thousands (if not tens of thousands) of constituents, and funders often dictate the specifics of the intervention and the outcomes. In effect, the funder is contracting for results.
The best rural philanthropic work operates differently. The emphasis is on place, not on a specific issue or intervention. It’s an approach that reflects how people live and work in rural communities — often wearing multiple hats (teacher, pastor, coach, civic committee chairperson) concurrently. There may not be a large, well-oiled, local nonprofit to serve as the primary recipient of the grant. Instead, funders typically look to alternative anchor institution such as libraries, community colleges, or parks and recreation departments to administer the grant and work closely with smaller nonprofits that can do the job but may need extra support in order to expand their services and impact. The scale of the work is also different. But while the numbers might be smaller, the opportunity to do transformational work is significant.
Increasingly, equity is a part of many urban funders' mission and funding strategies. While it is defined differently depending on the issue and outcomes, it always involves long-term disparities in access and opportunity for historically marginalized people. Many rural communities also struggle with divisions around race and ethnicity, and newer versions of these divisions have come into play with the arrival of new immigrants across rural America. The best rural philanthropic work recognizes and works to create equity around opportunity. This might entail broadening the voices that are heard in a rural community, bridging divides around broadband and health care, or opening up access to higher education for those previously shut out.
At the same time, rural communities can be dominated by close-knit leadership structures that leave lots of people on the outside looking in. Because of its historic roots in many of these communities, family philanthropy often is in the best position to promote and support inclusion and ensure the future viability and success of these communities.
One new philanthropic player in many rural communities is the healthcare conversion foundation. Created from the sale of nonprofit healthcare assets to for-profit providers, there are now more than three hundred and fifty of these foundations nationally, and many of them are rural-based or have a large rural footprint mirroring the service area of the original nonprofit. The opportunity for long-term rural-serving family foundations to collaborate and leverage their efforts with these newer conversion foundations is an underappreciated and —developed part of the rural philanthropic landscape. In the best circumstances, deeply rooted family funders can serve as mentors and connectors for the conversion foundations as they get the lay of the land while helping to diffuse the confusion and anxiety that often results from a large influx of new philanthropic capital into small and often underresourced communities.
Family philanthropy was present in rural America long before there was ever a "field" of philanthropy. Going back to the nineteenth century, families that prospered in America gave back by building schools, hospitals, and libraries. With that history to draw on, and with the technologies and philanthropic expertise developed over the last quarter-century at their fingertips, today's family foundations have a golden opportunity to support the kind of long-term systems change needed for rural communities to thrive. Fortuntaely, there are many willing thought and funding partners out there eager to be part of their efforts.
PhilanthropywoRx founder Allen Smart is a national spokesperson and advocate for improving rural philanthropic practice. A former interim president, vice president of programs, and director of the Health Care Division at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, Smart recently served as project director for a national rural philanthropic project partially supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and based at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. He also regularly consults with regional and national foundations on rural and philanthropic strategy. A version of this post originally appeared on the National Center for Family Philanthropy site.