Friday, July 27, 2007

Rural philanthropy is getting a fresh focus that could make a big difference

Rural areas fare poorly in getting grants from foundations, but foundations are paying attention to the issue, and responding favorably to a challenge from Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to do more. Next month representatives of more than 100 foundations will meet with the Senate Finance Committee chairman in Missoula, Mont., "to consider ways to meet his challenge," reports The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

While rural problems differ around the country, almost all rural charities "have a harder time getting foundation money than their urban counterparts," writer Suzanne Perry reports. "Many operate on shoestring budgets, cover vast geographic areas, and are located far away from big urban foundations." Shannon Cunningham, president of the West Virginia Grantmakers Association, told Perry that travel issues forced the state chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals to disband.

In Montana, the recently created Big Sky Institute for the Advancement of Nonprofits in Helena got foundation money to help improve charity operations, and for research that showed a "philanthropic divide" between states that have large foundation assets and those that do not. (Perry's story is accompanied by a state-by-state chart listing foundation assets in each state.) That research prompted Baucus to issue his challenge at last year's Council on Foundations meeting, and led to next month's conference.

"Rural advocates say the time is ripe to carve out a strategy to revitalize rural areas, many of which are suffering from problems such as population loss and poverty, because an enormous transfer of wealth is expected to take place over the next half century as people die and leave money to their heirs — a projected $41 trillion, according to one study," Perry writes. "If even a fraction of that money could be tapped, they say, it could help transform rural America. In fact, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in Battle Creek, Mich., is considering a major grant of $30 million to help community foundations across the country convince people in rural areas to leave a small percentage of their estates to their towns."

Rick Foster, Kellogg's vice president for programs, said at last month's National Rural Assembly that the foundation has discovered "bipolar" views of rural areas: (1) "People living there are hard-working people, they're self-sufficient, self-reliant," and turn to neighbors when they need help, too proud to accept outside aid. (2) "Everybody's name is Bubba, and they're not intelligent at all." They run meth labs, have high rates of teenage pregnancy and youth drug abuse and "really don't deserve our help."

A 2004 study of rural philanthropy for the Center for Rural Strategies found that foundations were unsure how to define "rural" and preferred regional grants for particular missions. "Many questioned whether rural groups had the capacity to manage grants and carry out programs effectively," Perry writes. "And some were troubled by the absence of a 'critical mass' of donors in rural areas. Despite the obstacles, momentum is growing in some quarters to devote more attention to rural issues." (Read more)

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