Monday, April 22, 2019

Philanthropy fund aims to help rural areas, bridge divides

A new pooled-funding initiative wants to advance progressive philanthropic projects in rural America, and possibly bridge some of the rural-urban political divide in the process.

"The Heartland Fund, and the foundations and consultants behind it, are trying to facilitate a turnaround of decades of philanthropic neglect of rural and suburban areas and small cities, starting with organizing and issue advocacy in the Midwest," Tate Williams reports for Inside Philanthropy. "Launched in 2018 with founding donors Wallace Global Fund and Franciscan Sisters of Mary, the new fund is backing work on economic justice, the environment and health. It also aims to find some common ground around these issues, and as a result, forge connections across cultural and political divides." It's not exactly a parachute philanthropy model, with urban outsiders trying to "fix" rural America; the steering committee is made of grassroots leaders from the communities Heartland supports.

The fund, one of several similar efforts, dispensed $500,000 in grants last year and has a $1.5 million grant-making budget this year, though that may increase, Williams reports. "The fund is taking on tough important challenges, including how to best support those with roots in the region and be responsive to needs on the ground. Those involved are also trying to challenge some of the false dichotomies between supporting rural versus urban communities, or white working class versus communities of color, and instead build power across these perceived divides."

Stereotypes about rural people are one reason fewer philanthropists get involved in rural areas. In a recent report about the political context of rural America for the Wallace Global Fund, Minnesota-based consultant Ben Goldfarb "calls out 'reductionist caricatures of rural people as uneducated, backward and racist,' misconceptions that feed into disinvestment and neglect from philanthropy, Williams reports. "Of course, many of the country’s largest foundations and donors are based in major metropolitan areas, which also contributes to the fact that just some 6 to 7 percent of philanthropy benefits rural areas."

Though rural America is more conservative, the landscape as a whole is far more complex than the stereotypes suggest, Goldfarb said in the report, pointing out that rural America is only 14 percent less diverse than the national average. "And there’s potential to connect across partisan and cultural divides when issues are framed in the right way. Much of the American progressive identity, the report reminds us, has roots in the farming and labor history in these areas," Williams reports.

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