City-Based Charities Wising Up to Rural Causes

Tim Marema philanthropy storyThe big foundations, based on the east and west coasts, are taking a closer look at rural non-profits, writes Tim Marema of the Center for Rural Strategies, but a new study shows that some city limits in attitude persist.

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Maryland community development programBus driver Rocky Ford, left, delivers meals to the elderly in Loch Lynn, MD, through Garrett County Community Action. The program is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the largest funder of rural development in the U.S.
Photo: Kaihaz Amaria

U.S. foundations overwhelmingly favor urban and metropolitan charities with their grants. No one disputes that. The question is why.

A new study by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research attempts to answer that question by talking to staff at U.S. foundations. The report, commissioned by the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder, and Stand Up for Rural America, is an update of Greenberg’s 2004 study on rural philanthropy.

(Editor’s Note: Latest news from meeting on rural philanthropy in Montana can be found here.)

Report co-author Anna Greenberg found a number of impediments to increased funding for rural nonprofits:
“¢ A perception that rural nonprofits lack the capacity to handle grants.
“¢ A belief that rural funding falls outside many foundations’ interests and missions.
“¢ A sense that physical distance and cultural differences between urban-based philanthropies and rural organizations separate the foundation world and rural America.

The new report did find that foundation staff are generally more attuned to rural issues than they were three years ago, when Greenburg also studied attitudes toward rural philanthropy. “Overall awareness of rural issues has increased “¦ and many are more optimistic about increased rural giving in the future,” writes Anna Greenberg.

And optimism may be channeled into action this week. More than 100 foundation leaders from around the country are gathering in Missoula, Montana, to look at the problems and possibilities of rural philanthropy. The event is sponsored by the Council on Foundations, at the behest of U.S Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. Last year, Baucus challenged U.S. foundations to devote more of their grants to rural projects.

While 20% of Americans live in rural communities, only about 1% of the $30 billion U.S. foundations granted in 2001-02 went to projects identified as rural, according to Rick Cohen, author of a 2004 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy that tracked rural grantmaking.

Most of the nation’s foundation assets are located on the coasts ““ the top three states in foundation assets are New York, California, and Washington. In the new study of philanthropy, foundation staff said that geographic distance makes it harder to fund rural programs. “It’s kind of out of sight, out of mind,” said one staff member.

Participants said there is also a cultural divide between foundations and rural communities. “I think for the most part people who work in foundations have urban orientations, and those academic backgrounds that they come out of stress urban analysis,” said another foundation staff member. “There is a bias that you get more bang for your buck and the problems are worse in urban areas.”

Angelo Ververis Montana lumberyardAngelo Ververis checks larch logs at Tricon Timber in Saint Regis, MT. Tricon has received support from the Montana Community Development Corp., part of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Rural People, Rural Policy Initiative.
Photo: M.A. Pember

Foundations also had a harder time identifying effective organizations to give grants to in rural areas. “My impression is that just the range of nonprofit organizations to work with is more dispersed,” said a staff member. “It’s thinner.”

The study recommended that those interested in increasing foundation grants for rural charities focus on the following:
“¢ Highlighting stories of success, not just need, among rural nonprofits and projects.
“¢ Continuing to raise awareness so that rural communities aren’t screened out of consideration.
“¢ Strengthening intermediaries, larger organizations which can administrate grants more efficiently to smaller rural groups.
“¢ Building the capacity of rural organizations to seek and administer grants.

The new report was based on interviews with ten members of foundation staff, most of whom were involved in rural grant making. The study tracked changes in attitudes based on Greenburg’s 2004 survey of fifty foundation staff members.


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