Grants for Rural Development in Decline

[imgbelt img=spindletop423.jpg]While foundation giving increased more than 40% from 2004-2008, grants to rural development declined. Rick Cohen sees a “metronation” bias in U.S. philanthropy.



Mary Dore and her daughter stand outside the house that Southern Mutual Help Association, a strong rural non-profit, helped build for them in New Iberia, Louisiana.

How are foundations doing in their support of rural America?  It is difficult to tell.  The definitions of rural are vague, and the classification of foundation grantmaking no clearer.  A foundation grant that might be classified as “rural” could well be serving urban areas, too. 

Nonetheless, there’s evidence that rural philanthropy has not made the leaps that rural communities sorely need.

The Foundation Center’s online database includes, reportedly, the grants of more than 100,000 grantmakers: more than 2.2 million grants. It shows that “rural development” (domestic, not international) did not fare well in foundation grant portfolios 2004-08.  During that span annual foundation grants for rural development declined from $92.7 million in 2004 to $89.5 million in 2008. That’s a 3.45 percent decrease during a period when total annual foundation grantmaking increased 43.4 percent.

Some grantmakers may not have not fully reported their 2008 grants; the 3.45 percent decline may be erased. But rural development grants definitely will not show increases anywhere close to the level of growth seen in total foundation grantmaking. Moreover, as noted, the grants marked “rural development” are not likely to have been spent entirely on rural projects, so that $89.5 million probably represents a gross overestimation rather than an undercount.  


Coastal Enterprises, based in Wiscasset, Maine, developed a business plan for Spindleworks, an arts center for mentally disabled citizens.

Perhaps the issue is a lack of rural advocacy. Foundations have often complained that they suspect rural non-profits lack capacity. That argument has always been unpersuasive, an ex post facto justification of inadequate rural grantmaking. Just take a look at the truly impressive array of rural nonprofits in the NeighborWorks and Rural LISC lists to see groups that can match up well against the most sophisticated of their urban counterparts; groups like Coastal Enterprises (Maine), Southern Mutual Help Association (Louisiana), Enterprise Corporation of the Delta (Mississippi), Cabrillo Economic Development (California), Centro Campesino (Florida), Quitman County Development Organization (Mississippi), Chicanos por la Causa (Arizona), and so many more. 

Despite frequent promises to the contrary, foundations haven’t done much to narrow the disproportional gap between urban and rural groups’ access to foundation dollars.  In fact, the failure of foundations to put much grant money into rural nonprofits is historic and persistent. 

The toll is increasingly evident in rural nonprofits struggling to stay afloat, not to mention to respond to burgeoning new problems. 

In Monroe County, Georgia, a health center serving rural communities is closing: “Unfortunately, there is not another rural health center or clinic in the county.” The money to stay open simply isn’t there.

In state of Mississippi is contemplating closing mental health facilities that serve rural areas due to a lack of funding.

Rural Nelson has been struggling to provide community education and information about governmental services in Nelson County, Virginia.  Individual donations have been the key to keeping this civic service alive, but they’re hard to come by. 

The urban foreclosure crisis is hitting rural nonprofits who have few resources to devote to fixing “underwater” mortgages and taking and rehabilitating bank-owned foreclosed homes. 

[imgcontainer left] [img:change-in-grants-graphic400.jpg] [source]Rick Cohen

Trends in foundation giving as a whole and in grants to rural development

Are America’s foundations prepared to address the persistent and increasing problems of rural America? There’s always lip service, heartfelt statements about how much foundations care about rural communities, but something is missing year after year—dollars.  There are heroes and heroines in U.S. philanthropy for whom rural America is undoubtedly grateful.  They are the champions for the cause within the halls of this overwhelmingly urban sector.  Their challenge remains as immense as ever. 

Rick Cohen is the national correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly magazine and NPQ’s online Cohen Report.  He developed this review of rural philanthropy for an MDC webinar on The State of Rural Philanthropy, January 14, 2011, available here.