Efforts to increase foundation grants for rural work need to start with correcting misperceptions about rural capacity, say panelists. Foundations also need to learn more from their rural grantees, says one leader.
Misperceptions about the capacity of rural nonprofits to use grant funding effectively are interfering with important rural work, said participants in a philanthropy panel at a recent conference focused on arts and agriculture.
“Capacity definitely exists in rural America,” said Lora Smith of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. But urban-based funders aren’t necessarily aware of it, she said.
The North Carolina foundation is working to change the story about rural capacity by sharing oral history interviews of their grantees in the Deep South, Smith said, noting that these long-time grantees often don’t get the national attention they deserve.
“They’ve been doing great work for a long time with fewer resources, and their work should be lifted up,” she said.
“There is a disparity in investment in rural America,” she said. “[Babcock] is the third largest rural funder [in the U.S.], which is concerning, given that we only fund in 11 states.”
Smith was one of five funders who participated in the panel on rural philanthropy. The discussion was part of Cross-Currents: Art + Agricultural Powering Rural Economies. The conference brought together more than 100 rural arts practitioners and people interested in agriculture from around the country to discuss new and creative partnerships in these two sectors. They also heard presentations on how to attract more funding and other resources to their communities.
Besides the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, representatives from ArtPlace America, the National Endowment for the Arts and two North Carolina community foundations also participated in the panel. Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies and publisher of the Daily Yonder, moderated the discussion.
“We know rural giving is significantly smaller,” Davis said. “Bill Clinton put it at 2% when he spoke to the Council on Foundations a few years ago, and the Center for Responsive Philanthropy suggests it’s between 1 and 2%.”
About 15% of the U.S. population currently lives in nonmetropolitan counties.
Jamie Hand of ArtPlace said 32% of the foundation’s funding goes to rural projects. Guidelines for ArtPlace’s upcoming round of grants make a “concerted effort to get the word out there to rural artists and communities,” she said
Hand said one hallmark of many rural project proposals is impressive partnerships and collaborations. “These unlikely partnerships carry the work in a way that exponentially increases their capacity.”
Walker Sanders, president of Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro (North Carolina), underscored the recurring theme of “real change takes time.” He emphasized the need for foundations to look for opportunities to make longer-term investments in programs and communities as a way of increasing capacity. “We’ve got to start moving away from these three-to-five-year grants.”
Sanders also noted that foundations could benefit from “a dose of humility. “
“[We] don’t always know how to best spend the money,” he said. “[We] need to build relationships with people who are doing good work and learn from them.”
Davis asked panelists about the growing diversity in rural America. “We know that over the next 25 years most rural counties will be majority people of color,” Davis said. What sort of implications does this have for how foundations do their work going forward, he asked?
Lora Smith quoted a former MRBF board member, who, several years ago, warned “Babcock can’t do the work it wants to do looking the way it looks.” Since then, Babcock has made a concerted effort to expand the diversity of its staff and board, said Smith. “Philanthropy has a lot of internal work to do.”
Jen Hughes of the National Endowment for the Arts noted that NEA is a “federal agency ‘tasked’ with serving the entire country, which includes all types and sizes of communities.” Hughes pointed to NEA’s Our Town and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design as two examples of programs developed for and geared toward rural communities.
A prominent theme within the Cross-Currents gathering was the role arts-based strategies can play in addressing growing diversity—across race, gender, ethnicity and economic situation. This was echoed by all five funders, who agreed that their programs and guidelines are educated and enriched by the applications they receive.
The future of rural giving will continue to be a primary focus for the National Rural Assembly, a co-producer of Cross-Currents. Over the coming year, the Assembly will develop a communications campaign that highlights projects, programs and transformative ideas that demonstrate what rural America can do to improve prospects for communities across the country. At the same time the Assembly will ask foundation directors and members of Congress to address the growing geographic discrepancies in philanthropic giving and to create strategies to double rural giving over the next five years.
Whitney Kimball Coe is coordinator of the National Rural Assembly.