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The Power of Rural Philanthropy

Publication date: 
March, 2005
Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers

Across America, rural communities face big challenges as economies change, populations shift, and government resources and subsidies dramatically decline. In urban areas the philanthropic sector, with substantial assets, is looked to in times of great need. Not so in rural places. Until now. 

This report looks at recent trends in rural philanthropy-building and examines the inclusive and innovative ways that rural communities are taking philanthropy into their own hands. Their goal is simple: to generate resources from within their rural communities to effect community change, now and into the future. 
Rural community leaders, business people, volunteer “sparkplugs,” youth, and retirees across the nation are harnessing and investing philanthropic assets in rural and remote places. They are conducting research, applying new ways of thinking, and partnering with community foundations and regional institutions to overcome barriers that have prevented the growth of rural philanthropy in the past. They are building new, permanent philanthropic endowments in places that have never had them before -- endowments that, over time, promise to grow exponentially.
The trends are powerful. 
  • New data from the Aspen Institute demonstrate the rapid rise of rural philanthropy: in the past six years the number of geographic funds affiliated with community foundations has increased by 132%, and there are an estimated 2,000 of these funds nationwide with at least $1.5 billion in endowed assets in rural areas alone; 
  • Innovative tools such as the Nebraska Community Foundation’s Transfer of Wealth framework and The Philanthropy Index for Small Towns and Rural Communities, jointly developed by the Southern Rural Development Initiative, the Southeastern Council of Foundations, and the Foundation for the Mid South, offer new ways of thinking about the assets and potential of rural areas;
  • Rural communities build philanthropy in necessarily inclusive ways; they transcend race and class, and acknowledge that everyone is a prospective donor, and everyone is a beneficiary;
  • Based on endowment growth, the costs of investing in rural areas are worth it. The Arkansas Community Foundation’s Affiliate program raised more than $4 million in new endowment assets and distributed more than $200,000 in grants last year alone; 
  • Endowment assets held by geographic funds represent a growing proportion, currently estimated at 14%, of total community foundation assets, 

Emerging rural philanthropy is democratic and visionary. It counters the discouragement that can infect rural areas by marshalling local resources for long-term change. It changes the language of these communities from a focus on what the community lacks – deficits to what the community has – assets. And it generates new, permanent resources in places where they did not exist before. Rural philanthropy is proving to be a powerful tool, and one that is here to stay.

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