Across America, rural communities face big challenges as economies change, populations shift, and government resources and subsidies dramatically decline. But rural residents are responding with resilience and innovation, harnessing hidden resources to create permanent assets for the future of their communities.
Rural communities build philanthropy from the ground up, using strategies that tap into core values and engage everyone – not just the wealthiest residents. They get support and assistance from community foundations and private philanthropic foundations.
Rural areas of America have little in the way of endowed assets: according to a 2004 study by the Southern Rural Development Initiative, only about 3% of the nation’s foundation assets are found in rural places. Rural residents find that building community-based philanthropy from scratch organizes a community around its assets and connects long-term vision to concrete action. While community-based philanthropy is only one component of systemic social and economic change, it can be the lead component—the spark that ignites a community around positive dialogue and financial investment toward a common vision of the future.
Most of the first community foundations started up in large metropolitan areas, and that trend continued for years. Statewide community foundations sprouted up next, but focused most of their efforts for years on larger cities and towns, where they could find the most people. Together, these two trends left vast swaths of rural America essentially unserved by community foundations.
Around 1980, rural areas started setting up their own community endowments—and today this trend is accelerating. Some of these community endowments are being structured as brand-new, freestanding community foundations; others are established as affiliate funds of existing community foundations. Each of these routes has pros and cons, its own set of merits and challenges. Every rural community must determine for itself which choice makes the most sense in its situation.
We all benefit from rural philanthropy whether we live in a rural place or not. What affects one small, rural place can spill over to help – or hurt – an entire region. When a farm worker in Kansas benefits from better health care, so do the farmer, the miller, the baker, the trucker, and the child, many miles away, who carries the sandwich to school. Whether we care about our water supply, the environment, education, business development, or just about anything else, urban and rural places are tied together.
The momentum to build local rural philanthropic resources is growing substantially. The market for knowledge about how to do this well is growing along with that momentum.