They're Just Not That Into You: Why Do Big Foundations Shun Rural Philanthropy?

IP readers will note the occasional post documenting a foundation's investment in rural America, whether it's ArtPlace America's ongoing efforts to integrate the arts in small towns, or the Bush Foundation's Prize for Community Innovation. 

But a closer look shows that much of the support that goes to rural organizations usually comes from smaller, regional foundations. This post, which looks at how arts-focused development is transforming rural America, cites two such grant makers—the Kentucky-based Laura Goad Turner Charitable Foundation and the Pennsylvania-based WashArts, which serves West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Regardless of this bright spot, overall funding to rural organizations—arts-related or otherwise—continues to lag behind those in urban areas. And the evidence is extensive, so we'll try to keep it brief.

For starters, a 2011 report by Nonprofit Quarterly found a 3.45 percent decrease in rural development granting, despite a whopping 43.4 percent increase in overall foundation grants between 2004 and 2008.

Now fast-forward to September 2015.

Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, addressed the National Rural Assembly pleading with private philanthropy to increase investment in rural America. Before his speech, a panel of grantmakers, including a representative from ArtPlace America, convened a discussion around the perilous state of rural philanthropy. Not a single member of the panel could name a "rural philanthropy venue where funders could push for more attention to rural."

And then there's Vilsack's speech. He didn't pull any punches. Where are the big foundations in rural America? Where is the attention to rural issues like child poverty and obesity? What's more, why don't foundations understand that the solutions to problems like climate change will take place in rural areas? Where are the wind farms and solar panel installations? And so on.

You can't blame Vilsack for his frustration. Back in 2011, the USDA signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the Council on Foundations with the goal of providing "new sources of capital, new job opportunities, workforce investment strategies, and identification of additional resources that can be used to spur economic growth in rural America." Unfortunately, the agreement didn't go according to plan. Rather than an increase in foundation investment, "tragically," Vilsack noted, "we've seen a decrease."

And so the obvious question is, "Why?"

Needless to say, there are dozens of theories as to why large foundations aren't cutting big checks to rural organizations. Most boil down to two components—population and what we'll call a sociological urban bias. To the first point, foundations go where the action is. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation's urban population increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, which exceeded the overall growth rate of 9.7 percent for the same decade. And so foundations can be forgiven for wanting to get the most bang for their buck. If you want to reach the most people as efficiently as possible, the urban route is the way to go. (Case in point: Bloomberg Philanthropies' last round of Arts Innovation and Management grants. Nearly 300 arts organizations got a check—and they all reside in six major U.S. cities.)

In addition, politicians and philanthropists view cities as the petri dishes of innovation. Everything from exciting transportation projects to large-scale arts investments take place in urban areas (although one could convincingly argue that this is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy). This perception mirrors our national psyche—the city represents the future, while the farm represents the past. 

This brings us to the sociological urban bias. It's highly complex stuff, best summarized in this astute piece by In These Times. Lisa Pruitt, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, sums up this challenge most succinctly, noting, "We tend to associate rural poverty with whiteness. When we think about rural poverty, most associations with rural poverty are with white populations, and in fact, that is true to some extent, but it's actually far from being monochromatic."

According to the 2013 American Community Survey, nearly 40 percent of African Americans living in non-metro counties fall below the poverty line, compared with around 16 percent of whites. Poverty rates among non-metro Hispanics and American Indians were both nearly double their white counterparts.

Facts are facts. Foundations, for whatever reason, seem to prefer causes and organizations based in urban areas. But we imagine they'd be amenable to reconsideration. To that end, what are the biggest obstacles keeping rural organizations off the big foundations' agendas? What can be done to overcome such obstacles? What causes seem more aligned to rural areas and demographics?