Behind a Push for New Solutions to the Complex Challenges Facing Rural America

A town in indiana. photo: Tailean/shutterstock

A town in indiana. photo: Tailean/shutterstock

Philanthropy has long been criticized for ignoring downscale white rural areas. Since the 2016 election, there's been new discussion about what funders can do to help regions that have been walloped by globalization and, more recently, a deadly opioid epidemic. Part of the challenge is geographic. Foundations tend to be based in major cities and clustered on the coasts. Many are deeply invested in helping urban areas with their own sets of entrenched problems. 

But some funders are paying attention to rural America, as we often report, and not just because of what happened on Election Day 2016. In places like Appalachia, the rural South, Texas, the Upper Midwest and the Great Lakes region, grantmakers have backed a wide variety of projects to revitalize economies, improve healthcare, and rebuild local pride of place. “Local” is the operative word, since most of those funders are based in or near the areas they serve.

With over $10 billion in assets, the Lilly Endowment is a giant among them. Unlike its peers of similar size, Lilly’s prodigious giving remains focused (for the most part) on a single state, Indiana. So it came as no surprise to see the endowment grant another $10 million this month to Indiana University at Bloomington, one of its longtime beneficiaries. 

What’s interesting, though, is that this grant launches a pretty unique endeavor: IU’s Center for Rural Engagement. As the name suggests, the center’s goal is to tackle rural social and economic challenges, starting in southwest central Indiana. But its wider ambition is to use its home region as a springboard “to create unique local and regional solutions to complex challenges common to rural communities everywhere,” as the center’s executive director, Bill Brown, put it.

The Center for Rural Engagement may be getting up and running in the Trump era, but its origins go back to 2012, when Lilly began providing planning grants to a committee of regional stakeholders. Their task, culminating in a 2014 report, was to come up with actionable ways to increase the prosperity of an economically stagnating region. Creating a “rural development center” at IU-Bloomington is one of the report’s recommendations. Such a center, it says, could “leverage the unique international development, public policy, and health policy expertise resident in the region and apply it to solving rural issues of today.”

Following the report, Lilly kept the momentum going in late 2015 with a combined $42 million in grants to fund the workforce and education-focused Regional Opportunity Initiatives, Inc. (ROI) and an Applied Research Institute (ARI) near the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division. Over $100,000 also went to Indiana University to explore the concept of a rural engagement center. 

The idea, here, is to align the efforts of all three organizations, bringing the university’s academic clout together with any other community and economic resources the region has to offer. As other rural funders have argued, one key to revitalizing a region is to identify the unique assets that differentiate it from others in a global market. By embracing a sense of distinct “regionalism,” as the 2014 report calls it, underperforming areas can weather the storm of globalization by playing to their particular strengths. 

At the same time, the Center for Rural Engagement will also use its collaborative approach to respond to pressing local issues. The opioid crisis is one of them, and IU has initiated a “grand challenge” effort to prevent, reduce and treat addiction in the state. There are also efforts toward environmental sustainability, K-12 education, and improving “quality of place” through arts and culture, an area Lilly has been known to fund in “game-changing” fashion

The launch of the Center for Rural Engagement comes on the heels of a $38.9 million Lilly grant to the Northwest Central Indiana Community Partnership to support local economic growth in that part of the state. The Wabash Heartland Innovation Network will use that funding to identify ways to make the local agriculture and manufacturing sectors more efficient. 

These efforts are worth watching closely. Swaths of the American heartland are in the grip of economic conditions that are akin to a depression, plagued by an absence of jobs and hope. If Lilly's support can catalyze new ways for rural communities to come to terms with a globalized economy, there will be important lessons for other funders. 

Still, it's important to keep in mind the limits of philanthropy to offset the effects of structural economic changes. A case in point is the $1 billion in grantmaking in Flint, Michigan, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which mostly failed to halt a general decline. Even though it's a giant among foundations, the Lilly Endowment faces long odds as it seeks to revitalize hard-hit parts of its own state.