Photo credit: Breakfast of Champions by arvindgrover on Flickr.

Do Foundations Snub Rural America?

Posted on August 20, 2015

One of the strange and frustrating aspects of working with struggling farmers is that farmers can seem nearly invisible. In fact, all rural residents can seem to disappear in this society. Rural residents in the United States live in a variety of climates and geographies, and encompass virtually every racial and ethnic group one can imagine. One thing that virtually all rural residents share is the failure of mainstream society to notice that rural people exist.

The basics: about 19 percent of the country – more than 60 million people – lives in a rural area. Rural residents are more likely – not less – to live in poverty, and this has been the case for many decades. About 78 percent of the rural population, according to the Census Bureau, is non-Hispanic and white.

A perfect example of the invisibility of rural America comes in a recent study of foundations and the money they grant. It turns out that foundations give no more than about 7 percent of their grants to rural communities.

If you do not work for a nonprofit that seeks grant funds from foundations, this might seem like just another slight, although one of not great importance. That assumption is wrong. Rural needs are great, and government programs come nowhere close to providing a real safety net. Foundation grants matter because the assets of foundations are astronomical, and the grants amount to billions of dollars each year. Foundation giving can and does make an important difference in virtually every area in which money is granted. If a part of the country is neglected therefore, the effects are real. People do without. The stakes, as a result, are very high if foundations are neglecting rural society.

Three additional points are worth noting. First, people giving money to foundations receive a tax break for those donations. This means that the society at large is collectively helping to fund foundations by giving foundation donors a tax subsidy. All the more reason, in other words, for foundations to use their resources in an equitable way.

Second, the study of foundation giving to rural areas, written by John L. Pender, an economist at USDA’s Economic Research Service, is a careful, lengthy analysis. Lewis went to great lengths to disentangle the mass of financial data involved in foundation giving, looked at years of records, and carefully sought to identify the extent to which grants actually target rural areas. It is not, in other words, a quick and subjective comparison of a few numbers. The more one reads, in fact, the more distressing are the findings. For example, when foundations give money to rural areas, if is often to well-funded nonprofit organizations such as universities. While that spending certainly has a positive impact, one cannot help but sense that this pattern results in a further shrinkage of resources going to rural residents in the most distress as money goes instead to the few relatively prosperous rural institutions.

Third, perhaps nearly as notable as the results of the study itself, which confirms what many doing rural work have suspected, is the fact that the study has essentially been ignored by journalists, including those that focus on the nonprofit world. Rural people are forgotten, and stories pointing out this forgetfulness gather dust.

Not all foundations ignore farmers or their rural neighbors. Over the years FLAG and its clients have benefited greatly from foundation grants. The Northwest Area Foundation and the Otto Bremer Foundation, for example, at present fund FLAG’s upper Midwest work on behalf of struggling family farmers. Farm Aid, actually a charity, not a foundation, has also supported farmers and their communities for decades.

In general, however, foundations tend to snub rural America. How and why this happens is a bit of a puzzle. Foundations often have active and thoughtful board members. People hired to make grants are clever and ambitious and want to make the world better. And foundations have the resources to thinking critically about where resources might find their best use. Still foundations’ neglect of rural people is real, and it appears to be getting worse. Foundations can and should do better by rural America.