Making the Case for Rural America

By Beacon Staff

In mid-August The Council on Foundations met in Missoula at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. This was a very significant event for many reasons but I want to focus on just a few.

The Council on Foundations has never been to Montana. Who are they? The trade group that counts among its members all the major foundations and small foundations that are engaged in philanthropy: They provide billions of dollars to address social causes relating to poverty, education, health, environmental issues, food systems, etc. These are big, private dollars that are deployed to improve social conditions in America and around the world. Having the Clinton Foundation, the Northwest Area Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, The Duke Endowment and many, many more in Montana is pretty important. For many of the attendees, this was a “first time in Montana” trip. It’s usually an advantage for potential givers to know where you are, who you are and what your community looks like. For those of you who work in or follow the non-profit sector, you know that the largest transfer of wealth in the history of this country will take place over the next 10 years. A good portion of this wealth will go into philanthropy.

This was a very significant meeting for the council because it was the first national meeting ever held that focused exclusively on the issues of Rural America. Foundation dollars are a little like venture capital dollars, they are concentrated in a few urban areas. While foundations like the Northwest Area Foundation have long invested in rural causes, the management and board of those foundations tend to be located in urban areas. One of the topics of discussion was how better to connect with rural issues, how better to manage outcomes in remote locations and how to be engaged in community based decision making. The larger question was how to give voice to rural America and how to make the case to suburban America that investing in rural America matters.

There was tremendous interest in philanthropy focused on economic development. Discussion centered on how to build public/private partnerships and use a for profit model in the non-profit sector. Clearly the world of philanthropy acknowledges that many issues such as healthcare, education, family sustainability, housing and domestic violence issues are greatly diminished by prosperous economies. What do those economies look like in small towns? How can we maintain rural community character and participate in the global marketplace? Does the Farm Bill serve rural America? How do we build out telelcom to rural locations? These are issue we should all spend some time thinking about.

The metrics are different for investing in rural America. We are not as diverse as urban areas, we have less critical mass, it’s hard to impact large numbers of people, and towns vary greatly in character. For me the best case is our connection to the natural landscape. Montanans understand this. There is tremendous economic and spiritual value to a clean and healthy environment. I hope that rural America will, community by community, make the case for investment in the place we live and grow and the opportunities that will sustain us economically. The opportunity for rural America is unprecedented.

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