Rural Development Philanthropy: New Idea, Old Roots


While Rural Development Philanthropy may be a new concept to the formal philanthropic world, its roots run deep in our ethnic and rural heritage. Rural Development Philanthropy rises from a rural legacy in which people made decisions together, provided mutual support, and set the course for the community’s future.  Examples abound:

•    In Native American communities, the “ownership” of a river included the responsibility to feed the entire tribe.
•    The best of town meetings in early New England – which still occur in some places today – were a gathering place where all voices could be heard and decisions surfaced from a rough-formed consensus into joint action.
•    In rural African American communities, giving and lending circles have been an informal method not just for getting essential things done for families and communities but for offering views and support, and for quilting a shared vision about what can be if “we work together.”

In the early 20th century, urban philanthropy developed innovations such as community foundations and United Way organizations, while rural philanthropy continued in the more traditional forms of giving – from people to people or from people to the community.  

At the same time, rural communities were being influenced by large industries with operations in rural areas, which exerted influence and control over those communities, creating “company towns.”  Those industries often commanded the flow of primary resources in a place – jobs, wage levels and philanthropic giving.  Large industries in small communities still exert a great deal of control, and if those industries close, it creates a vacuum in both community leadership and in philanthropy.  

Over the last century, rural people increasingly left for opportunities in urban areas, which led to a massive out-migration of rural youth. As this trend has continued, more and more wealth has been leaving rural communities as it transfers from one generation to the next.

As large funders began to work in rural areas in recent decades, they often chose institutions – such as schools, community development corporations, libraries – as their local partners.  Some rural places began building their own philanthropy but followed models developed in urban places. To get things done, they often formed partnerships with organizations that were not part of their rural geographic region.

Since 1990, federal rural policy has continued to focus on commodity price supports even as the character and economies of rural communities have been changing even more dramatically due to globalization, immigration, energy crises, and other challenges.  This has resulted in a scarcity of funds available to address current rural community issues. Communities today have been forced to become more innovative and to refocus on internal assets.

The 1990’s saw an increase in the development of geographically-focused funds in rural areas at community foundations.  New models of investing in rural places were being developed.  Affinity groups and intermediaries began to organize around rural, raising visibility. Examples include RUPRI, Center for Rural Strategies, Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, SRDI, Rural Funders’ Working Group, and the National Rural Funders Collaborative.

In 1993, the Ford Foundation initiated and funded the Rural Development and Community Foundations Initiative, which provided a place for community foundations to come together to share innovative ways to meet rural community needs.

These activities began to have an impact on research.  It was clear that philanthropy was being used as a tool in ways that worked toward more democratic forms of philanthropy.  This was seen by some as a challenge to the more traditional “donor-centric” model of philanthropy.

It is evident that a new type of organization is evolving – some refer to it as a “hybrid.”  Some of these hybrids are rural community foundations that take on community and economic development initiatives; some are rural community development organizations that begin to grow philanthropic assets.  Whatever form they take, these organizations are finding innovative approaches to working with, for and in communities.  This is happening in rural areas with increasing frequency, and less often in urban settings.