Funding rural areas is a tricky, albeit important, task. And unfortunately, philanthropy as a whole tends to ignore rural America. Only about 7% of all U.S. grantmaking goes to rural communities, despite the fact that 14% of the nation’s population — roughly 46 million people — live in rural areas. At the same time, funders concerned with economic opportunity and equity are overlooking huge needs and opportunities when they overlook rural America. These communities struggle with high levels of poverty, few transportation options, limited access to healthcare, and other challenges; they’re also far more racially diverse than some might expect.
There are a lot of reasons for this funding gap, but a major factor is that most large foundations are based in urban areas like New York City, which houses more than 18,000 foundations. Most rural funding is done through small and mid-sized foundations that approach their work through a local or regional lens.
According to experts on the matter, place-based funding for rural areas makes a lot of sense. Big, national foundations may find it difficult to understand what specific rural communities need and how to best serve them without parachuting in or causing disruption. For large donors and philanthropies, channeling funding through community foundations, family foundations and other regionally focused foundations is an effective route because these groups are close to the ground and they better understand what’s needed.
Nevertheless, there are some national funders who provide funding for rural areas, either through direct support or by supporting intermediary funders. Here are four big players to watch.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is one of the few national funders that consistently awards grants to initiatives and programs focused on rural areas. Philanthropy in rural communities is often concerned with matters of healthcare and health equity because access is often scarce or far from home. RWJF is perhaps the nation’s leading health funder, and one with a heavy focus on equity, and it counts rural giving as a critical part of its mission.
RWJF provides support to rural communities across the country so they can develop regional solutions to advance health equity. The foundation also funds research related to rural areas, including reports about life in rural America, transforming rural health through economic development, and more. RWJF also has several programs and initiatives that, among other things, support rural leaders, including Clinical Scholars, Health Policy Research Scholars, and Interdisciplinary Research Scholars.
Along with the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute, RWJF supports the Aspen Institute’s Thrive Rural Framework, which uses an asset-based approach to address the underlying issues that prevent rural communities from thriving. The framework also seeks to address the systemic discrimination many rural Americans face, including discrimination due to race, place and class.
W.K. Kellogg Foundation
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation consistently provides funding for organizations, initiatives and projects focused on rural America. Kellogg has been around since 1930, when it was founded by the breakfast cereal mogul of the same name, and since its creation, has been focused on making it possible for children to thrive. Headquartered in East Battle Creek, Michigan, the foundation has offices in Detroit and Grand Rapids, but also in Mississippi, New Mexico, Louisiana and Mexico City. That’s not your typical geographic footprint for a big, national foundation. The foundation funds nationally, but about two-thirds of giving happens in those priority locations, which also include parts of Haiti.
Kellogg’s priorities are Thriving Children, Working Families and Equitable Communities, which together cover a pretty wide range of topics, including nutrition, maternal and infant healthcare, early childhood development, employment opportunities, and tackling racism as one of the root factors of inequality in America.
Its grantmaking includes support for Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, Rural Coalition, Center for Rural Affairs, and Forward Together, among others. Kellogg also funds regional and locally focused programs such as the University of New Mexico Health Science Center, One Voice (Mississippi), Southern Partners Fund (Georgia) and the Center for Southwest Culture.
Annie E. Casey Foundation
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which focuses its giving on childhood poverty, has been providing funding for rural America for almost two decades. In 2019, the foundation teamed up with Save the Children, StriveTogether and Partners for Education to launch the Rural Accelerator Initiative, which provided three pilot communities with $1.2 billion over three years. The foundation also supports the Rural Family Economic Success Action Network — a framework meant to help community, program and policy leaders take action for rural families. Part of the foundation’s support includes data collection and analysis, including documenting the success of rural strategies to inform policy decisions.
As part of its work to end child poverty in rural America, Casey has also supported the National Rural Assembly, West Central Initiative and the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, which has published numerous reports on rural America.
MacKenzie Scott (Yield Giving)
Powerhouse donor MacKenzie Scott probably isn’t the first person who comes to mind when thinking about rural philanthropy, but with rural funding being as sparse as it is, her giving has quickly catapulted her into the position of a major funder in the space. In 2022, Scott gave $7 million to the National Rural Health Organization. She has also given $20 million to the Rural Community Assistance Cooperation, as well as grants to Altarum and Center for Rural Strategies. She’s also provided funding for more regionally focused groups.
As IP reported last year, Scott made several large gifts to rural-serving health foundations, which the norm-challenging mega-donor identified as a unique conduit into regions of the country that are difficult to access, and as a result, often overlooked by high-dollar philanthropy. Scott targeted health conversion foundations, also known as health legacy foundations, which are created when a nonprofit health organization is sold or merged with another organization. These funders tend to fly under the radar, but they are doing a lot of innovative work, particularly around health equity.
“Health conversions have been the biggest influx of philanthropic dollars into rural areas over the last 30 years or so, and it’s not an area that’s been particularly well recognized,” said Allen Smart, a longtime rural philanthropy leader and advocate, at the time.
Stay tuned for additional coverage of place-based funding in different regions of the country.