As I prepare to conclude my leadership at the Council on Foundations, I’ve found myself looking back at my tenure. My goal is to get some sense of how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.
In August 2007 we gathered for the Council’s first Rural Philanthropy Conference in Missoula, Mont. This was motivated by Sen. Max Baucus’ call for greater philanthropic support of rural America’s future in his keynote speech to our 2006 Annual Conference.
Two years later, we reconvened at the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark. In the height of the economic recession, we expected some 40 loyalists to show-only to discover that four times that many people still cared enough about Rural America to attend.
Now we have just concluded the Council’s third Rural Philanthropy Conference in Kansas City, Mo. A lot of attendees have asked what happens to the Rural Conference after I leave the Council. It is my fondest hope that through these three conferences and our work in promoting rural philanthropy, we have made it clear that the Council on Foundations simply cannot claim to be the voice and vision for American philanthropy if it does not include an essential commitment to rural philanthropy.
The commitment to “Innovate, Implement, Impact” is more important today than it was earlier this spring. We’ve done a lot of research and planning. But I’m not certain that we’ve implemented our work in ways that achieve the necessary impact across rural America.
This we know:
So where do we go from here?
First, we need rural America’s children who have become urban America’s adults to bring philanthropic resources back home.
Second, we must recognize the importance of building a new generation of philanthropic infrastructures in our rural communities.
Third, the value of collaboration among foundations cannot be overstated. Can we create donor advised funds in urban community foundations targeted to the donor’s rural roots? Can we encourage many of our larger foundations to become our partners in creative, innovative work?
We talk about the exit of large foundations from rural areas. But I know about the Ford Foundation’s “Wealth Creation in Rural America,” The Kresge Foundation’s “Rural People, Rural Places,” the McKnight Foundation’s legacy of rural initiatives in Minnesota, and the many rural communications initiatives funded by the Knight Foundation. In addition, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions is hard at work in rural communities, and the Clinton Foundation’s CGIAmerica is convening a separate track on rural America. We must find ways to connect their passion with ours.
Fourth, we must recognize the immediacy of this window of opportunity.
Rural philanthropy has the potential to create the rural America of our vision. Let us go forward to innovate, to implement, and to create the impact we seek.
Steve Gunderson is president and CEO of the Council on Foundations.