The Intimacy of Place: Lessons for Philanthropy

Kathleen Belanger, Challenges for Human Services columnistby Kathleen Belanger

I began this column pondering what words I could possibly contribute to inspire philanthropy to help children, families, the elderly and veterans living in rural America. I had hoped that philanthropy, deriving much of its original wealth from rural resources, would invest back into rural, but instead it “still lags behind.” Rick Cohen reported in the February 2011 issue of Nonprofit Quarterly that not only is the rural share of donations far less than the urban share per capita, but between 2004 and 2008, the rural share of donations actually shrank by 3.45 percent while total annual foundation grantmaking increased by 43.4 percent.

According to Rural America at a Glance, 2011 edition, rural poverty rose to 16.6 percent (vs. 13.9 percent in metro areas), the highest rate since 1994, with only 55 percent of rural adults working (compared with 59 percent in metro areas). At the same time, these past two years have seen a dramatic unraveling of what we euphemistically refer to as “a safety net,” with both federal and state cutbacks in essential human services. At a time of increased need and decreased federal and state services, many local non-profits cannot raise the local donations required to keep their doors open and churches that normally provide local assistance are striving to remain solvent. However, instead of increasing funding to stressed and underserved rural communities, as Chuck Fluharty of the Rural Policy Institute described in an address to the Senate Agriculture Committee earlier this year, we have a situation in which “American philanthropy continues to distribute less than 3 percent of its annual payout to the people and places of rural America, which comprise 20 percent or our population and 80 percent of our natural resource base. In fact, foundations have withdrawn further from rural commitments in the past five years, as need has increased exponentially,” a condition that Mr. Fluharty describes as “a current de facto foundation redlining of rural America.”

Rachael Swierzewski, in her National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy 2007 report, Rural Philanthropy: Building Dialogue from Within (no longer available online), cites several obstacles to rural grantmaking, many of which were based on perceptions: perceptions of need, of capacity, of the importance of numbers or scale, of infrastructure and evidence-based solutions. Cohen describes an additional problem, of “the inexorable urban bias of philanthropy (‘Where you stand is where you sit’)” because philanthropic organizations, regardless of the place from which profits are derived, are usually located in the cities and suburbs.

What’s the solution? Not just dollars, but presence. The T.L.L. Temple Foundation, for example, puts its money where not only its mouth, but also the body of the organization is: in the East Texas Pine Timber Belt. The foundation is one of the largest in Texas, with yearly distributions of $16 million. Since it was established in 1962, it has awarded more than $365 million in grants to non-profit initiatives—about 80 percent of which has been concentrated in that region.

Being located in its rural region has several advantages. According to the Temple Foundation’s Buddy Zeagler, instead of concentrating its grant initiatives in metropolitan areas, the foundation operates in a rural region with high poverty, significant community and social service needs, and low educational attainment, among other growing challenges—a region which is underserved by any measure. By having boots on the ground, the foundation knows which agencies are helping those most in direct need. The foundation recognizes the agencies with very low overhead and a high proportion of volunteers, and helps those agencies help others. With local connections and a local perspective, the foundation doesn’t have to require non-profits to use precious resources for comprehensive needs assessments and sophisticated grant writing.

“We try to keep the process simple—uniform,” Zeagler explains. “We want to maximize the benefit of every available grant dollar to give people a hand up—to help with basic needs as they bear upon the physical and emotional essentials of a decent life.” And living and operating in the community means you don’t need extensive oversight and program evaluations. “We know each other—we partner—we network. When you know the people, you know what’s happening—it’s self-policing.” And the foundation keeps its own infrastructure lean. “A small, efficient staff and less overhead means we can distribute more grant dollars, especially now since all non-profits are extremely stressed. We see it in grant requests. There is simply no place for non-profits to turn now.” Zeagler added, “You know, it’s the poorest that reach into their empty pantries and pockets and find a way to give to others in need. The private sector simply has to learn from this example and step up.”

Zeagler’s advice? “Life is kind of like traveling down the Mississippi River. Everyone gets a canoe and a paddle. Now we can fight the river, or let its current carry us. We can go happy or sad. We can help others into our canoe or not. But one thing is certain—we’re all going to New Orleans. And the single question we may be asked when we get there is this: did you comfort the heart of a least one person who had lost all hope for peace?” This kind of comfort, this basic help, the intimacy of place is the strength of rural communities. Philanthropy can learn this by putting its own boots on rural ground.

As Wendell Berry said, in his book, The Long-Legged House, “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”

Kathleen Belanger, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Social Work at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and is a member of the RUPRI Human Services Panel, co-chair of Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) National Advisory Committee on Rural Social Services, and recipient of CWLA’s Champion for Children award in 2005 for her work in rural child welfare. Belanger has published and presented on human services issues in a variety of publications and forums. In addition, she has worked for more than 20 years with rural communities, where she has helped found several non-profit organizations and advocated for rural resources.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.

Back to: Spring 2012 Issue