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Often overlooked by national funders, rural America faces profound inequities, but also provides an untapped source of innovation. FSG received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to produce this paper, which provides an introduction to the current state and root causes of the challenges facing rural communities, the missed opportunity for impact, and implications for philanthropy. The paper also highlights organizations working on rural issues and opportunities for funders to get involved.

FSG is publishing an accompanying blog series co-written with leaders from across the country that will go deeper on specific rural issues and which will lift up examples of rural innovations. Please check back.

Top Takeaways

  1. Rural communities in the United States contain roughly 59 million people or 20% of the population. Despite being older and higher proportion of white than the nation as a whole, there is significant diversity in the composition of rural communities, and people of color are the fastest growing segment of rural populations overall.

  2. Rural communities face consistent inequities across social indicators in areas such as health, education, and financial well-being. For example, 91 of the 100 most disadvantaged communities in the United States are rural. These inequities are the product of a range of historical, economic, political, demographic, and structural factors that are both national and region-specific.

  3. There is an imperative for funders to increase their focus on rural areas, which will require a different way of working. Effective rural philanthropy challenges preconceptions about rural communities and focuses on building from within and impact over scale. Addressing the acute challenges that rural Americans face, including racial inequities, political polarization, economic inequality, access to health care and education, and climate change, will be integral to and instructive in the challenges that we face as a country.

Foundations can lead the way in cutting through harmful rhetoric and fund efforts that—instead of perpetuating the rural-urban divide—seek to dissolve it.