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Vilsack: Government, foundations need to partner

KANSAS CITY — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told foundation officials working in rural America last week that he needs to understand better what they do, while the foundation officials discussed how they could work more closely with the federal government and proposed a rural philanthropy growth act that would provide federal challenge grants to communities to develop their own foundations and charities.

“I don’t know what you know, what you do,” Vilsack said in a speech to those gathered here for the Council on Foundations biennial conference on rural philanthropy. “There needs to be a more formal mechanism” for the foundations and the federal government to communicate, he added.

“There’s extra untapped power we’ve never thought about,” Vilsack said, noting that he had been involved with community foundations when he was governor of Iowa. In this time of tight federal budgets, he said, the federal government needs “partnerships and collaborations” with local groups more than ever.

In his blog last Friday, Vilsack noted that Morton Township in Michigan raised more than $150,000 to leverage USDA Rural Development funding through the Recovery Act. The community is gaining a library expansion that will offer more computer workstations, meeting rooms and parking, he said. The Cokata Wiconi Teen Center of South Dakota is gaining furniture and equipment thanks to a USDA matching grant for $135,000 that was achieved through a number of donors, including the South Dakota Community Foundation.

“Moving forward, resources, federal and state investments will need to be stretched. Foundations can provide an important boost to our efforts to create new jobs,” Vilsack wrote.

During the conference, a panel of foundation leaders proposed that community foundations increase their endowments by encouraging farmers and landowners to give or bequeath a portion of their estates to community foundations rather than leaving all the money and land to children who no longer live in the area.

But some local foundation executives also said that big foundations in cities should provide more funding to rural America.

Liz Fedor of the Otto Bremer Foundation in St. Paul, Minn., which makes grants to help communities with such problems as mental health and homelessness, urged Vilsack to ask former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to appeal to big foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle to take a greater interest in rural America. Vilsack said he would be willing personally to contact the big foundations, and asked for a list of the foundations that had not attended the rural conference.

Meanwhile, Jeff Yost of the Nebraska Community Foundation said in a separate presentation that he is promoting a bill that would establish an office of rural philanthropy in USDA's rural development division, and a challenge grant program that would encourage local communities to establish or expand community foundations with federal grants of $100,000 to $1 million that would be matched by donations in the community.

Yost said the grants could go to any non-metro county or county equivalent with one or more of the following characteristics:
  • A per capita income of 75 percent or less of the U.S. average
  • A population loss of 10 percent or greater since 1980
  • A classification as a county with persistent poverty.

Since the federal government is likely to provide less money to rural America in the future, Yost said, foundations created through the grants could create more self-sufficiency in the future.

Attendees at the conference expressed interest in the bill but questioned whether Congress would be interested in establishing the grants at a time it is cutting other programs.

Steve Gunderson, a former Wisconsin congressman who is president of the Council on Foundations, said the council supports the bill, but recognizes it will be hard to gain support for the grant program. USDA, Gunderson suggested, could help set up or expand community foundations by encouraging the land grant universities and extension service to advise the communities.