Archived Story

Conference focuses on rural giving
By TYLER CHRISTENSEN of the Missoulian

Montana's wildfires failed to chase away the first-ever rural philanthropy conference in Missoula.

More than 170 people representing philanthropic organizations and foundations throughout the United States came to the University of Montana this week to exchange ideas on how to revitalize rural communities.

They broke into groups to visit several small Montana communities and see firsthand evidence of programs that work. The group that visited Seeley Lake was especially impressed, said Linda Reed, president and chief executive officer of the Helena-based Montana Community Foundation.

Somehow, staff members at the Seeley Lake Community Foundation were able to put the fires out of their minds for a few hours to showcase several successful projects, including a new playground that was built in just five days.

“We're so proud of them,” said Reed, whose organization was one of three co-sponsors for the conference. “In terms of being able to showcase good work in Montana, we've done that very well.”

Rural foundations like the one in Seeley Lake face tremendous challenges, but their work is especially needed because rural communities are typically the hardest hit in times of crises, said Steve Gunderson.

He is familiar with the unique challenges facing rural communities, he explained, because he spent 16 years in the United States Congress representing rural Wisconsin.

Shortly after being named president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Council on Foundations - an organization that includes 2,100 foundations and counts assets totaling more than $282 billion - Gunderson was approached by Montana Sen. Max Baucus about the possibility of bringing the nation's philanthropic groups to Montana.

During Thursday's lunch hour, Baucus explained to conference participants that the nation's foundations tend to ignore rural communities when handing out grants. This has led to a “rural divide,” he said, in which urban states like New York receive more than $20 per person for every $1 given per person in Montana.

Baucus said he would like to see philanthropic groups double the amount of grants they give to rural states within the next five years. He asked them to give special consideration to Libby, which has seen many of its residents sickened by asbestos from W.R. Grace's vermiculite mine.

“If you are looking for a place where people are determined to overcome problems that they did not invite, one can start with Libby, Montana,” Baucus said.

Rural organizations tend to lack the type of access their urban counterparts are privy to, Reed said. They don't usually have, for instance, a pool of professional researchers or grant writers to rely on.

But that doesn't mean the quality of their work is less professional, Reed added. Indeed, they often compensate for what they lack by developing other strengths.

“Montana nonprofits are very, very small, and each one of us wear many hats,” she said.

The conference brought a number of Montana groups as well, from the Ovando-based Blackfoot Challenge to the Helena Education Foundation, who welcomed the opportunity to hear about what's working in communities outside the state.

Overall, it garnered strong support for a similar gathering in the next year or two, Reed said.

This year's meeting was co-sponsored by the Council on Foundations, the Montana Community Foundation and the Minneapolis-based Northwest Area Foundation, of which Dan Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula, is chairman of the board.

The three-day conference wrapped up Thursday evening with a reception at the Missoula Children's Theatre hosted by Baucus and the Montana Nonprofit Association.

Reporter Tyler Christensen can be reached at 523-5215 or tyler.christensen@lee.net

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