The Lilly Endowment, one of the world’s largest private foundations with assets of more than $10 billion, recently announced a $10 million grant to the new Center for Rural Engagement at Indiana University Bloomington. This investment is both encouraging and thought-provoking, raising important questions about the glaring geographic disparities in rural access to such private investments, the effectiveness of academic institutions in stimulating and supporting community level change, and the track record of large foundations in sustaining rural investments over the needed long haul.
Based in Indianapolis, the Lilly Endowment is perhaps best known for its grants to strengthen pastoral leaders and congregational health in Christian churches across the country. But about two-thirds of its annual grantmaking supports community development/philanthropy and youth/education in Indiana, with the majority of investments going to Indianapolis.
Lilly’s path to seeding the Center for Rural Engagement began in 2014 with its support of a Strategic Plan for Economic and Community Prosperity in Southwest Central Indiana undertaken by the global consulting firm, Battelle. The next year, the Endowment invested a total of $42 million to support a regional workforce/education initiative, an Applied Research Institute (which coordinates “multi-institutional defense research collaborations), and a planning process to create the IU Center for Rural Excellence. The stated goal of the Center for Rural Engagement is “to improve the lives and opportunities of Hoosiers by working with partners to discover and deploy evidence-based, data-informed and scalable solutions to common challenges facing rural communities.” It will initially focus on R&D, workforce and education, and quality of life issues in the 11-county target region.