Behind This North Carolina Funder’s Commitment to Rural Churches

Even in traditionally religious parts of the country, many big foundations steer clear of religious funding, especially for individual churches. However, the Duke Endowment isn’t your average foundation, and rural churches have been a part of its grantmaking strategy for a very long time.

In the past, we’ve touched on the Duke Endowment’s support for higher education, vulnerable children, and public health. But today we’re taking a closer look at its local religious program.

In mid-February 2017, the foundation made an announcement that it had awarded over $8 million in grants to United Methodist organizations in North Carolina. Back in September 2016, the foundation awarded $10.3 million in grants to this very specific group. This is significant not only because of the very specific denominational focus, but also because the commitment is coming from one of the largest private foundations in the Southeast.

The United Methodist denomination has strong roots in North Carolina and serves many roles in rural districts, even extending to food pantries, child care centers, and community events. The endowment’s founder, James B. Duke, had strong ties to this particular church, and he included support for it in his 1924 Indenture of Trust. That support has not wavered in the 92 years since.

Over two million people in North Carolina live in rural areas, and churches here are more than just worship facilities. They are a way to address the root causes of poverty, hunger, affordable housing, and illiteracy. These rural areas aren’t packed with nonprofit organizations and passionate nonprofit leaders in the same way our cities are. This leaves rural churches in a unique position of responsibility to address community issues in ways that “city folk” may not always understand.

One top-earning grantee among the 24 grants recently approved went to the Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville to strengthen missional outreach in rural churches. Another top grant went Duke University for a stress management training program for clergy. Recent grants have often been between $150,000 and $350,000 each. 

Back in September 2016, a grant went to the Rural Advancement Foundation International, which received a whopping $1.8 million to help rural churches expand and coordinate food ministry programs. Other grants in that giving cycle ranged from $80,000 to $850,000 and addressed issues like a community home repair program, a Hispanic community outreach program, and to engage congregations that serve schools. Recent grantees were located in the North Carolina towns of Charlotte, Sanford, and Kinston, among others. Between 20 and 30 grants tend to go out per giving cycle here.

Model churches that have been cited as part of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative have included the following:

  • Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, Cedar Grove
  • Fairview United Methodist Church, Shoals
  • Friendship United Methodist Church, Newton
  • Hayesville First United Methodist Church, Hayesville

The funder’s church program focuses exclusively on United Methodist churches in the state and more specifically on enhancing congregational vitality, spiritual formation, and community impact. In addition to rural church development, the Duke Endowment is also interested in clergy and lay leadership and congregational outreach.

Another interesting point about the funder’s rural church program is that is promotes environmental sustainability as well. The Duke Endowment leaders encourage churches to use green building practices for new construction and renovation projects, and it even commissioned Guidelines for Environmentally Friendly Structures - A Checklist for Rural Churches & Related Buildings for to help churches navigate this space.

To be eligible for these local religion grants, you must serve rural North Carolina communities, the North Carolina and Western North Carolina conferences and districts of the United Methodist Church, or Duke University Divinity School. Pre-application deadlines typically fall in March and August for rural church grants, and local groups can start a pre-application form online.