To maximize rural prosperity in tandem with greater equity for rural people and places, rural advocates must be in better sync and not work at cross purposes. Rural single-issue and proprietary interest groups need to learn more about and from each other, share resources and expertise across their fields and niches, recognize the interconnectedness and interdependence of their issues and develop mutual respect, and learn about how their individual efforts help or harm other rural interests.
Developing and aligning a basic common agenda, focused on a healthy balance of prosperity and equity outcomes, along with increased cross-promotion of each other’s work, will propel both individual and collective progress.
Building Block EVIDENCE
Evidence suggests that this building block is important because developing a common language around equity and understanding how structural and institutional inequity within the collective effort must be addressed is part of creating change.1 Kania and Kramer describe that a collective impact framework for creating community change includes five conditions: “a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations”2 and should also pay “vigilant attention” to equity.1 Other experts support the collective impact framework for addressing complex issues—those with multiple root causes, multiple players, and without a “direct line between an intervention and a result”—and note that a distinction of the framework is to use data intentionally “and as a driver toward innovation and results”.3 However, barriers to implementation of the framework include short-term funding focused on outcomes for individual organizations; “the need to get credit for collaborative work; and internal organizational structures that have a low tolerance for risk”.3 Research on collaboration among rural nonprofits also notes the same barriers to success, as well as the negative effects of structural racism and segregation on collaborative relationships.4
Foundational research on rural collaboration notes that federal or state initiatives often require or encourage collaboration between organizations, recognizing its potential value.4 However, limited public sector resources may lead to collaboration to be more “tactical” than strategic—for example, local government managers explain that collaboration must produce enough benefit to offset work to identify collaborative opportunities, create structure, and promote relationships—with state or federal action needed to address larger issues, like local collaborators’ fiscal stability.5 Research on collaboration among rural economic development organizations in rural Eastern Kentucky suggests organizations view collaboration as more successful with organizations that are similarly positioned with the collaborative network and with whom they have shared trust, norms, and mutual dependence.6 Researchers also call for more exploration into the tension between collaboration and competition in local contexts.6 A rural case study from the Western US illustrates these tradeoffs and tensions, noting that rural networks may be underpinned by deep personal trust, mitigating intracommunity competition and increasing efficiency in some collaborative processes.7 As rural networks may rely on a “small cadre of influential leaders,” suggested strategies to maintain successful cross-sector collaborations in rural settings include recruiting and retaining talented leadership from outside the network and looking to diverse and intergenerational pools of community members when experienced leadership departs.7
The Thriving Together initiative in Phoenix, Arizona, which aims to improve student educational outcomes, is an example of equity-focused collective impact work.1,8 Other examples of collaborative community action in rural settings include Resilient Southern Illinois, an initiative of Partnership for Resilience9 and Communities that Care Coalition, in Massachusetts.10
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We see the framework as a living document, which necessarily must evolve over time, and we seek to expand the collective ownership of the Thrive Rural Framework among rural equity, opportunity, health, and prosperity ecosystem actors. Please share your insights with us about things the framework is missing or ways it should change.