Championing Rural Initiative: The Rural Development Innovation Group at Four Years

Over the past four years, the Rural Development Innovation Group has identified and highlighted what’s working in rural community and economic development, and championed thoughtful policy and investment recommendations, all with the goal of moving rural America forward. Here’s to the first four years—and whatever comes next!

As we reflect on our first four years together, we celebrate the successes of the Rural Development Innovation Group (RDIG), a voluntary collective of development practitioners, intermediaries and other organizations committed to advancing equity and improving social, economic, environmental and health outcomes in rural communities and tribal nations throughout the US.

Our premise is that if the country is to succeed economically and socially, then rural and tribal communities must thrive. Consider a few things worth knowing about rural America:

  • More than two-thirds of the nation’s 3,143 counties are rural, and so are the majority of incorporated places.
  • Most of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the US have a significant presence in the country’s rural regions.
  • 97% of the US landmass is rural, and one of every five people lives in a rural area.
  • Rural entrepreneurs start businesses at higher rates than their urban counterparts. And rural firms have higher five-year business survival rates.
  • These mostly small businesses play a particularly vital role in rural America, creating roughly two-thirds of new jobs and supporting the economic and social well-being of their communities.
  • Rural people and places are stewards of the water, food, and energy resources on which all Americans depend.

RDIG came together for the first time in September 2016 at the invitation of three convening partners: Northern Forest CenterAspen Institute Community Strategies Group, and the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities. Our motivation in creating RDIG was to fill a gap: there was no dynamic body consistently promoting rural economic innovation and new approaches to rural development. We believe deeply that creative rural economic and community development practices must become better known, applied, and leveraged to accelerate more equitable development in more rural places.

Every RDIG member is deeply committed to asset-based approaches to rural community and economic development that emphasize building communities and economies from within. These “wealth-building” strategies strengthen, connect, and leverage local resources, know-how, capital, and culture toward the goal of producing more widely-shared prosperity. This approach to community and economic development puts people and equity at the center of the development process and seeks to increase prosperity for all by aligning local people, places, businesses, and organizations to produce goods and services that meet documented demand and investing in local actors to fill any resource or expertise gaps.

As a group, our principal goals are to accelerate the adoption and impact of inventive rural development strategies, while forging a strong rural voice through sensible and productive new partnerships. RDIG convenes key innovators to increase learning, leadership, and dissemination about “what works” for rural development—and communicates those lessons via constructive exchanges with rural and regional development practitioners and dialogues with philanthropic and government investors. In just a few short years, we have undertaken these successful initiatives:

  • The America’s Rural Opportunity series (ARO) highlights innovation and on-the-ground practitioners from rural places who are successfully addressing important facets of rural economic development. Since February 2017, 12 ARO panels have featured policymakers, rural economic and community development practitioners, along with rural business and philanthropic leaders, describing their development innovations and results, and sharing their ideas for how to create a more robust rural opportunity agenda.
  • Using our Critical Rural Development Briefs framework, we reviewed and provided suggested improvements to a dozen federal government programs and held a briefing for Congressional staff in 2017. Individual RDIG members briefed many Congressional and federal agency staff on our principles and rural program report cards. Some of our proposed changes were incorporated into the 2018 Farm Bill, others have been used as the basis for additional rural investment legislation.
  • With significant RDIG input, Aspen CSG published a report on Rural Development Hubs that bolsters RDIG’s principles, features many RDIG member organizations, and underscores the importance of doing economic development differently. This publication has been distributed nationally, and the report and the concept of Rural Development Hubs is now regularly cited in other publications and featured at conferences and meetings ranging from a Population Health in Rural America Virtual Workshop hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to the North Carolina Annual Rural Assembly and Rural RISE.
  • RDIG has spearheaded policy letters to Congress, calling for bi-partisan Congressional support of US rural communities and tribal nations severely and negatively impacted by COVID-19. The most recent June 12, 2020, letter was sent to leaders in the House and Senate, plus approximately 60 chiefs of staff, legislative directors and program staff – and a companion letter went to the Office of Management and Budget. More than 100 rural organization leaders and practitioners from across the country signed each letter. Both letters are available online.

Interest in rural America has grown considerably since 2016, and rural narratives are considerably more constructive and complex—if not more positive—today than they were in 2016. Through advocacy, ARO events, philanthropic engagement, and ongoing communications, RDIG has been one spark in that change and has given hope and inspiration to national rural organizations that are now stepping up to the plate to do more.

As RDIG celebrates four years of groundbreaking work, we are deeply grateful to those entities that invested in this idea: the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities for our seed funding in 2016 to launch RDIG, followed by the LOR, Mary Reynolds Babcock, Northwest Area, Annie E. Casey and Incourage Foundations, along with several other individual event funders.

Now, amidst the COVID-19-related health and economic crises and long-overdue racial reckoning, we look ahead and consider ways to be even more effective in this moment. More must be done, and more voices must be heard to effectively address racial, health and economic disparities, rural or otherwise. Today we are asking: “What will it take for community and economic development to be part of building a more just and equitable society for native nations and rural, urban, suburban and America together?” We welcome your ideas and ask for your input on how rural development practitioners can work together with each other and with their urban and suburban counterparts to ensure all people and places have what they need to thrive.

Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group
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