Spotlight Exclusives

Successful Rural Development Takes a Region, Not Just a Village

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

Organizations that successfully drive inclusive economic development in rural America have particular characteristics, according to a new Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group report released Tuesday. Dubbed “rural development hubs,” they take a holistic, regional approach, focusing on “the integrated range of social, economic, health and environmental conditions need for people and places to thrive.”

The Aspen report is based on interviews with more than 40 leaders of rural development hubs across the country and outlines shared values and characteristics that illustrate their approach.

Hubs can be financial institutions, foundations, colleges or community colleges, but they tend to share a general strategy. Some key features of these hubs include that they:

  • Take a regional approach
  • Know their region and have earned its trust
  • Take the long view
  • Bridge across issues and siloes
  • Create products, structures and tools for effective solutions
  • See collaboration as essential
  • Connect local and national actors
  • Flex and innovate
  • Take on and tolerate risk
  • Remain accountable to the whole

“A hub does the connecting, a hub does the culture building, a hub does the cheerleading,” said Connie Stewart, executive director of the California Center for Rural Policy. She was one of four hub leaders who took part in a panel moderated by Aspen President Dan Porterfield. “Sometimes communities are down, and they need someone to say, we can make a change.”

“What we are learning is that it doesn’t take a village. It takes a region,” said Katrina Badger, a program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the Aspen study.

The hub leaders stressed that successful rural development efforts don’t separate community issues from economic issues but instead view them as one.

“We all see these things as interconnected and look at how people and place intersect with jobs and economic growth,” said Rob Riley, president of the Northern Forest Center in Concord, N.H. “It’s a new paradigm.”

When rural development isn’t successful, it’s often because the effort is siloed or too focused on narrow goals, the panel said. “Sometimes investment is applied toward building a structure, building a thing, and often doesn’t go to involving people in using and supporting that thing,” Riley said.

Rural development projects also too often don’t include entire communities in the planning and conception stages. “It’s more than capital that’s needed to really move rural communities,” said Ines Polonius, CEO of Communities Unlimited in Lincoln, Ark. “It’s the folks at the margins that we need to really include in crafting the strategy.”

“This work is about values. It’s about inclusion of those at the economic margins. It’s about looking at wealth creation in an equitable way,” Polonius said. “Someone needs to hold those values. Because the work gets really hard.”

Just as important for rural economic hub leaders is the ability to listen and encourage. “If a community wants something, it’s about not saying no, but saying, OK, how can we do that?” said Kelly Ryan, president and CEO of the Incourage Community Foundation in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

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