Since the Center co-founded the Rural Development Innovation Group (RDIG) in 2016, the collective has helped change the way policy makers think about rural America by showcasing rural innovation and leadership and advising on public policy that affects rural communities. 

Launched by the Northern Forest Center, U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, and the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, RDIG is made up of rural development practitioners, intermediaries and others who have been deeply involved in advancing rural community and economic development through “wealth-building” approaches that add value to local assets, create jobs and build regional and local capacity to adapt to changing conditions.

Every RDIG member is deeply committed to and involved in rural community and economic development that steers away from an over-reliance on business recruitment and resource extraction,” said Janet Topolsky, executive director of the Community Strategies Group of the Aspen Institute. “Instead, we are advancing build-from-within ‘wealth-building’ approaches that strengthen and leverage local assets and know-how to increase more widely shared prosperity for local people, places, businesses, and economies.”

RDIG Group Photo 2 19 sm“We created RDIG to change how rural communities are perceived and served,” said Center President Rob Riley. “We wanted to shine a light on innovation in rural economic and community development and connect this work around the nation to accelerate change for the better in rural communities.”

More than two-thirds of the nation's 3,143 counties are rural, as are the majority of incorporated places. Most of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. have a significant presence in the country's rural regions. Ninety-seven percent of the United States' landmass is rural, and one in five Americans lives in a rural area. Rural entrepreneurs start businesses at higher rates than their urban counterparts, and they 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.

“Interest in rural America has grown considerably, and rural narratives are appropriately more constructive and complex than they were in 2016,” said Riley. “Our advocacy, events, philanthropic engagement, and ongoing communications have sparked these improvements, giving hope and inspiration to rural organizations across the country that are now stepping up to the plate to do more.”

In its first four years, RDIG advanced its goals through the following successful initiatives:

America’s Rural Opportunity Series

The America’s Rural Opportunity series highlights innovation and on-the-ground practitioners from rural places who are successfully addressing important rural economic development needs. RDIG coordinated 12 panel discussions from 2017 - 2020 featuring policymakers, rural economic and community development practitioners, and rural business and philanthropic leaders who are advancing development innovation and a rural opportunity agenda.

Rural Development Program Improvements

Participants briefed Congressional staff in 2017 on recommendations for improving a dozen programs managed by the US Department of Agriculture – Rural Development. Individual RDIG members briefed many more congressional and agency staff on RDIG’s 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.

Reporting on Rural Development Leadership

With significant input from RDIG members, Aspen Community Strategis Group 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. The Center’s work and approach to rural development is featured in the publication, which was distributed nationally. The concept of Rural Development Hubs is regularly cited in other publications and has been featured at several major conferences.

Policy Letters to Congress

In June 2020, RDIG coordinated a joint policy letter to Congressional leaders with more than 100 signatures from organizations and innovators across the nation to urge bi-partisan support for U.S. rural communities that have been hurt by Covid-19. The RDIG letter reached approximately 60 Chiefs of Staff, Legislative Directors, and Staff Directors, and a companion letter went to the Office of Management and Budget.  LINK Read both letters.

More About RDIG

RDIG was initiated in 2016 to demonstrate successful and innovative rural economic development strategies, provide peer advice among organizations, and identify national trends and emerging opportunities to support sector-based strategies. RDIG’s principal goals are to: 

  • Accelerate the adoption and impact of innovative rural development strategies;
  • Forge a strong voice for sensible and productive rural development strategies; and 
  • Convene key innovators to increase leadership, learning and dissemination about “what works” rural development. 

The US Endowment for Forestry & Communities provided a grant in 2016 to launch RDIG, and over time those funds were matched by foundations including LOR, Mary Reynolds Babcock, Northwest Area, Annie E. Casey, and Incourage, along with several other funders. 

The Rural Development and innovation Group, in partnership with the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, is poised to continue its role in bringing the issues and opportunities of rural America to the fore.