Building Rural Capacity for an Inclusive Recovery

May 18, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us that a community is only as resilient as its most vulnerable members, and that some rural areas have a disproportionate share of vulnerable people, making them acutely at-risk when disasters occur. Given the significant impact of the pandemic on these individuals and their communities, it is vital for rural community leaders to ensure the most vulnerable members of their community are included in their recovery efforts.

The pandemic has also forced all communities, but especially rural communities, to improve their disaster preparedness. As rural communities engage in both immediate recovery efforts and planning for future resilience, understanding and bolstering their local capacity while setting priorities for future investment could be critical.

Local Rural Capacity Requires Community-Based Organizations

Investing in Rural Prosperity book front cover, a collection of scenes from across rural America.

The book “Investing in Rural Prosperity” seeks to help rural individuals and communities achieve shared economic prosperity.

“Capacity” is “the inherent knowledge, skills and resources that enable communities to meet their immediate needs and prepare for their future needs,” community development experts Sarah Kackar and Susan Fitter Harris wrote in a chapter (PDF) of the 2021 book, “Investing in Rural Prosperity.”

In rural communities, this includes “residents who are healthy and financially stable” and “enfranchised to make their voices heard,” the authors wrote. Also needed are local systems that are functional and responsive to changing conditions and cross-sector collaborations that support vibrant communities.

In another chapter (PDF) of the book, Noel Andrés Poyo proposes that, to advance inclusive rural development, rural communities rely heavily on the capacity of place-based institutions that deliver capital and economic opportunity, such as community development corporations. Such community-based organizations are a critical component of local capacity and are key to creating an inclusive recovery plan because they are grounded in the community and, as a result, tailor their products and services more closely to the community’s needs. These local nonprofit organizations can bridge gaps in local government staffing and provide support in resource-strapped areas. Thus, rural community leaders should consider supporting local community-based organizations as a core element of any effort to advance an inclusive recovery.

Mapping Out Priorities and Capacity Gaps

But community-based organizations and those that support them face critical questions of where and how to invest when building out their capacities. To shed light on where current capacity gaps exist and identify capacity investment priorities, several organizations, including the Regional Rural Development Centers (RRDCs) and Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group, have worked to understand and measure capacity throughout the rural U.S.

In the report Investing in Rural Recovery (PDF), the RRDCs released findings from their national survey of rural development stakeholders. The report identified key informants’ perceptions about priorities, capacities and the potential to expand programming in critical topic areas. Their initial findings revealed the following priorities as the most important for rural community, economic and workforce development over the next five years:

  • physical infrastructure and public services;
  • economic development;
  • workforce development, training and education; and
  • health programming and policy.

Embedded within these broad priorities are advancing broadband access, fostering equitable and inclusive growth, supporting entrepreneurship among socially disadvantaged minority groups, and improving public health, including the availability of and access to medical services.

In addition to identifying priorities, the RRDCs also wanted to understand the current capacity to address these priority issues and where there may be opportunities to expand capacity related to specific priority issues. The RRDCs found that the topics ranked as the most important, such as physical infrastructure and public services, were also those for which the respondents reported the lowest average ratings for capacity. The capacity of respondents’ organizations to engage in programming was rated highest for the topics of agriculture and food systems; diversity, equity and inclusion; and climate change.

Importantly, the ratings of current capacity varied across the four rural development regions of the U.S., as the infographic shows. For example, capacity to advance efforts related to the topic of agriculture and food systems was ranked high in the South region, but low in the West. So, capacity-building interventions cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution but must be tailored to the relative strengths and weaknesses of communities and regions.

Ratings of Capacity to Address Issues Vary by U.S. Regions

Chart titled "Capacity," with columns titled different U.S. regions, and rows of multicolored boxes of text in each column

SOURCES: Regional Rural Development Centers.

Technical Assistance Alone Does Not Build Organizational Capacity

During Aspen Institute’s 2021 Rural Opportunity and Development Session titled “This Is What Capacity Looks Like,” rural leaders revealed that capacity building often involves supplying technical assistance to local groups, provided by national or regional organizations, and using federal government resources. But technical assistance alone does not build organizational capacity—more is often needed.

And because building and sustaining local capacity take a lot of groundwork and time before one can see tangible results surface, communities often find it difficult to make the long-term, consistent investments needed. To help communities assess where they are and what they are accomplishing, the Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group (formerly Rural Economic Policy Program) and its partners offer a workbook (PDF) to help communities measure and gauge their progress on creating the necessary commitment, resources and skills to improve the communities’ ability to make well-reasoned decisions about their present and future needs.

Envisioning What’s Possible

Inclusive recovery will not be possible without the local capacity to envision what that looks like and how to achieve it, and then to bring all the relevant parties to the table to support and advance that vision. Therefore, building local capacity and investing in the organizations that serve the community are important for advancing economic prosperity for vulnerable community members.

To learn more, see “Investing in Rural Prosperity,” which highlights how rural communities are building local capacity that is inclusive and collaborative by leveraging partnerships to respond to economic stress and other challenges. These key insights, drawn from local examples, are highlighted in a one-page summary (PDF) recently released by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Editor's Note: This post was updated to correct a hyperlink. 

About the Authors
Andrew Dumont
Andrew Dumont

Andrew Dumont is a senior community development analyst with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

Andrew Dumont
Andrew Dumont

Andrew Dumont is a senior community development analyst with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

Samantha Evans
Sam Evans

Sam Evans is a community development advisor for the St. Louis Fed's Little Rock Zone. Read more about Sam's work.

Samantha Evans
Sam Evans

Sam Evans is a community development advisor for the St. Louis Fed's Little Rock Zone. Read more about Sam's work.

This blog explains everyday economics, consumer topics and the Fed. It also spotlights the people and programs that make the St. Louis Fed central to America’s economy. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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