How Do Rural Communities in the U.S. Implement Collective Impact?

Recently, FSG was invited to speak on Collective Impact at the Eastern Oregon Nonprofit Conference which focused on “Creating Vital Communities” as well as State of Alaska’s Annual Behavioral Health Prevention Grantee Meeting organized by the Department of Health and Social Services. In both these forums, the audience was specifically interested in understanding how the concept of Collective Impact can be applied in rural communities.

Collective Impact—the approach where organizations from different sectors agree to solve a specific social problem by using a common agenda, aligning their efforts, and using common measures of success—has been implemented successfully across multiple types of geographies. The approach has been used to protect a 6 mile long river here in the U.S., as well as to influence the nutrition levels of people around the world. The underlying thread across these examples is the application of the 5 conditions of Collective Impact: Common Agenda, Shared Measurement, Mutually Reinforcing Activities, Continuous Communication, and a Backbone Organization.

We were curious to learn how Collective Impact plays out in rural communities in the U.S. While there is no straight answer to this question, our initial conversations have taught us the following:

There is no monolithic description of what constitutes a rural community, and every rural community presents unique characteristics that create a range of benefits and challenges to implement Collective Impact.

In the United States, there are dozens of ways in which Federal and State agencies, researchers, and policymakers define “what is urban or rural.” These definitions have also changed over time. A simplistic definition for the term “rural” used by the Bureau of Census is—“any territory which is not designated as an urban area”—implying that a rural place is a settlement with fewer than 2,500 inhabitants. However, the reality is that a rural place can have population densities as high as 999 per square mile or as low as 1 person per square mile, making each rural community unique.

However, our initial discussions reveal some commonalities across many rural communities, with early learnings included below:

  • Close-knit rural communities can often leverage their relationships to work together towards common goals and influence local policy. Communities that Care Coalition, a Collective Impact initiative in the rural communities of Franklin County and North Quabbin in western Massachusetts, attributes a large part of their success in reducing alcohol and tobacco use among youth to close community relationships. There is an implicit understanding in their community that “we are all in this together.” Hence, several day-to-day activities can be done by simply picking up the phone—instead of waiting to schedule an elaborate meeting among different stakeholders to get the same job done. Stakeholders in rural communities may also find it easier to influence local policies than their urban counterparts due to such close-knit relationships or greater access to policymakers.
  • However, not all rural communities have the advantage of close-knit relationships. For example, frontier communities, i.e., places having a population density of six or fewer people per square mile, are so isolated that stakeholders may not have the advantages of known, personal relationships. These communities are often fraught with several socio-economic challenges (50 of the poorest counties in the U.S. are frontier communities) and may struggle with creating effective collaborations across large geographic stretches.
  • Many rural communities also face particular challenges as they begin to implement Collective Impact. Most rural communities, irrespective of their size, face the challenge of having limited funds. Since foundations and businesses are often not based in rural areas, it can be challenging to bring their attention (and hence resources) to rural based problems. Often, rural communities may feel fairly removed from state or federal policy making. Such communities are often not aware of resources available to them. For example, certain communities may lack awareness about government funding programs or local universities’ rural focused programs that are specifically meant to address social issues. Finally, given the limited non-profit infrastructure, rural communities might not have obvious capable local champions or conveners of a Collective Impact effort, which our research has found to be a critical precondition for beginning Collective Impact.

Given these opportunities and challenges, rural communities wanting to address complex social problems through Collective Impact can consider the following approaches:


  • Capitalize on the strengths of your community. If your community’s stakeholders have close-knit relationships, or if your community has created effective collaborations in the past, it is worthwhile to leverage those relationships while implementing Collective Impact.
  • Get creative to address the challenge of limited resources. Given limited resources for creation of a new agency, Franklin County’s Communities that Care Coalition is “co-hosted” by Community Action of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions and Community Coalition for Teens, program of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. Each organization donates 4 hours of staff time every week. This creative model allows each of these organizations to share administrative duties such as maintaining mailing and email lists, convening meetings and organizing food, space, and setting agenda, record keeping, and communicating outcomes.
  • Be aware of available resources. Communities can make themselves aware of locally available resources and how to access them. For example, several communities may not be aware of a resource like the Rural Communities Explorer, a digital library created by the Oregon State University’s Rural Studies Program. This digital library provides public access to reliable and up-to-date social, demographic, economic, and environmental information about Oregon’s rural counties. Such a resource can enable the establishment of baseline data of the target issue, an important step to creating a shared measurement system.
  • Leverage technology to deal with physical distances. Although nothing can truly replace the trust and credibility that a face-to-face meeting can create, communities which are geographically very distant can think about using conference calls, Skype, and other online tools to communicate as well as share information or progress.

Do you have any examples of how a rural community has successfully implemented Collective Impact? What creative techniques did they use? Please leave your comments—we would love to learn together!


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