Community Development Strategies: Yes, It Can Fit in Your Budget

Strategic Planning | Quality of Life | Leadership |Economic Health | Community Building | Resources | Learn More

People think community development is an expensive process, but it doesn’t have to be. All it takes are a few simple questions to get the ball rolling and get the community interested. With community member participation and buy-in, the process usually expands to even larger projects. This page will show you how to get started with a simple community development process, one that encourages buy-in from the larger community.

Rural Community Thrive

Rural Community Development in the 21st Century has fewer boundaries with the rapid and continued growth of technology. It recognizes that there is strength through inclusion both with neighboring communities and with all generations in our own towns and villages. But rural community development in the 21st Century also needs innovation and entrepreneurship and strong, visionary leadership. RC-Thrive (Rural Communities Thrive) addresses these needs and takes advantage of the opportunities.

RC-Thrive recognizes that rural community development should be a self-determined process—in other words, not a prescribed “fix” that is offered, but something that comes from a thorough evaluation of what the community already has and what positive future can be supported with these local assets.

Community betterment (development) needs to be driven locally to be successful. People have the collective wisdom to know what is needed. It’s a matter of supporting them to build on their ability to create the future they envision; it’s a matter of asking the right questions.

The RC-Thrive program provides a framework to develop resources and capacities within to build vibrant and thriving communities with successful small businesses, farms and ranches, and citizens all along the generation spectrum.

For communities to be successful, local relationships and community-wide inclusiveness are necessary. Relationship and network building throughout the community are key components to moving issues forward.

A vision of what the community wants to be in the future is a critical step in development. This community vision becomes the basis for future planning and decision making and needs full backing and agreement from all parties, elected and non-elected. After visioning is complete, planning follows. The planning process should provide a complete assessment of what the town already has (assets) and where and how these assets can be reorganized and focused on the future.

For successful community development, local leaders, entrepreneurs, and residents of all ages need to be engaged. Identifying and drawing on these assets can build wealth, relationships, and social cohesion inside the community and bridge to resources beyond the community. New ideas, networks and opportunities can emerge during this process.

Below are the primary components of successful rural community development. Each one is accompanied by a number of critical questions. The components are:

  1. Strategic Planning
  2. Quality of Life
  3. Leadership
  4. Economic Health
  5. Community Building

Questions provided can be used as a type of score card that will help communities identify where development needs to be focused. At the end of the components section is a “Foundation for Getting Started” to help guide communities toward reaching their goals. Many communities may have the resources already available to them to help build this program; others may need to look beyond their community.

Five Components of Successful Rural Community Development

Each one is accompanied by a number of critical questions. The components are:

Strategic Planning

A strategic plan identifies long and short-term goals the community wants to achieve and includes: an assessment of the external environment; assessment of internal capacity of the community; development of a vision for the future; development of goals and objectives (the actions) for reaching that future; implementation of the plan, and measurement of progress and revision of the plan as needed. Below are critical questions to ask which will be helpful in developing a strategic plan for your community.

  1. Do we have a vision that can guide our planning?
  2. Have we involved the entire community to determine and identify publicly what we already have (assets), what we need, and what we want to work toward for the future?
  3. What are we doing as far as ongoing strategic planning? Who is involved in planning? How widespread is the participation? Once planning occurs, do we evaluate, learn and move forward?
  4. Have we built relationships with communities outside of our own?
  5. Do we have a plan on how to involve more people in the community’s work?
  6. Have we established a working plan for recruitment – both of people who have moved away and of our youth before they leave? Have we created a plan for how we can invest in the youth who remain in our community?
  7. Have we established a retention plan for people who move to our town? What are we doing right? What do we need to improve to keep them here? Do we include and involve them? Give them opportunities to be involved in leadership development, etc? Listen to their ideas?
  8. Do we look to the institutions in our community (schools, churches, clubs, organizations, etc.) and include them in the planning process?
  9. Do we have a way to welcome newcomers to our town? Do we get newcomers quickly involved in planning and activities in our community?
  10. Youth
    • Have we created a strategic plan and implemented it for ensuring that some of our youth can return or remain in our community?
    • Have we involved them in leadership and entrepreneurship development? In what ways are we involving youth in community?
    • Have we helped tie the school to the community and the community to the school and both to entrepreneurial development?

Quality of Life

When assessing your community, it is necessary to take a hard look at the community. Identifying the community’s assets is usually effortless, but taking a look at where the community has weaknesses is a difficult, but needed assessment.

  1. Is our community a welcoming place to be? Are we inclusive? What types of clubs/institutions do we have?
  2. What is the intergenerational atmosphere here—in other words do we include youth through our oldest members of our town in activities and more; have we made efforts to connect the generations, paying attention to the needs of all?
  3. Do we have anything available for the arts? Music? Do we have opportunities like hiking/biking trails? Visually appealing downtowns?
  4. Do we acknowledge our relationship with the natural resources in our area? Are those resources taken into consideration when we plan for the future and our overall quality of life?
  5. Health care—what health care resources do we have available?
  6. Housing—do we have housing available for young families, retirees and others?
  7. History—do we have a process for passing down the accomplishments in our town?
  8. What events do we have that develop pride in our community?


Every community has natural leaders, whether they have stepped up or have been volunteered by others in the community. Assessing the current capability of leadership and addressing future leadership through development programs is essential to maintaining good leadership in your community.

  1. What is the capability of the leadership in our community? Is it visionary looking not only at the here-and-now but building for future residents as well? Is it inclusive or exclusive? Do we have a system in place to continually groom new leaders, giving them opportunities to learn, practice, and build upon their desires and motivation to help lead in the community?
  2. Do we have a leadership development program that builds capacity through knowledge of good communication, consensus building, dealing with conflict, bridging beyond the community to neighboring communities and farther? Do we have some sort of mentoring in place to ensure emerging leaders are successful new leaders? Are our youth involved? Have we considered a broader leadership development initiative that goes beyond our town’s borders?
  3. Have we considered an annual leadership retreat to look at the status of accomplishments, set goals, revisit the strategic plan, and include opportunities to develop community members’ skills that is open to the entire community?

Economic Health

Creating an environment that supports the local economy is significant. Healthy communities create a welcoming environment to entrepreneurs, current and future. Supporting local businesses regenerates your dollars into the community, since many small businesses will recycle their profits back into the local economy.

  1. Does our community support entrepreneurship for both adults and youth? What is available for existing business development? Have we looked beyond what “used to be” to what perhaps “might be” now? What do the storefronts look like—are they full? Patronized? If not, why not—has anybody asked the town’s citizens if not why not?
  2. Do we recognize that things outside our community impact us, i.e., policies, globalization, etc.?
  3. Are we nurturing new entrepreneurs, small business owners, and beginning farmers and ranchers in our town and in our region? Do we have plans and processes for business, farm and ranch transitions?
  4. Are we investing in the members of our community to position our town for the future? Are we seeking to build education levels and bringing in opportunities to build skills, i.e., bringing in technology training or distance learning college credit courses?
  5. Do we look at the assets in our region to see how we might collaborate with others to create a positive future?
  6. What about our farms and ranches—is it clear how they are contributing to community building? Do we celebrate their role in our economy and quality of life? Is community building contributing to their success and future? Do we support how they create a healthy environment and sustainable practices? Do we support good use of the available natural resources?
  7. What are we doing to encourage, assist, and recruit beginning farmers and ranchers to our community? Are we looking at possible new markets for our farms and ranches?
  8. Do we have a community foundation? Have we considered developing a youth community foundation? Have we figured out a way to channel local savings and investments into building our local economy?

Community Building

Community building includes all residents – local town folk, farmers and ranchers. Successful community building creates a sense of community and an environment where controversial issues can be discussed and old grudges can be forgiven and healed.

  1. What are we doing to build community? Do we include our farmers and ranchers in community building? Do we have a place where people can gather on an informal basis to discuss all issues—even those that may be seen as controversial?
  2. What is the “sense of community” in our town? What is the quality of relationships between and across community groups? Are old “grudges” forgiven and healed? Are we able to put aside old conflicts and focus on moving our community forward? If not, why not? Have we established relationships with communities outside of ours?
  3. Have we tied community institutions together in such a way that they work together toward community goals?
  4. Have we included all generations in community work? What are we doing to connect the older generation to the younger generation? What are we doing to involve young adults? What are we doing to attract and retain older citizens, youth and young adults? Are we “family friendly” from the youngest to the oldest?
  5. Are people proud of their community?

Foundation for Getting Started

Photo by Danny Weitzner.


1. Complete a Community Assessment

  • A community assessment is a process led by an Assessment Team from outside the community. It involves and invites the entire community to participate in a number of listening sessions to answer the following three questions: (1) what is the best thing about my community; (2) what is the biggest problem facing the community; and (3) if I left and returned in 10 years, what would I want to see?
  • Information gathered at these listening sessions is put into a report that is shared with the entire community. It provides recommendations and resources.
  • The community assessment is the driver behind development of a strategic plan. This process begins at a follow-up town hall meeting with the Assessment Team and results in specific projects identified, teams assigned and leaders volunteering.

2. Identification of Community Assets

  • Do thorough asset review of all the community’s assets including assets of community members, natural resource assets, businesses, institutions and more. (see this Web site for more information on this process and this document (link opens PDF) for information on Asset Based Community Development)
  • Bring all community organizations together during the assessment process with the Assessment Team to identify current projects.
  • Use results to help develop both the vision and the strategic plan.

3. Set a Vision

The creation of a vision should be inclusive—a vision created by a few will have buy-in by a few.

A good vision statement:

    • Looks down the road 20-25 years.
    • Provides energy for the community.
    • Reflects a desirable future.
    • Is something that the community believes.
    • Shows a sense of pride.
    • Is easily remembered.
    • Serves as a foundation for future decision making.
    • Speaks to people inside and outside of the community. (A good example is the vision Hartington, Nebraska, created. You can see it here.)

Create and Carry out a Strategic Plan

  1. Use the Vision Statement and the community assessment to create your plan. Determine which of the questions asked above are applicable to your community and prioritize those that can be and should be addressed to be included in your plan.
  2. Set goals/benchmarks not only for final outcome, but also identify steps along the way that need to be accomplished and by when in order to reach final goals.
  3. Select committees to accomplish each priority.
  4. Evaluate at pre-determined points and address any necessary changes.
  5. Celebrate Successes—this is an extremely important and often overlooked aspect of strategic planning. No long range goals are achieved overnight—each one requires a series of smaller tasks in order to achieve a large goal. Those smaller accomplishments should be identified, shared within the community and celebrated.


  1. Evaluate accomplishments by revisiting the strategic plan on an annual basis at a Leadership Retreat to which the entire community is invited.
  2. Ask the following questions: How are we doing achieving goals of the plan? Is there something we need to rethink/change? Have we missed anything that should be a priority? Have we community support and commitment to this plan?
  3. Adjust where needed.

The authors wish to thank Dr. John Allen, Professor, Utah State University and Associate Dean for College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Rural Community Development, and Dr. Laverne Barrett, retired Professor of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications, University of Nebraska, for their insight and guidance in developing the RC Thrive community development program. The final product is the work of the Center for Rural Affairs.

For more information, contact Kathie Starkweather, Rural Opportunities and Stewardship Program Director, or 402.438.8496 or Stephanie Fritz, Community Development Specialist, or 402.358.3432.

1NebGuide “Developing a Vision for the Community or Organization” by Anita Hall, Extension Educator; Laverne Barrett, Professor, Leadership Development Specialist; Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, Community Development Specialist


Rural Community Revitalization Digest is a collection of short articles published in the Center for Rural Affairs’ monthly newsletter.

The Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund awards money and tax credits to community-based organizations (these are called CDFIs) that work in low-income urban and rural communities across America.These organizations have a common mission of working toward revitalizing economically depressed communities or communities underserved by mainstream financial institutions and improving the quality of life of those that live and work in these communities. The CDFI Fund does not make loans directly to individuals nor does it finance specific projects. Instead, the CDFI Fund provides financing to community-based organizations that operate in communities for the benefit of people that live in them.

There are two ways to find community-based organizations in your community: Try this searchable award database or visit the list of certified community-based organizations. If you have any further questions or suggestions, please e-mail

To Learn More:

Contact Kathie Starkweather, Rural Opportunities & Stewardship Program Director,

Get the Newsletter