Advice to those working in small towns

How can economic developers and others use the results from the Survey of Rural Challenges?

How can economic developers and others use the results from the Survey of Rural Challenges?

Work in the communities you assist.

Have conversations with as many rural people as possible, not just a few people in government or academia. Don’t be misled by outside media stories. Visit those areas you are responsible for, encourage open conversation and listen well. Do you know their demographic makeup? Rural communities are aging, but they are also seeing more families moving in. Do their wants and needs correspond with your offerings?


In the survey, businesses didn’t talk about needing help writing business plans or pitch competitions. They need help with marketing, support services, and incentives that are fair when compared to what is offered to out-of-towners. Listening helps ensure you are providing the most needed resources to the communities you serve.

Provide easy to understand instructions and direction.

One survey participant, a former chamber executive, summed it up well and said,

“I spoke with many individuals who mentioned an interest in starting a business. Many individuals would mention not knowing where to get started – and not understanding what resources were available and how. When we would direct them to the city’s economic development, or (other outside organizations) they seemed very confused as to what these organizations offer, where to start, and what all of the resources were available. Despite many organizations available to help, it can still be very overwhelming.

Follow through.

Are some people slipping through your process without getting help? We heard from one person who said,

So many programs and entities claim to help businesses or help people find employment, but when you contact them, you never hear back. Yet you’ll see their marketing and supposed outcomes when they have to report to the powers that be. But for those that are asking for services, they don’t get anything?”

Provide space for people to let you know when something isn’t as promised. Make sure your directions and assistance are clear and understandable from the user’s point of view.

Match services and products you offer to the people you are trying to give them to.

Heather Halgrimson, from Cooperatives First in Canada, recognized the truth from the survey in what she was seeing. She sent us a note that said,

“I am experimenting with an organizational pivot towards expert entrepreneur coaching for rural cooperatives’ rural businesses and away from supporting written business plans.Your survey results and our conversations helped me clarify how we describe that.

Use your community’s assets to attract remote workers.

In my work with onsite visits to small towns, I see more people moving to rural areas. They don’t move for jobs first but seek a better quality of life. Much like promoting for tourists to visit, try promoting for newcomers and remote workers too.

Support the ideas being tried by your local businesses.

One small business we heard from is providing a simple service that attracts people to be more involved.

“We are a shave ice/coffee shop on Main Street. Every decision we make on what it looks like is informed by our mission – to encourage people to slow down and gather on Main. We have a big collection of board games that appeal to families with young kids, groups of teens and college students as well as couples on date nights. We have two jigsaw puzzles going on at all times and then we frame them to add to our customer-driven puzzle gallery.”

Don’t overlook the efforts like these in your community right now that support your larger goals. 

Utilize the Survey of Rural Challenges to address the needs in your communities.

Every community is different, yet they all share some commonalities. These results can be used to see what your people may be experiencing, and to start conversations around the solutions. It’s an opportunity to take an honest look at what you are doing, and how you might be able to adjust it to better suit the needs of your community.

“I wait every year for the results of this rural survey to help us align our work at Crowdfund Better with what rural businesses need. Thanks to Becky McCray and Deb Brown of SaveYour.Town for your dedication to putting this annual report together that reflects the challenges felt by real people who live and work in rural communities.” Kathleen Minogue, Crowdfund Better, Idaho

The survey by and SaveYour.Town collected voluntary responses online in the fourth quarter of 2022. The survey was open to rural people globally: USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Since 2015, over 1700 people and small business owners have answered the Survey of Rural Challenges.

The International Economic Development Council published Deb’s article that includes advice too: Survey of Rural Challenges: Results Show Optimism and Big Disconnects, and what economic developers can do about it.   The article was about the results from the Survey of Rural Challenges, and some advice to economic developers and others working in rural communities. You can see the results from the 2023 Survey of Rural Challenges here.