Rural Democracy Initiative (RDI) offers a high-impact program of coordinated rural civic engagement, communications, policy advocacy, and community organizing efforts.
In 2020, we saw decisive increases in voter participation in nearly all of the counties where our grantees worked. These increases helped determine electoral outcomes in states like Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.
RDI is a coalition of local and national rural innovators and aligned funders working in states where permanent, powerful, progressive civic infrastructure in small cities and towns will have the biggest impact on public opinion, elections, and redistricting processes. We are building sustainable infrastructure that supports rural people working to transform rural America — and therefore our national politics — for decades to come.
Our two funds - the 501(c)(3) Heartland Fund and 501(c)(4) Rural Victory Fund - are the first funding collaboratives building progressive power across racially diverse communities in rural areas and small cities.
Fund Rural Organizing
Historically, rural communities have been underfunded. Only 7% of grant dollars go to rural communities, but 19% of U.S. residents are rural. Now, we have an opportunity to fund progressive civic engagement that will transform our communities and the country. Many people don’t realize who actually lives in rural America. One in five rural residents are people of color. Public opinion research (created in partnership with RDI-grantee RuralOrganizing.org) shows that rural voters support progressive policy more than their candidate voting records indicate.
Build Rural Power
RDI invests in civic and political change in small towns and rural communities. Building power in these communities is essential to establish an enduring progressive, multi-racial national majority, and implement the policies required for rural and small-town communities to have vibrant, thriving futures.
In 2020, we raised nearly $16 million through Heartland Fund and Rural Victory Fund and financially supported 104 organizations in 20 states.
RDI supports year-round organizing that builds the foundation necessary to win. We fund groups that form lasting relationships with constituents, creating a track record of trust and success. They develop new leaders, and hone outreach and communications skills, and the messages that work best in small towns and rural areas. These organizations strengthen urban/rural coalitions and the national progressive movement.
In the lead-up to the January 2021 Georgia Senate elections, 1000 Women Strong, with our support launched a Black women-led campaign to talk with and turn out over one hundred thousand Black voters in 22 very rural counties in Southwest Georgia. Working alongside local grassroots partners, they spurred significant voter turnout gains that provided the margin of victory for the two US Senate races, resulting in a Democratic-led Senate.
Rural Utah/Arizona Project’s nine Indigenous organizers worked with the Navajo Nation to register and turn out its 67,000 eligible voters — registering over 5,000 new voters and turning out thousands more. This mobilization was particularly powerful given the state’s presidential outcome was determined by less than 11,000 votes.
We The People Michigan (WTP) led an expansive leadership development and deep canvass operation in 14 mostly rural counties. The result? WTP leaders won 19 municipal and school board positions. And the presidential margins from 2016 to 2020 shifted significantly toward Joe Biden. WTP activists didn’t stop after election day — they became the public force defending the presidential results in Michigan in the harrowing weeks that followed.
Wisconsin Farmers Union trained dozens of their farmer members to lead conversations with thousands of rural voters about fair districting. 54 Wisconsin counties have passed fair maps resolutions, and 28 counties have passed referendums. At the same time, they partnered with Voces de la Frontera to win better conditions for meat-packing workers in rural Wisconsin.
These victories are only possible when we make year-round and multi-year commitments to rural power building. RDI supports our grantees with funding as well as by sharing lessons from the field, providing news and resource updates, and convening organizations for shared action (such as the Rural Policy Action Report). Through our work with organizations on a wide range of projects across the country, RDI has become an expert and leading advocate in rural organizing.
1000 Women Strong launched a Black women-led campaign in 22 very rural counties in Southwest Georgia.
As RDI identifies gaps and opportunities, RDI funds and leads original research. Recent projects include:
- Creating a framework for working people across race and place with the Winning Jobs Narrative
- Analyzing turnout and the impact of civic engagement with 2020 Election Data
- Guiding rural investments with the All the People, All the Places Report
In addition, RDI funds important research through our grantees. For example, GALvanize USA’s testing and measurement identified effective ways to engage women in rural and conservative communities to “vote their values.” With a combination of heart and rigorous research, their network of more than 96,000 women has guided us to truly transformative learning. RuralOranizing.org and other grantees are helping our movement maximize effectiveness by creating original public opinion research, messaging toolkits, and new rural communication hubs.
There is a communication gap, where rural working people don’t see how progressive candidates have their backs. At the request of our partners in the field, RDI is helping to lead the Winning Jobs Narrative to create a compelling economic messaging blueprint to unite working people across race and place.
With the loss of local media and the increase of disinformation, it is critical that we fund communications to ensure a vibrant, informative, and truthful media culture. For example, while the 2021 stimulus checks were led by Democrats and not a single Republican voted in favor, only half of rural voters associate the economic program with Democrats. That’s why it’s so important that groups like Main Street Alliance publish op-eds, and make the case for funding projects that support rural communities.
Rural communications need to center people who live in rural areas and create messaging that resonates with our experiences. To share messaging, RDI grantees connect with local reporters and editors while also building their own communication networks. Importantly, RDI-funded communications are coordinated with grassroots organizing and optimized through original research and field testing. Recent communication projects include:
- RuralOrganizing.org piloted a blended organizing and communications strategy which included recruitment and training of spokespeople from rural communities, social media and digital organizing to amplify those spokespeople, and providing new research, data, and messaging tools to groups in order to increase success in communicating with specific audiences
- Race Class Narrative expanded their successful multi-racial, populist communications project to create rural-specific trainings and resources for RDI grantees in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Missouri
- New Georgia Project launched an advertisement campaign to pressure Georgia-based corporations to support voting rights and oppose anti-voting measures.
RDI is investing in groups with proven potential for civic engagement in states where modest increases in support for progressive organizations, causes, and candidates can swing statewide elections. Our election focus includes:
Targeted voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote
Door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, and texting
Rural-specific narrative and messengers, combined with traditional and digital communications
House parties, relational and distributive organizing efforts
Rural volunteer recruitment and leadership development
Candidate recruitment and training and local elected official support
State Districting Efforts
Through strategic engagement of rural and small town voters, RDI believes progressives can win enough fair, non-partisan districting. Our state redistricting efforts include:
Local and state engagement
Fair district petition drives, call and letter campaigns, and policy change
Local resolution campaigns
RDI worked to support state and local leaders with targeted outreach strategies for engaging hard-to-count communities (Native American, Black, Latinx, AAPI, LGBTQ, low income households, and areas without reliable broadband internet access) for the 2020 census to support fair and accurate federal funding to rural communities. Our 2020 Census efforts included:
Canvassing, literature drops, phone banking and events
Social media amplification
Coordinated Infrastructure in Rural America
Building on election-year investments, RDI continues to support top leaders and groups to increase organizational capacity and program strength. Priority will be given to groups that promote multi-racial analysis and programs. Key to this effort will be connecting rural groups not only with one another, but also with partners and resources in urban and suburban infrastructures. Our Coordinated Infrastructure efforts include:
Collaborative strategic planning, professional networking and peer learning
Shared resources (i.e. research, voter file, and digital outreach tools)
Collective data management