I’ve worked in rural community and economic development for nearly 30 years. It’s a calling that brings me into almost daily conversation with those who control the levers of community investment—philanthropists, social impact investors, and other community and economic development professionals. Often I’m pitching a project I know will make a difference in the life of a rural community.

Inevitably, the first questions I get are about the size of that impact: How can we scale this up? How many families can be housed, children educated, jobs created, dollars multiplied into the local economy?

I wish I could offer big numbers, perhaps echoing the claim of a certain highly successful hamburger chain—“billions and billions served!” But I can’t.

And it’s a stumbling block that stalls investment in rural places. The demand for big projects promising big-figure results is a litmus test built around an urban context. It’s one that rural communities can never pass. This determined focus on absolute size of outcomes fails to understand what impact looks like in rural places and what I call the “ripple” effect.

We must find fresh ways to capture and value the direct and rippling economic, social, and health benefits rural communities experience. If we’re to spur the kinds of community and economic development investments rural America requires, we need a new lens that looks at rural places on their own terms.

The private sector is another matter. Venture capital, for instance, is largely unavailable to the rural entrepreneurs who form the backbone of economic activity in little towns throughout the country. In fact, self-employed proprietors are more prevalent in rural than urban areas, with the most-rural counties boasting 234 per thousand residents, versus 131 per thousand in the most urbanized counties.

Read the full article about investing in rural America by Suzanne Anarde at Shelterforce.