Networks play an important role in building community capacity, says the study by the Carnegie UK Trust.
But the climate of austerity and public spending cuts across the UK and Ireland means both networks and communities face a challenging future, it adds.
This report is the result of a scoping exercise carried out by researchers for the Carnegie UK Trust in June 2011.
The study sought to map rural community development networks throughout the UK and Ireland.
A full copy of the report, Rural Development Networks - A Mapping Exercise, can be downloaded here.
In carrying out this piece of research, the Trust conducted a survey to find out about existing networks across the UK and Ireland.
It sought to identify why rural networks exist, their benefits to users and the key issues facing them, particularly in the wake of public spending cuts.
The report confirms growing pressure for communities to take on a greater role in the ownership of assets.
But survey respondents – both users and providers – were least confident in their ability to bid to take over services.
Service users and providers access rural development networks to find out about funding, to receive support and advice, says the report.
They also use networks to find out about environmental, food and energy issues.
"Users of networks were extremely positive when thinking about the type of services that rural networks offer," says the document.
Networks helped foster partnerships and increase the voice of local communities, increasing users' confidence when carrying out these activities.
All networks, regardless of type, provided a range of information, networking, training and conferencing opportunities.
This was valued by their users and members.
Networks also engaged in a variety of communication tools, with social networking featured highly among discussions with most network leaders.