The 5 Common Characteristics of Successful Community Change Efforts, from The Aspen Institute

Fresno pic copyThis post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been modified from The Aspen Institute’s publication “Voices from the Field III: Lessons and Challenges from Two Decades of Community Change Efforts”, available here for free download. 

The accomplishments of place-based community change efforts over the past two decades have been mixed – most can show improvements in the well-being of individual residents who participated in programs in their target neighborhoods, some produced physical change through housing production and rehabilitation, some reduced crime, and a few also sparked commercial development. Most can demonstrate increased neighborhood capacity in the form of stronger leadership, networks, or organizations, or in improved connections between the neighborhood and external entities in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. A few can point to accomplishments in policy and systems reform.

However, while these are important outcomes, most of the interventions have not produced the degree of community transformation envisioned by their designers, and few, if any, have been able to demonstrate population-level changes in child and family well-being or rates of poverty. Place-based efforts have had difficulty stimulating broader economic development, as too many of the forces that drive economic activity are outside of the control of neighborhood actors.

The comprehensive community change efforts that stand out as exemplary have exhibited the following common characteristics:

  1. They are deeply committed to resident leadership & ownership
  2. They are organic in that they grow out of neighborhood strengths and needs – they do not see themselves as having a start and end date, but rather learn as they go and build out their scope of work as successes accrue, as residents voice new demands, as needs become evident and as opportunities arise
  3. They invest in and benefit from extraordinary leaders who successfully balance community building processes with an ability to “get the job done”
  4. All have found it necessary to engage in some kind of physical development
  5. The funder has a long-term commitment to the community – ideally they have a variety of funding sources and are not “sponsored” by a single funder

The success of future community change efforts requires a shift in the thinking of funders and designers; in particular, foundations should rethink the decision to structure place-based change in the form of an “initiative.” Instead, funders and designers of effective community change efforts must first work in a community for a while to learn about its capacities and needs, and then develop a program of work organically based on what is already there and what can work most effectively to accelerate change.

Approaches will include lifting up ideas that are relevant, compelling and timely; identifying and promoting both well-known and unknown local actors with a gift for motivating others; using resources as strategically and flexibly as possible to boost and expand activities at key junctures of development; and exposing local players to more mature efforts elsewhere that stimulate inspiration and aspiration. Ultimately, the key determinant of whether the effort will continue and achieve long-term impact is the authentic empowerment and capacity of local stakeholders to own the change strategy and hold each other accountable to its success.