Vision and capacity have become virtual buzzwords in the nonprofit field. What do they really mean to a community development organization? What characterizes an effective CDO?
The criteria used to define an “effective” community development organization may differ markedly from observer to observer. Many organizations gauge their success in largely quantitative terms – the number of units built or rehabbed, for example, or the number of families housed. Such measures, while they provide indices of technical expertise, are not necessarily the truest – and should certainly not be the sole – gauge of the impact an organization’s work has on a community.
What Does Constitute Success?
The most obvious characteristic of a successful community development effort is that the sum of the efforts is greater than the parts: the neighborhood as a whole looks, feels, and acts different to everyone who lives, works, and visits there. Not only are many of poor families’ immediate needs met – decent, affordable housing, access to job training and education, nearby health care, and so forth – but momentum has built within the neighborhood that enables the people within it to sustain and build on the changes that have occurred. The neighborhood has become a community increasingly controlled by the people who live in it.
Efforts to develop inner-city neighborhoods typically center around, or get their start in, affordable housing initiatives. The philosophy, processes, structures, and nature of citizen participation in such initiatives tend to set a tone for subsequent or broader efforts. Unfortunately, many housing initiatives focus on the narrowly defined “prize” – completing a physical structure through new construction or rehab – and too little on building the kind of resident-led community movement that can use housing development as a catalyst for sustained, significant neighborhood rebirth.
Characteristics of Effective Community Development Organizations
What do effective community development organizations do that makes neighborhood revitalization possible? Beyond what is required for any organization to be effective – necessities such as sound management, skilled board and staff leadership, effective systems, and clear missions and strategic plans – effective community development organizations tend to share the following characteristics:
Specific initiatives take place within the broader context of comprehensive neighborhood revitalization strategies.
Bricks and mortar, project-by-project development – especially when the sites are scattered across a neighborhood or across the city – may alleviate one immediate problem of some individual families, but it will not revitalize a community. Organizations that develop and showcase small-scale “improvements” that exist apart from any overall vision for a neighborhood’s future are often misdirecting finite reserves of energy and resources that should be channeled into examining neighborhood-wide needs and strategically determining which approaches are likely to have the farthest reaching effect for the greatest number of residents over the long-term. Organizations that work from a neighborhood-wide blueprint for community change are likely to have a far more positive and long-lasting impact than those that focus on helping a specific and limited number of individuals within that community.
This is to argue not that every individual organization must carry out comprehensive, multi-sector strategies, but rather that every organization should look for ways to ensure that its work plays a strategic role in a larger, collaborative effort. Too many organizations operate in isolation from other efforts whose interests lie in complementary sectors of development – small business, jobs, health, education, public safety and so forth – and in competition with organizations whose focus is similar to their own. Community planning – goal setting and strategy development – among organizations should be coordinated, efficient, and integrated. When many players collaborate to define issues and design solutions, their individual contributions will have far greater potential for significant and reverberating effects on the community.
Residents control the organization
In the most successful community development efforts, residents create the vision for neighborhood revitalization, establish goals and priorities, and provide the continuing leadership, support and oversight as the revitalization plan is implemented. The practical work of carrying out specific projects and managing the daily affairs of the organization is handled by skilled technical professionals and organizers whose expertise is critical to the success of the residents’ plan.
Effective community development organizations demonstrate a healthy relationship between resident leadership and technical expertise. They are not run by professionals who “talk the talk” of resident empowerment but balk at putting residents in positions of power, who recruit residents for boards intended to rubber stamp decisions conceived and carried out by staff, or who bring residents in for “input” after development goals have been established, sites selected, occupancy options defined, and blueprints drawn up. Professionals should be brought on board by the residents, rather than the reverse.
Residents know what is wrong with their neighborhoods, know what they need for a better life, and have a very good idea of what is needed to fix what is wrong. They can make intelligent choices rather than having professionals make choices for them. In effective community development organizations, residents represent a strong community voice whose leadership is supported by the insights and skills of a professional staff.
Leaders identify the most effective role their organization can play.
There are multiple paths to improving a neighborhood. Community development organizations often think of housing development and neighborhood revitalization as synonymous – yet the role of housing developer is only one of a number of roles available to groups seeking to improve housing, and for many organizations, it is not the best use of their power, resources and capacities in meeting the housing needs of the residents it represents. CTAC sometimes finds itself pressing organizations to broaden their vision of the roles available to them. In organizations such as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Roxbury, MA, (see book review, this issue) residents concluded that they would play a far more effective and powerful role in their neighborhood’s revitalization if they served not as developers, but as organizers and brokers to guide the form housing development should take as part of their comprehensive master plan.
Neighborhood needs are targeted
Community development organizations often become identified with a particular form of housing, such as limited equity cooperatives, and see their role as facilitating or developing that particular type of housing. In such cases, who is the constituency of the organization? The citywide affordable housing community? People who want to live in co-ops? What happens if that form of housing falls out of favor? Most importantly, what impact is the organization really having in rebuilding a community?
Specialization is not inherently a bad thing, in that it enables an organization to do what it does best. But organizations that focus on a particular form of development need to be especially sensitive to the importance of articulating and acting on neighborhood interests and priorities. The danger inherent in a focus on a particular form of development is that the neighborhood’s needs may begin to play a secondary role in organizational planning – and the ultimate impact of the group’s work will be limited.
In our experience, the most effective community development organizations focus on the residents of a targeted, defined area, and take the neighborhood’s needs, resources, and priorities as the starting point for decision-making around project selection. The Common Ground Land Trust of Worcester, MA is one organization that made such a shift in this direction. For a time the organization had a particular interest in developing limited equity co-operatives, a focus that was challenged by market changes, by a disappointingly low degree of partnership with other community development groups, and – most significantly – by the realization that the neighborhoods in which its co-ops were located were not really improving. In the course of a technical assistance process that focused on issues of constituency and purpose, the land trust shifted its focus to the residents of a specific neighborhood, began organizing in those neighborhoods around a variety of issues, and developed a strategy for neighborhood stabilization that made the most effective use of its expertise in the land trust arena.
Project selection is driven by mission, not just opportunity.
Effective community development organizations do not just respond to opportunities – they create them. They work from a clear and agreed upon mission, looking for ways to put that mission into effect.
However good their intentions, too many organizations fall into a reactive mode when it comes to selecting projects, responding to the availability of funds to undertake a particular type of development or to the offer by a private owner or the city to turn over a particular property to the organization. This can harm the long-term effectiveness of the organization in a number of ways. It can skew an organization’s purpose in such a way that one particular form of housing becomes identified with the organization by default, rather than as the result of a conscious, mission-driven process. It can also impose opportunity costs on an organization, by tying up time and resources that would have been better spent on other initiatives. And it can strain organizational capacity by imposing administrative and technical obligations for which an organization may not have had time to prepare itself.
In effective organizations, strategic plans guide project selection. Effective organizations know when and how to say “yes” and “no.” They rigorously weigh opportunities against their mission, against long-term plans and priorities for the neighborhood, and against other current and pending work of the organization. They concentrate their energies on identifying and pursuing projects that, within the bounds of their mission and capacity, will have the greatest impact on the neighborhood.
Evaluation of projects and organization is ongoing .
Effective CDO’s assess their projects against more than narrow technical criteria. They weigh the accomplishments of each project against the organization’s overall mission and the neighborhood’s needs. Leaders regularly and rigorously also evaluate the organization’s overall performance, including its mission, leadership and management capacity. They view such an evaluation as a critical component of long-range planning.
Building an effective community organization takes more than technical skills and enthusiasm. It requires the development and nurturing of a neighborhood vision and the growth of an organization’s capacity that is dedicated to seeing that vision, the mission it leads to and its goals brought to life.