#083 Sep/Oct 1995

Community Building: Hope and Caution

Moving beyond bricks and mortar, community development corporations are taking on more diverse and comprehensive roles in redeveloping their communities. Are CDCs up to the challenge? Do they have the […]

Moving beyond bricks and mortar, community development corporations are taking on more diverse and comprehensive roles in redeveloping their communities.

Are CDCs up to the challenge? Do they have the support from their communities, funders, or even their own organizations?

An important and positive shift is taking place in the community development movement, a shift that holds great promise for poor communities in America. This shift, known as “community building,” has come to stand for a more comprehensive approach to community renewal than has been practiced in the past. It is based on an understanding that the best way to fight poverty and increase economic opportunity in poor neighborhoods is to invest in the kinds of social capital that comprise the “fabric” of community: mutual assistance networks, social and economic relationships, public safety, and education, to name a few. Today, the emergence of the community building movement is challenging community-based organizations such as CDCs to broaden their efforts and reconnect with residents. In the process these same organizations are retooling and reexamining their relationship with, and role within, the communities they serve. Practitioners, funders, and policy experts in our field now have an opportunity to practice a more direct and aggressive strategy of community renewal.

What Exactly is Community Building?

While the term “community building” tends to cover a wide range of approaches, for CDCs at least, it has come to be defined by a number of important shifts in the practice of community development:

  • A shift toward more comprehensive approaches to community development that involve a wide range of non–bricks and mortar activities. Also, a perspective that recognizes the multiple linkages between housing and economic development and the wide range of efforts that the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) refers to as “social development.”
  • A heavier emphasis on community organizing as a strategy for identifying and developing community leaders and shaping the kinds of local issues that affect the progress of the community renewal effort.
  • A renewed emphasis on community planning, and the development of a community building plan, as a prerequisite to development activities.
  • A more intensive effort to include and involve neighborhood residents in the organization, planning, and implementation of community renewal efforts. This stems from a recognition that when residents have a stake in making positive change, the change is likely to be more long-lasting.
  • More emphasis on making sure there are clear lines of accountability between the CBO and the community that it represents.
  • More interest in developing collaborative relationships among CBOs and achieving a continuum of support at the neighborhood level.

Community building as an approach is not new, but it has been practiced by a small minority of CBOs. Some, like the Coalition For A Better Acre (CBA) in Lowell, Massachusetts, have maintained a strong community organizing component while developing hundreds of units of affordable housing. Others, like the Lawndale Christian Community Development Corporation (LCDC) in Chicago, have successfully packaged advocacy, youth development, and a wide range of “social development” programs with their housing and commercial development work. Other non-CDC models such as the Dudley St. Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Roxbury, Massachusetts, have emerged over the last 10 years, practicing a form of community building that combines organizing, neighborhood planning, physical development, and human development.

For years, however, biases among funders of community efforts, and among community development practitioners themselves, toward a housing production agenda have made sustaining these broad, activist approaches extremely difficult. The major funders of CDCs have viewed community building work as ancillary to the principal real estate development work of the CDC. The few dollars available for community organizing have flowed toward so-called “pure” organizing groups.

[RELATED ARTICLE: The Future of American Communities]

These attitudes are now shifting, and community building practices are emerging into the mainstream. Most of the major national foundations, and of late, many of the stronger regional and community foundations are sponsoring their own versions of comprehensive community building initiatives. In almost every case, funders are exercising a higher level of involvement than in the past in program design and implementation. Technical assistance organizations, consultants, and intermediary groups are getting involved in this work in large numbers. In addition, a number of national alliances have formed to support this work. Most notable are the National Community Building Network (NCBN), an alliance of funders of “locally driven urban initiatives” formed in 1993 to influence public policy and provide forums to discuss community building initiatives, and the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Revitalization.


These early days of the community building movement have had many success stories. A 25-year-old CDC in Boston is, for the first time in 15 years, conducting a resident-driven planning process to determine the future development needs of the neighborhood. A Denver organization is expanding its work to major efforts in community organizing and cultural development. A Washington, D.C., development corporation is fielding a team of four community organizers to build resident leaders and shape a community agenda. A St. Paul economic development group is beginning a major youth leadership effort.

Yet the movement is young and, not surprisingly, has its share of growing pains.

An Awkward Courtship

Funders and CBOs are engaged in a kind of awkward courting ritual over the scale of community building efforts. It may be fair to say that at this time funders and policy people are far more exuberant and clear about the potential for community building than the practitioners – the staff and leaders of the CBOs who are needed to carry out this work. For CBOs, this shift is coming after years of accumulating a real estate development portfolio, and at a time when organizations are embattled by budget cuts and worsening local conditions. According to Ben Butler of the Conservation Company, “One reason that CBO staff and leaders are tired is that they have had to struggle for decades to find ways, by hook or by crook, to serve the diverse funding needs of their community in a funding environment that has encouraged a narrow production-oriented agenda.” Today, there are few organizations with the energy and capacity to take on the kind of organizational challenges which this work poses.

CBOs are participating in these efforts for a wide variety of reasons. Many see it as a source of core operating support or “soft” program money that they can use as flexible revenue to fill gaps in staffing. Some CDCs, recognizing that the future holds fewer housing resources, are searching for another important role to play in the community. Others, recognizing the limitations of real estate based strategies, are trying to address the “human development” needs of their residents. Still others, who have gotten away from or never developed the ability to organize and mobilize their constituency, are feeling the need to develop more political clout in an age of dwindling resources.

Retooling the Organization

For some CBOs, the community building program can be like a Trojan Horse, arriving as a promising source of flexible operating support but causing some unintended and unanticipated consequences for the organization, its board, and its executive director. Building and integrating the core capacities required by successful community building efforts is not like adding another program or product. Rather, these changes often demand a fundamental redefinition of the organization and its relationship to the community it serves.

Because many of the groups participating in community building initiatives principally work in real estate development, they sometimes have a difficult time adapting to community building approaches. Their real estate work tends to be structured, disciplined, and outcome oriented. Yet, curiously, this same level of discipline and structure often does not extend to the newer work. First, community-based groups remain preoccupied with a real estate development agenda, which is still viewed as the bread and butter of the organization. Second, a strong bias remains, reflected in the labeling of real estate related work as “hard” and non–real estate related work as “soft.” Soft work is viewed as work that is hard to define, can be accomplished in the margins, and that just about anyone can do. These efforts are often taken on with a lower level of expectations, a measure of ambivalence, and/or a lack of clarity by the organization’s leadership.

Missing Standards

Community building projects are often ill-defined at the point of funding. Early efforts tend to be loosely organized with little quality control. Because the quality and outcomes of this work can be more difficult to measure than housing production, it can be difficult to distinguish between excellence and mediocrity, between a group that is going through the motions and a group with real ambition. We, as a field, have not yet developed a strong enough body of best practice or industry standards for this work from which to easily separate the high quality performers from the rest of the field. CBOs and funders alike are grasping for ways to define success.

The challenge in the future for CBOs will be to develop industry standards and measures so that a body of best practices can be developed. The challenge in the future for funders will be to select CBOs that are cognizant of, and interested in, making fundamental shifts in the way they do business. CBOs that understand and want the kinds of challenges and benefits that a community building approach can offer will fair far better than those that either don’t understand it or are ambivalent, even if they appear to have more organizational capacity.

New Directions in Community Organizing

Community building calls for close coordination between the CBO leadership and the organizer, and a clearly defined organizing strategy. It also calls for a different type of organizing, where the goal is to build strong organizations, develop local leaders, forge strong partnerships and associations at the local level, and search for common ground among disparate interests. This is in contrast to some traditional organizing models, the objective of which is to identify and exploit points of conflict in order to mobilize a constituency against a specified target.

Almost without exception, existing or emerging CBOs engaged in community building efforts perform some type of community organizing. This work is difficult to do well and can be extremely challenging and even disruptive to many groups, particularly those that are not ready to open themselves up to a new level of participation and community scrutiny.

Community organizers often complain of a lack of support and direction from their boards or staff supervisors. When new organizers are brought into the organization, they rarely have the support and guidance they need to succeed. In many cases there is no culture of organizing in the CBO, and the executive director is not oriented enough to the work to provide adequate support to the organizer. Sometimes, because of past history, key staff or board members are skeptical or fearful of community organizing. Often the community organizing strategy is not sufficiently clear or well understood.

“We have learned that the community building effort needs a strategic plan to keep on track; otherwise the organizer may put out a lot of effort but not see tangible results,” said Susan Alexander, community organizer for MANNA in Washington, DC. “The plan needs to have a significant amount of support from influential people in the organization. This doesn’t happen right away. I have had to educate people in the organization about what I do and why this is important to MANNA.”

Over time, the organizer’s work becomes more and more disjointed. The organizer becomes seen as a kind of utility outreach/event specialist whose job is to service the other “line staff” in the organization. This situation can be extremely frustrating for the organizer. In one Chicago-based organization participating in a community building effort, three different community organizers were hired and left over a one-year period. Minimally, the new organizer is under-utilized and the community building effort suffers.

Challenges from the Community

If the organizer is dynamic and successful despite a lack of organizational support and direction, the situation can become even more hazardous. In some cases, organizers have successfully built new constituencies (task forces, committees, etc.) among residents, only to then meet resistance as they attempt to integrate these new people into the organization. The new constituents inevitably challenge the existing leadership seeking a role in redefining the organization or shifting its programmatic emphasis. The friction that this causes between the CBO and emerging groups of resident leaders can ultimately be productive, but, if handled haphazardly, it can also be very damaging to the CBO and the community renewal effort.

Organizing in the community building context calls for a more mature and sophisticated brand of community organizer. The Consensus Organizing Institute (COI) is a national training and technical assistance organization founded in 1994 to further the type of “consensus” organizing approaches described above. COI recruits and teaches new organizers the set of skills and strategies needed in this environment. According to COI President Mike Eichler, “organizers need the ability to listen, to think strategically, to sort out agendas, to build confidence and encourage participation in a wide range of groups. Mostly the organizer needs the ability to build trust in a process or an initiative. All of these are difficult tasks in an age of cynicism and distrust.”

Emerging Models of Neighborhood Planning

Most community building efforts challenge CBOs to do more planning, both internally and within their target neighborhoods. In some initiatives, the first year or two of work is dedicated to developing a community plan. This can be a difficult adjustment. Few groups have experience in planning, particularly community planning. The entrepreneurial culture of many of our most successful CBOs can work against a serious investment in planning, particularly in organizations where the top staff and key board members see themselves as “product” people and the organizers as the “process” people. Some CBOs also resent this emphasis on planning because it means opening up their decision-making process to residents and institutions that have not been involved in the organization.

Traditional planning processes have proven to be too limited for this work. Newer, hybrid models that combine community organizing strategies and more creative planning techniques are emerging. These are proving effective in identifying community strengths and assets, and solutions that are more organic to the community’s values, culture, and situation.

The Dudley St. Neighborhood Initiative has developed a style of long-term neighborhood planning that is integrated with shorter term community organizing “signature campaigns” – short, winnable issue-based efforts that feed people energy and substance to the longer-term, slower-paced planning work. This strategy has proven successful in moving a comprehensive community renewal effort forward. Also, the “asset-based planning” style being taught by John McKnight, Jody Kretzmann, and others is much more conducive to community building work because it focuses on building hope, linkages, and leadership, and teaching people about the inner workings of their communities.

Building New Forms of Local Democratic Institutions

“In a democracy, the science of associations is the mother science, the progress of all the rest depends on the progress it has made.”
Alexis de Tocqueville

Community building is challenging all of us to look harder at this science of associations, the forms of community connections that we are building at the local level. As government, political party apparatus, and other local institutions lose influence, CBOs are assuming a larger and larger role as what LISC refers to as the “mediating” organizations. In addition, the community building movement has placed a heavier emphasis on increased resident involvement and institutional collaboration. Community building calls for CBOs or their collaboratives to take a more active role as a new local planning and decision-making apparatus.

Resident Involvement vs. the Assumption of Representation

Building and sustaining resident involvement is one of the least understood and toughest aspects of community building, yet it is the foundation of all else. Some CBOs are very capable in this area and have made a significant investment in building their base of support. Some CBOs hold to an assumption of representation that prohibits them from looking closely at this issue.

At a recent training session with participants of LISC’s Community Building Initiative, a major national effort involving dozens of CDCs, we assembled teams from each of five participating CDCs in a major eastern city. These teams included the executive directors, the community organizers in charge of the “community building” work, and residents who served as members of the CDCs’ boards or as community volunteers. At one point in the session, we separated the group into clusters according to roles – the executive directors, the community organizers, and the neighborhood residents. We asked each group to reflect on their role in the team and the kinds of things they needed from their partners. An important dynamic emerged. The executive directors saw the CDCs as the community and wanted to be trusted. The neighborhood residents (residents who are involved with and friendly to the CDC) clearly saw the community and the CDC as very different. They saw the CDC as another institution within the community. They wanted to make sure that the CDCs’ staffs understood that they were accountable to the community. And they wanted assurance that the initiative would be “a community building effort, not a CDC building effort.”

As long as a CBO sees itself as the community, it cannot work effectively to improve its representation of the community. Once you remove that assumption, you must then look at the specific or relative degrees of representation, and reconcile yourself to the necessity of working toward better representation. These tough realizations are essential to strengthening the field.

Blinding Enthusiasm

Institutional and community collaboration is an important element in the evolution of community associations, and it tends to be emphasized by some of the prominent funder-driven community-building initiatives. However, in the zealous pursuit of collaboration, funders risk losing sight of larger issues such as organizational capacity, community politics, and institutional relationships. A strong partnership must have a compelling and clear purpose, based on self-interest, to sustain it through the difficult work of building and implementing initiatives. At the community level, collaboration is a vehicle, not an end. According to Ben Butler, “Collaboration among CBOs, residents, and other community institutions tends to be messy: complex and time consuming and not conducive to neat, predetermined funder time constraints or traditional definitions of results. A number of important national and regional initiatives have all had to add time to the project due largely to the underestimation of the time it would take for effective collaborations to be formed and functioning.” Funders and CBOs have much work to do to sort out the myriad objectives behind the “collaboration” mantra, to ensure that these partnerships are built for the right reasons.


The future work of community builders must be focused on doing a few things well.

Developing Core Capacities in Organizing and Planning

There remain too few opportunities for those in the field, particularly young people to access quality training and support in the basic tools of community organizing and community planning, such as community analysis and assessment, one-on-ones, small group facilitation, coalition building, and so on. Unfortunately, much of the organizing training available is either steeped in dogma or directly connected to specific models of organizing. Organizing chauvinism and the myth of pure or “real” organizing has not served our movement well. Not every organizer will be or needs to be another Saul Alinsky. Organizing has to be seen less as a sacred priesthood and more as a set of skills that can be learned and practiced by all kinds of people, in a variety of organizational settings. Specifically, we need to:

  • Increase support for training and recruitment of young community organizers, who can be trained thoroughly in the art/science of community building styles of organizing and community planning.
  • Expose executive directors and key board personnel, whose organizations are participating in community-building efforts, to new organizing approaches such as Consensus Organizing. They should also be trained in, or at least become acquainted with, the variety of neighborhood planning models that can be applied in various situations.
  • Break down the chauvinism in the field between product and process people. We need to elevate community organizers and planners to senior positions in CBOs and move them toward a pay scale that is equivalent to the technical staff.
  • Engage urban planning networks in new discussions about grassroots community planning techniques being practiced by community building groups.
  • Organize forums among practitioners and activists to take more control over defining this work and developing pragmatic measures of success and standards of practice that will elevate the common denominator in the field.

Building Organizational Strength

One wouldn’t build a skyscraper on a foundation of sticks and mud. Yet, there is some danger of this happening in the community-building movement. The foundation of this entire movement is the CBO and its ability to play an effective role both representing and serving its community. Yet there remains comparably little investment in core operating support and helping to retool CBOs so they can develop the new capacities needed to do this work effectively. Organizational development resources and technical assistance need to be a sizable component of any community building initiative.

The Promise of Community Building

Community building is helping to refocus our movement on the full range of changes needed to renew community and rebuild poor neighborhoods. It represents a more honest view of the complexity and richness of the struggle.

The promise of community building will not fully reveal itself in three years, seven years, or even 10 years. It may require at least a generation of sustained support, dialogue, and major investment in evaluation and peer learning in order to mine from this work the new paradigms that will guide the progress of American community life in the next century.

Organizations mentioned in this article include:
Coalition for a Better Acre
517 Moody St.
Lowell, MA 01854

Mike Eichler
130 Seventh Street, 8th Fl.
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Manna, Inc.
6856 Eastern Ave. NW Suite 100
Washington DC 20012 
[email protected]

National Community Building Network
1624 Franklin St., Suite 1000
Oakland, CA 94612

28 Liberty Street, Floor 34
New York, N, 10005


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