Comprehensive Community Initiatives: Lessons in Neighborhood Transformation

In the September/October 1995 issue of Shelterforce, William Traynor wrote that the principle of “community building” is gaining prominence among community-based organizations and their funders. One important branch of this movement is known in the field as “comprehensive community initiatives,” or CCIs.

CCIs aim to do more than remediate problems, such as teen pregnancy or insufficient income, or to develop assets, such as housing stock or social services. They aspire to foster a fundamental transformation of poor neighborhoods and the circumstances of individuals who live there. The change they seek is comprehensive, that is, inclusive of all sectors of the neighborhood – social, educational, economic, physical, and cultural – and focused on community building, that is, strengthening the capacity of neighborhood residents, associations, and institutions. From the outset, participants in a CCI have the responsibility of defining the initiative’s general goals and specific activities. Through an ongoing process of planning, CCI participants identify neighborhood needs and implement improvements. CCIs also work to transform the relationship between neighborhoods and the systems outside their boundaries; they encourage change that is grounded in local life and priorities while incorporating resources from outside the neighborhood.

Beginning with a handful of initiatives in the late 1980s, foundation-funded CCIs now number as many as 50. Government is also increasingly involved in comparable efforts, such as federal Empowerment Zones and a variety of city- and state-driven initiatives. Moreover, this new field is developing an “infrastructure,” including a National Community Building Network; research activities based at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center and The Urban Institute; and the Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Children and Families at the Aspen Institute, where funders and CCI directors share lessons and work on common problems facing the field.

Although the community building field is now burgeoning, the notion of neighborhood-based development that is comprehensive and attempts to “build community” is not new. Its roots lie in the settlement houses of the late nineteenth century and can be traced through the 20th century in a number of neighborhood-based efforts, including the fight against juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, the War on Poverty in the 1960s, and the community development corporation movement of the last 30 years.

Today’s CCIs are both a reaction against recent practice in the social welfare and economic development fields and a reformulation of earlier approaches. CCIs seek to replace piecemeal approaches with broader efforts to strengthen the connections among economic, social, and physical needs and opportunities. At the same time, they build on the foundations of community development theory and practice – laid by both private and public sector efforts such as the Gray Areas Program, the CDCs, and the Community Action Program – and employ lessons from those experiences not so much as a “model” for action but as a set of basic guiding concepts, including comprehensiveness, coordination, collaboration, and community participation.

To understand how CCIs came into being, it may be helpful to organize into three categories the universe of institutions dedicated to improving the well-being of individuals and families in distressed neighborhoods:

  • those that emphasize building human capital, i.e., improving outcomes for individuals and families, which has traditionally been carried out by social service agencies and schools;
  • those that emphasize building neighborhood capital, i.e., improving the physical and economic infrastructure of the neighborhood, which has traditionally been carried out by CDCs and other local development organizations;
  • those that emphasize building social capital, i.e., strengthening what is variously called civic life, social fabric, sense of community and the like, which has traditionally been accomplished by local religious, cultural, civic, and recreational organizations or by community organizers.

By the mid-late 1980s, neighborhood actors, and their funders, were beginning to recognize the limitations of operating solely within these specialized niches, and they began to reorient their ways of doing business and reach beyond those boundaries.

For example, the human services field began addressing the “ecological” dimensions of the lives of individuals in impoverished communities: no matter how effective a service for a troubled child, it might not be enough to counteract the deleterious effects of living daily in a family with unemployed adults, in run-down housing, and in a crime-ridden neighborhood offering few opportunities. Those in the human capital arena began to incorporate principles of the social capital field into their work, as seen in the increase in community-based efforts with a preventive or developmental orientation, such as family resource centers, or community meetings held after hours in local schools. Service providers also began interacting more with the neighborhood capital sector by, for example, linking youth groups to CDCs’ housing construction activities or collaborating more with other CBOs on comprehensive neighborhood planning.

CDCs also began reaching out to other neighborhood institutions. CDCs encouraged the human capital sector to locate services such as job training or child care in their properties. Recognizing that they could do more in the social capital arena, CDCs also began developing arts and cultural programs and adding community planners/organizers to their staffs.

Finally, many organizations starting from a social capital base were adding to their work, as seen in efforts by black churches to become more involved in “secular” services and housing construction, and in the new “consensus” approach to community organizing which emphasizes building partnerships for community development.

CCIs represent the logical next step in this evolutionary process. They aim to marry human, neighborhood, and social capital development through the two guiding principles of comprehensiveness and community building.

Although all CCIs hold the two principles in common, initiatives look very different from one another on the ground. CCI programs cover a wide range of areas and seek a wide range of outcomes. CCIs are less inclined to develop completely new programs and services than to enhance, build on, and support existing programs. They fill gaps, connect resources, build infrastructure, and organize constituent elements of the communities in which they work. CCIs interpret and enact the principles of comprehensiveness and community building according to, among other factors, their neighborhood’s history, culture, and resources; the macro climate in which they are being developed; the neighborhood’s priority needs at the given moment; and the initiative’s leadership.

Learning From CCIs
Given the differences among CCIs in both program and structure – and given that it will be a long time before we get an answer to the overarching question of whether CCIs are an effective vehicle for transforming distressed neighborhoods – how can we begin to glean lessons from CCIs in a way that could guide policy and future program development?

To make progress on this question, the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Children and Families designed a participatory process to elicit observations from fellow actors in the CCI field and produce an analytical portrait of CCIs that a number of audiences can use. During June and July 1995, the Roundtable sponsored 11 focus group discussions, each among six to 11 participants occupying similar positions in the CCI field, including foundation representatives, initiative directors and staff, members of the governance structures of local initiatives, residents of the neighborhoods in which CCIs are taking place, and other experts and observers of the field. By the end of the process, 94 individuals had participated in the day-long discussion sessions, which were taped, transcribed, and analyzed for presentation in the report, Voices from the Field: Learning from Comprehensive Community Initiatives.

Many of the operational lessons from the focus group discussions should come as no surprise to anyone who has been working in distressed communities recently. In this area, CCIs have learned that: funding needs to be flexible and long-term; staff leadership is critically important, but formal leadership training programs do not seem to be developing the “pipeline” the field needs; technical assistance that involves parachuting into a community, solving a problem, and then moving on does little to build neighborhood capacity; and evaluations by funders tend to focus on changes in broad indicators, often at the expense of many less tangible but positive changes in communities.

Some lessons, however, are more particular to the CCI experience. These lessons should be viewed with the understanding that the CCI phenomenon is still young, and what we have learned so far is limited mostly to the start-up phase, when a CCI’s structure is just forming.

Establishing an Institutional Base
The complex nature of the CCI places special demands on the organization responsible for planning and implementing an initiative. In the critical early stages of a CCI, the question of instrumentality tends to focus around the choice of working through an existing organization, or “lead agency” such as a community development corporation or a service agency, or creating a new mechanism such as a collaborative board or coalition.

One side of the argument suggests that working through a strong, existing neighborhood organization, with a professional staff and the best technical assistance foundation funds can buy, is the most strategic way to ensure a CCI’s success. In the words of one observer of the field: “The anointing of that lead organization may be despotic and autocratic, but it is also effective.” For example, many people see CDCs as experienced and “pragmatic” organizations that already have the ability to work effectively at the neighborhood level, “set up very practical governing structures,” and get “the important players to the table.” Another observer notes, “to try to do a broader-based collaborative in a neighborhood where there is an effective CDC…is missing a real opportunity and resource.”

But CCI participants at all levels voice cautions about working through a strong lead agency. One important concern is that existing organizations in the community – whether they are social services, CDCs, schools, churches, public housing tenant organizations, or even experienced community organizers – have vested interests to protect. Those interests might relate to funding base, political base, or even particular personalities, and it can be difficult for an outside funder or organization to appreciate those intricate relationships.

The second caution is that existing institutions also have an established way of doing business and, therefore, operational constraints to taking on the CCI agenda. One CCI funder comments:

Where we see problems is where grants are given to already existing organizations to direct the community development process, but they, in fact, already have their own purpose and mission. . . . They cannot be expected to adjust, to be inclusive and reach out further, whatever else.

This is particularly the case when an initiative, working through a technically sophisticated CDC or other organization, puts the community-building agenda on the front burner and expects a change in operating style. As another funder explains:

The more sophisticated CDCs are not terrific collaborators …they’ve kind of gotten used to doing it on their own. And because of their concern with capital and the time-value of money and all the things that developers care about, they don’t have time. Process is not something they’ve really done a lot of in the housing development world. And so this notion of partnership – if not total collaboration, partnership – is proving to be kind of challenging for them.

Many CCIs elect to work through a new collaboration of some form, with no single agency taking the lead. Individuals are brought together, sometimes as representatives of their agencies and sometimes without formal representational roles, into a new decision-making and management structure. Generally, these structures comprise residents and non-residents who are perceived to have access to outside resources or power. Their degree of formality varies widely, from temporary ad hoc collaboratives to formal boards that create new, independent 501(c)(3) organizations.

Creating a new collaboration is seen as necessary in some of the most depleted neighborhoods, either because they lack neighborhood institutions or because those that exist are unlikely to be able to deal with all the demands that a CCI places on an organization. Where strong institutions do exist, CCI designers may nonetheless choose to create a new collaborative structure, in order to start with a clean slate and avoid the problems of entrenched interests and set ways of doing business described above.

But creating a new organization also has problems. New collaborations need to develop operating procedures from scratch and they need to earn their legitimacy. The process of creating a new institution, whether formal or informal, is so cumbersome that some feel that its prospects for effecting real change are actually weakened. Moreover, a contrived collaborative may not survive beyond the foundation’s funding. A commentator notes:

One of the problems with the collaboratives that are created, in response to a funder’s initiative, is that they’re not very durable. …[In one initiative] it took so darn long for the collaborative to form itself. …they spent all their time trying to figure out ‘well, what is it that this funder really wants?’….But very few of those collaboratives still exist.

Regardless of the ultimate structure of the initiative, a series of tailored management and technical support activities are implied. A new collaborative is likely to have a range of needs, from group-building and joint “visioning” exercises to establishing a checking account. The lead agency approach has its own start-up needs. Most CCI participants urge that, if a lead agency is selected, it must have a resident base and a record of being an effective and inclusive community planner. As an observer comments:

If you’re going to go with a lead agency, give them a chance to get their feet on the ground, figure out what direction they think they need to go in. And then build their collaborative, and open up a very democratic process. But [the challenge is to] not put them in the same boat as everybody else in the community because then they’re not going to be able to exercise their leadership role.

While the question of working through an existing agency versus creating a new collaborative may appear central to those in the early stages of CCI design, a clear conclusion from the experience of CCIs that have been operating for some time is that the question sets up a false dichotomy. All CCIs are simultaneously working with existing organizations and creating something new. A new collaborative will need to work with existing neighborhood institutions, while an anointed lead agency, such as a CDC, will be required to interact with the neighborhood in new ways. Therefore, if the enormous weight given to the ‘new vs. existing organization decision’ is based on the search for shortcuts on the capacity-building front, it is now clear that few, if any, such shortcuts exist.

The key to establishing an effective institutional base is to ensure that form and function are well-matched, and that one dimension does not take too much of a lead. Those designing the governance of a CCI need to have the tools to assess neighborhood circumstances, and the flexibility to respond to them, so as to maximize the initiative’s potential.

Tensions That Emerge From CCIs
Other lessons emerge from CCIs that relate to managing tensions that seem to permeate the CCI enterprise. These tensions are the inevitable result of combining so many interests, objectives, perspectives, needs, etc. One tension is between “process” and “product,” or whether the success of a neighborhood-based initiative should be measured by the process it uses to bring about change or the tangible results it produces. Another, referred to as the “inside-outside tension,” revolves around the relationship of CCI architects, planners, and sponsors to neighborhood residents and “inside” actors.

Process-Product Tension
In most neighborhood change efforts, participants look for signs of early progress that are generally in the form of “product” – housing units under construction, new street lights, or an immunization campaign, for example. The desire to see concrete manifestations of neighborhood improvement motivates CCIs as well. This kind of measurement is important because of the difficulty of providing evidence of a strengthened “social fabric” or improved “community capacity” over the long term, much less in the short time frame within which most stakeholders want to see results. As one CCI participant described:

You have to have measurable successes. And you have to have them for two reasons. One, because people in the community have to see it to stay with the program, and two, you have to have it for your funding. Funders don’t want to know that you went to ten meetings. They want to know, ‘What was measurable and what did you accomplish by this money?’

Some advocate strongly for early products and warn that focusing on the “process” can become all-consuming while not leading to any meaningful neighborhood improvement. Many who have been active in CDCs and in reviewing the history of the movement stress the importance of visible accomplishments. One report participant commented, “We built buildings. We delivered. People saw, and that got us our legitimacy.” For some, even new services are not an adequate early outcome, since they are not literally “concrete” and “you’re not going to have anything very visible to show” to the community.

Yet, according to others, there is a danger that pushing too hard for early products sacrifices the community-building potential of a neighborhood activity. In the press to get the job done, it becomes tempting to value short-term efficiency over developing the capacity of a neighborhood to address both today’s and tomorrow’s needs.

CCIs’ experiences show that such initiatives should include a commitment to both process and product. The challenge is to find the optimal balance between them to achieve the desired goals. As one CCI funder commented:

If houses are built, fine. But the fact that houses are built is a demonstration of your capacity. And that’s its importance. It’s not about building houses. Because we could have funded you to build houses [in a much less complicated way]. …It was [about] your ability to understand that you needed houses, your ability to internalize it sufficiently, …to learn how to access resources, bring those resources in, and build your houses as a step towards something else. And the importance is you built your own capacity.

Inside/Outside Tension
In bringing together diverse participants, CCI architects and planners aim to provide the initiatives with a diversity of experiences, skills, and viewpoints. It is not surprising that interactions among these groups are often marked by tension.

Much of the tension generated by these differing perspectives can be understood as the tension between “inside” and “outside,” a geographically-based metaphor reflecting an “us” and “them” distinction. The phrase characterizes a perceived conjunction of initiative staff, participants, and other residents and stakeholders, as opposed to those outside the neighborhood, particularly funders but sometimes also technical assistance providers, evaluators, and others. Other dividing lines – between residents and non-residents, professionals and non-professionals, racial and ethnic groups, and economic classes – frequently cross-cut the functional categories and heighten intrinsic tension.

CCIs contain various configurations of inside and outside, and the dividing line is porous. For example, in hiring staff, initiatives may grapple with whether insider status refers only to neighborhood residency or whether similarities in background also qualify. Comparable questions arise in developing governance boards, as communities try to pull together an effective mix of members that might include residents, non-residents, professionals, local power brokers, and “pillars of the community.”

The delineations may also shift during the course of an initiative, or change meaning, depending on context. Residents, for example, may differ among themselves, but coalesce in opposition to outside technical assistance providers. And there may be differing opinions within groups, such as when a funder’s view on an issue coincides more closely with the views of residents than with the views of other funders.

When negotiated and balanced, tension of this kind can strengthen and enrich a CCI, as partners draw on each other’s backgrounds and capabilities. For example, funders, with their contacts, prestige, and resources, collaborate with neighborhoods to leverage new sources of support, or project directors glean insights from evaluators to resolve administrative dilemmas. But as each group tries to assert its particular view of the initiative’s aims and strategies, this tension can also generate misunderstanding and conflict and complicate a CCI’s challenge of working toward meaningful change.

Changing the Way “Business is Done” at the Neighborhood Level
The growing field of CCIs is better defined by how initiatives work to promote individual and neighborhood well-being than by what they do. Neighborhood transformation may depend less on putting into place a model of comprehensive neighborhood-based activities than on developing the capacity of neighborhood residents and institutions to define and effect responses to local needs on a sustained basis. This is not to suggest that more and better programs, increased economic activity and opportunities, and improvements in housing and neighborhood conditions are unimportant. It suggests, instead, that these changes alone will be insufficient to achieve the kind of transformation distressed neighborhoods need. Unless local capacity is strong, programs of social services, housing, crime reduction, etc. will achieve only a fraction of their potential.

The “tools” available for the majority of anti-poverty programs are still cast in the “old” mold of discrete program activities. To a large extent, foundations still operate as grantmakers rather than partners in the change process; funding is still allocated in short-term intervals; technical assistance is still provided on a problem-specific basis; evaluation is still focused on measuring broad indicators that can be unambiguously linked to particular interventions; and capacity building and community building are still considered secondary to putting programs on the ground. CCIs represent the field’s best attempt to modify and apply those rusty tools (and, in some cases, develop new ones). But it is because those approaches are not well-suited to building community that the tensions between process and product and between inside and outside figure so prominently.

Fundamental and lasting neighborhood change will require all actors to move beyond their traditional roles. Initiative staff, governance participants, funders, technical assistance providers, and evaluators will need to take on overlapping roles, and the definition of “stakeholders” in the neighborhood will need to be broadened beyond simply residents to include businesses and other private sector actors, public sector service providers and schools, city hall, churches and civic associations, and even nearby suburban residents. Moreover, the complexity of the CCI undertaking requires a rethinking of how all these players interact with one another and the development of new “partnerships” for change at the neighborhood level.

This article draws heavily on a report recently prepared by the Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Children and Families of the Aspen Institute, Voices from the Field: Learning from Comprehensive Community Initiatives, by A. Kubisch, P. Brown, R. Chaskin, J. Hirota, M. Joseph, H. Richman and M. Roberts.

See also Shelterforce’s special report on CCIs by Winton Pitcoff.



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