#096 Nov/Dec 1997

Comprehensive Community Initiatives: Redefining Community Development

Comprehensive community initiatives borrow heavily from various community development models but at the same time are unique in their structure, strategies, and ambitious goals.

Part I: New Partnerships

Driving through the Germantown neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia is a study in contrasts. Huge stone mansions stand side-by-side with boarded and vacant buildings. Quaker families who have lived there for over 100 years are neighbors to a large Muslim community. Abandoned factories deteriorate alongside meticulous private schools. On paper the neighborhood’s median income approaches $30,000, but upon closer inspection there are sections of the community where that figure is closer to $9,000. Cobblestone streets slow the cars as they pass through, en route from the highway at one side to the upper-income suburbs just a mile or so down the road. Germantown residents are quick to tell you they’ve lived in the neighborhood all their life, or at least for as long as they can remember. This is a place rich with both resources and challenges.

A New Community Development Model

The project underway in Germantown is one of a growing number of similar initiatives in low-income neighborhoods throughout the country. These comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs), as they are called, borrow heavily from various community development models but at the same time are unique in their structure, strategies, and ambitious goals. While the concepts that form the basis of these initiatives have their roots in methods practiced for decades, the aggregation of these ideas into CCIs can be traced to the late 1980s. These initiatives emphasize the merger of two traditionally separate fields of philanthropy and development – human service reform and community development.

Funded almost exclusively by foundation money, CCIs reflect the belief that single-issue planning and development neglects the interconnectedness of all the threads that create the neighborhood fabric. The philanthropic community – most notably a handful of national foundations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), the Ford Foundation, and the Surdna Foundation – have seized upon CCIs as a way to address neighborhood development where traditional project-based initiatives have proven unsustainable. Foundations aim to show the effects comprehensive planning can have when resources are focused on a small area. At the same time, foundations recognize communities can’t address such a wide range of issues overnight, and so are funding these initiatives over longer periods – up to seven years – than most grants.

These projects show perhaps the most significant departure from their predecessors in the community building field in their commitment to community transformation. Rather than focusing on bricks and mortar projects or social service development – though both are usually addressed – CCIs work to strengthen a neighborhood’s capacity to affect change by building leadership among local residents and organizations. Neighborhood governing bodies established for these initiatives do more than function as decision-makers; they also act as a kind of neighborhood “think tank,” analyzing available resources and needs and determining how those needs could best be fulfilled using resources at hand.

At the neighborhood level, CCIs force residents to think hard about what holds them together as a community. CCIs require collaboration between a wide spectrum of individuals and institutions, public and private, that shape the neighborhood. Community-based organizations, municipal governments, social service providers, residents, block clubs, and business owners are among those who join together to share resources and coordinate efforts in these initiatives.

With all these players at the table, CCIs, at least in theory, make community residents responsible for setting the course of the initiatives. The structure of CCIs charges residents with setting project goals, devising strategies for attaining those goals, governing a “lead” organization to shepherd those projects, and actively participating in projects. Their participation ranges from responding to surveys to sitting on committees and boards to volunteering their time. Their status within the collaborative is that of “expert,” since it is they who know the needs of the community best, and who will ultimately have to live with the results. Armed with the resources of well-established community organizations, foundation money, and consultants, residents who participate in these initiatives learn how to lead their community through the work of revitalizing the neighborhood.

Such complex efforts, and the relative newness of this approach, have led inevitably to some difficulties in the development of CCIs. Foundations’ relative lack of experience playing such an active, ongoing role in programs they fund has led to breakdowns in communication and awkward power struggles. Shifting relationships and structures, coupled with overwhelming goals and expectations, have frustrated many participating residents and left them unsure of their role in the process.

While none of these problems have proven fatal to the CCIs underway, they have provided foundations and neighborhoods with valuable lessons in this new model of citizen participation and community development. These lessons, put to good use, can strengthen the movement of CCIs and inform other revitalization efforts struggling to deal with the changing landscape of funding, politics, and policy surrounding community development.

Foundations and Communities: Changing the Relationship

Ask any CCI participant what the project goals are and talk will eventually come around to relationships. These initiatives are, first and foremost, about developing and nurturing relationships and shifting relationships that have traditionally placed power to revitalize a neighborhood in the hands of anyone but residents.

The most dramatic relationship shift in a CCI is between the two main players: the foundation funding the initiative and the community organization, or collaborative of organizations, taking the lead in coordinating the effort locally. Foundations have used CCIs to cast themselves as active participants in the revitalization process, rather than merely a source of dollars. Neighborhoods, in turn, have had to adjust to this new force – the individuals, resources, and philosophies that come with the money they so desperately need.

Having a partnership role with a foundation has taken some getting used to, says Ralph Porter, Executive Director of Mid Bronx Desperados Community Housing Corporation, a CDC participating in the Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program (CCRP) funded by a collaborative led by the Surdna Foundation. “Foundations tend to have a program, an agenda, that organizations have to adapt to in order to get money,” he says. In the case of CCRP, the foundation has made its agenda clear to the community participants, but the groups develop their own strategies and goals, says Porter. This has allowed his organization to spend time thinking about what is truly best for the neighborhood, he says, rather than letting available funds drive the goals.

Similarly, AECF’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative (RCI), launched in 1993, had explicit expectations for the project before participating neighborhoods were even selected. Through the seven-year process, funded with more than $3 million per neighborhood, the foundation expects each site to at least make strides toward major “systems reform,” altering the way services are delivered to residents who need them.

RCI’s extensive objectives, explains AECF literature, are: “to maximize the capacity and impact of neighborhood resources and institutions; to establish an effective neighborhood-based human-service delivery system for children and youth; to develop capable and effective neighborhood collaboratives to which state and local resources and authority could gradually be devolved; to improve housing and social infrastructure; and to increase public and private investment in the neighborhoods.”

“Funders have not traditionally rewarded groups for grassroots, comprehensive efforts,” says Garland Yates, an AECF Senior Associate who oversees RCI. “This initiative needs to enable sites to build the capacity of the lead organization, partner organizations, the neighborhood, the governance group, and even the foundation.”

For a foundation to articulate such goals and structure runs counter to the traditional grantor-grantee relationship, in which community organizations approach foundations for funding based on plans spelled out in their project proposals. The foundation set about promoting its goals not just with infusions of cash into each of the five neighborhoods it selected-in Boston, Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia (home to Germantown Settlement), and Washington, DC – but also with technical assistance from a team of consultants. As a member of the initiative “team,” AECF also contributed by leveraging resources and networks and providing a framework to guide each neighborhood’s process.

While at first blush it may appear that the foundation is directing the initiative, Yates insists that residents truly control the process. The foundation’s expectations for the neighborhoods are high, he admits, but they are primarily about process rather than product. The foundation wants to see a transformation of the local power structure, he says, so residents and community-based organizations have increased their capacity to effect change. But each neighborhood will get to that point by different paths, according to Yates.

“The most significant difference [between RCI and traditional foundation funding] is not having to implement based upon statistical expectations from funders,” explains Emanuel Freeman, Germantown Settlement’s CEO and President. (see profile).

As liberating as that may sound, he stresses, it’s also more complex than the typical grant situation. It takes the constant, active participation of all involved to keep the initiative on track.

Though CCIs all share a commitment to empowering communities, no two share identical structures. The Ford Foundation’s Neighborhood and Family Initiative (NFI), the first large-scale CCI, had no real models on which to base its structure. Says Mustapha Abdul-Salaam, Executive Director of the Upper Albany Neighborhood Collaborative, an NFI participant in Hartford, Connecticut, “[Ford] tried to have as little expectation as possible of what the structure would look like.” The rhetoric of past community development initiatives, he says, tended toward telling residents that they had opportunities but not giving them resources, or giving resources but not coupling that with an understanding of the opportunities. NFI tries to “truly empower residents by giving them resources, skills, knowledge, and the opportunities to apply them,” he says.

NFI relies on community foundations as intermediaries between the foundation and the collaborative boards that govern each local initiative. The community foundations were responsible for creating these neighborhood collaboratives to lead the initiative. Many community foundations already had long-standing relationships with local organizations, and so were able to develop collaborative boards with which they had good working relationships. These community foundations and local collaboratives carry out the initiative, which involves determining needs for technical assistance, allocating funding, and tracking and evaluating sites based on their own missions and circumstances. For its part, Ford organizes foundation staff visits to the sites and annual cross-site meetings for the local initiative leaders.

Other CCIs have been initiated by intermediaries, rather than traditional grant-giving foundations. The Enterprise Foundation’s role in Baltimore’s Sandtown/Winchester neighborhood is one such case. Enterprise, residents, and city government have been the major players in that initiative, with Enterprise acting as resource provider and facilitator, bringing technical assistance and skills.

To be sure, as divergent as the structure of various CCIs may be from that of a traditional foundation-funded project, many of the usual foundation trademarks still apply. There are deadlines to meet, reports and budgets to file, and co-grantees to keep up with. Such time limits have been particularly problematic for some involved in these initiatives, who feel that arbitrarily determining when a project is “done” indicates a lack of commitment to seeing a model through.

AECF’s RCI sites, though they began in very different places, are expected to progress through each phase at basically the same rate, with outlays coming from the foundation at pre-determined times. According to Yates, however, RCI has been flexible about sites being at different points in the process, and has extended deadlines a number of times to accommodate them.

“This is not a normal funder and grantee relationship,” says Nancy Franco, a consultant to the Denver RCI site, “because the grantees can have impact. On the other hand, the foundation does control the bottom line – the purse strings – so it isn’t a balanced relationship either.” Having the foundation play an active role in the initiative can be extremely beneficial to community groups, she says, since it brings a wide range of resources to the table. At the same time, adjusting to the foundation playing a much more directive role than in a traditional grant situation isn’t easy.

One way to eliminate some of the conflicts that come with having two major players with potentially very different agendas trying to develop a project together, Ralph Porter suggests, would be to blend the models of CCIs and traditional grants in such a way that a neighborhood would develop a collaborative, comprehensive structure for an initiative, and then solicit funding from foundations and other sources.

Shaping Local Initiatives

When AECF approached Germantown Settlement in 1993 about becoming one of its five RCI sites, the organization took the time to consider the offer carefully, according to Emanuel Freeman.

“We had to determine whether this would fit into our framework or dramatically change us,” says Freeman. Taking on such a large project, he explains, is not something such a small organization takes lightly (the initiative would increase Germantown Settlement’s annual budget by 15 percent in the first two years alone), because such rapid growth has often proven detrimental to community-based groups.

Being part of the initiative, however, would complement the group’s organizing and development work, in that it “lets us look at what we do and gives us a chance to think about who we are as a neighborhood, and not just worry about chasing resources,” explains Freeman. “It’s a luxury to think about systems.”

Germantown had to establish a plan and structure for RCI that would be integrated with its existing work while expanding its mission. While Germantown Settlement acts as the fiscal agent for the initiative, and provides space and staff support, the organization chose to create a new entity, the Germantown Community Collaborative Board (GCCB), to govern the process.

Not all RCI sites chose this structure. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston chose instead to integrate the RCI project into the existing organization, using AECF resources to expand its board, enhance its responsiveness to residents, and broaden its effectiveness. But this decision was hard-won; the foundation was reticent at first, but when DSNI staff members showed that their organization’s structure was the right one to shepherd the RCI process, AECF accepted their choice.

“We live and work here,” explains May Louie, Dudley Street’s RCI Director, “so we have a good sense of what will work and what won’t. We’ve learned to not necessarily accept that what the foundations say will work will, and to not assume that what the foundation says goes.”

For the neighborhood, explains Louie, “having a viable, integrated community plan is more important than achieving the stated goals of the RCI framework.” With such a huge investment of resources in what they’re hoping could turn into a model project, foundations need these initiatives to succeed, often just as much as the neighborhoods do, she points out, and they will often be more flexible than might be expected.

According to Abdul-Salaam of the Ford Foundation initiative in Hartford, “Ford really tried to allow residents and the community to have greater influence over the process,” but the sites also had to be ready and willing to learn from their mistakes.

For their part, foundations are learning from the process as well, says Michael Bangser, Executive Director of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the intermediary for Ford’s NFI site in Hartford. “Funders tend to think they know a community through what a service provider grantee tells them,” he says. “But when you’re at a board meeting with residents and hear their views unfiltered, you don’t necessarily hear exactly the same thing. It’s useful for a funder to be interacting directly with a stakeholder group in that way.”

Clarity is the First Priority

The reality is that, while they bring increased flexibility on the part of foundations, CCIs can exacerbate already complex situations. Some RCI sites got tangled up in the process early on, due to a misunderstanding of just what was expected of them. Though sites worked closely with the foundation throughout the initiative’s first year, the product they produced, and AECF’s response, made it clear that the foundation did have certain goals that hadn’t been met.

RCI’s first phase, the planning phase, was supposed to last one year. But Germantown Settlement wasn’t expecting the struggle it faced in trying to pull the neighborhood together for this initiative.

“People felt rushed” by the short time to do planning, says Cornelia Swinson, Vice President for Planning and Development at Germantown Settlement and the neighborhood’s first RCI Director. Community participants’ resentment grew when AECF further shortened the planning phase by three months, ostensibly to have a product from the initiative to show at its annual board meeting in December. With the pressure on, the neighborhood completed a plan and established an interim planning committee, says Swinson, “but it wasn’t very good or thorough.”

When the foundation re-thought the process, in part due to Germantown Settlement’s urging, and extended the planning phase for all the sites for another 12 months, Germantown residents were again confused and resentful. “We lost credibility” among residents who had participated, says Swinson. The neighborhood had been gearing up for the beginning of the project’s capacity building phase, and the $500,000 that came with it; $200,000 and another year of the same work felt a bit like a punishment.

Yates has a different take on the extension, saying that while the neighborhoods had clearly all worked hard on their plans, they weren’t at the level the foundation felt was necessary to move into the capacity building phase, partly due to a lack of appropriate technical assistance during the planning phase. Attacking issues of governance, establishing collaboratives, accommodating visitors from the evaluation team, and other expectations of the sites simply proved to be too much at once. Giving the neighborhoods more time would allow that to be corrected.

“The sites needed more time to deal with what we wanted and what the community wanted, primarily around developing partnerships,” Yates says. The foundation had anticipated that the groups’ planning capacity would be stronger than it actually was, and so it hadn’t provided for technical assistance in the areas of strategic planning, organizational development, outreach and engagement, and collaboration. “Groups needed help with capacity building to convene and collaborate,” recalls Yates, “and technical assistance seemed to be the weak link.”

Still, the neighborhoods saw the change as a criticism of their work. Yates said that while he tried to soothe their concerns, he ultimately felt the sites were simply being impatient and unrealistic. “I finally had to say ‘come on, you’re ending up getting $360,000 for a 21-month planning process,'” he recalls. “‘That’s not all that bad.'”

AECF also needed to rethink how it was approaching the initiative. “This was still the foundation telling the communities what we wanted and the communities doing it,” says Yates. “They [the groups] wanted the money whether or not it was for what they wanted to do or if they had the capacity to do it or not. We should have asked the groups what it was they wanted to do up front and had a better understanding of what they needed.”

Getting the five sites to agree with each other on how they define overarching goals isn’t crucial, says Yates, as long as they make strides toward accomplishing the goals they set out for themselves (with the assistance and approval of the foundation, of course). Evaluation and moving into the next phase of the initiative depend upon each site’s own progress according to how it defined its own goals and objectives, he explains.

But without a clear definition, how will the five sites be evaluated, and how will the foundation determine if they are ready to move into RCI’s implementation phase, worries Maggie DeSantis, Executive Director of Warren Conner Development Coalition, the lead organization for the Detroit RCI site.

NFI is similar to RCI in that the foundation says it tries to avoid presumptions about how each site should go about attaining its goals. “It’s not up to us to define what the outcomes should be,” explains Ruth Román, Program Associate at Ford for NFI. “We worry about scale, impact, and the creation of a comprehensive, integrated community plan. But within the local context, the agenda has been defined by each site.”

Yet, however much a foundation says a CCI is a learning process, it certainly brings some degree of a framework, however incomplete or uncertain that may be. “They were not always clear about what they wanted, but they did have a preconceived notion of what the project should be like,” says Rick Manzenares, chair of PODER, the lead organization of RCI’s Denver site. A foundation also brings an expectation that a certain amount of money will produce a certain type of change, and a set of values about what communities need, how much coordination is needed, and what types of people and organizations should participate. In this case, AECF believed it had made its theory of change clear to the sites, and that the sites had agreed.

Ensuring that the foundation and sites are speaking the same language when it comes to overarching goals and issues is critical to a CCI’s success. For example, while AECF and the RCI lead organizations both understood that resident participation is a critical part of the initiative, none of the participants had exactly the same definition of what level of participation was expected. The problems that arose were a result of the foundation’s reticence to give hard and fast definitions of what was expected when it came to issues such as participation levels, governance structures, or even broad goals such as “systems reform.”

One of AECF’s expectations, Yates explains, is that the sites create systems reform through their efforts. “We want these neighborhoods to be able to change how the big system relates to communities’ needs,” he says. “We want to empower communities to define what they need.”

Swinson agrees that ambitious goals such as systems reform are a good thing, but adds that quite a bit more groundwork is needed for such change. “We’ve never had a discussion about what AECF means by systems reform, and we’re not sure that we can do it.” While these projects are meant to be comprehensive, Swinson points out that taking on a citywide system gets far too complex for an initiative such as this. Changing the way the Department of Human Services delivers services to the neighborhood, for instance, means dealing with how the department interacts with the entire city. On top of that, Swinson points out, efforts toward service delivery often mean having to confront unions that represent the staff of agencies.

“I don’t know if we can accomplish true systems reform in seven years,” says Tonya Allen, RCI Director for the Detroit site. She also notes that she’s not sure her site’s definition of such a goal is the same as the foundation’s. The site’s collaborative board, she explains, has defined systems reform as empowering people and organizations to the point where they have the capacity to affect systems. Actually achieving restructuring in a service delivery system is another process.

Those issues were overly abstract in the initiative’s initial stages, Yates acknowledges, and while the foundation has what he calls “frameworks” for what it wanted from the sites and the initiative, it had no hard and fast definitions of these terms.

Saying that AECF didn’t necessarily know the right way things should be done, or expressing a willingness to be challenged by the sites, ultimately proved to be not quite enough to elicit the types of responses from the sites the foundation was hoping for. Though the sites were being told they could lead the initiative, it became clear that they didn’t necessarily believe there wasn’t another agenda they weren’t being told about. Time that could have been spent moving the project forward was instead taken up by a process of clarification.

In retrospect, Yates admits AECF could have enunciated exactly what it did expect from RCI without detracting from the sites’ ability to shape and lead the initiative. In fact, had the foundation been clearer at the outset, it probably would have been easier for the sites to play a more participatory role in shaping the initiative via areas that were not predetermined.

“We were trying to walk that line between the maximum allowable flexibility for the sites, and guiding the initiative,” Yates says. “We wanted to be a lot clearer about where we stood and be able to say ‘when we think about this element, here’s what we believe.'” Yates says the foundation wanted to be prescriptive when it came to process, but the initiative first had to grow to the point where the foundation could make suggestions without the sites feeling like it was being heavy handed.

As RCI has progressed, conversations between the neighborhoods and the foundation have moved closer to illuminating the differences between what the foundation expects of the sites and how much leeway the sites have in operationalizing certain elements of the initiative. “Once we were able to establish this as a learning environment,” says Yates, “we could say what we felt without sites feeling like we were issuing edicts.”

Give and Take: A Key Element

If the relationship between foundations and CCI sites is truly a partnership, the neighborhoods have to take their role seriously by challenging the foundation at times. “The flaw is that sites behave too much like they are a vassal and not a partner,” says Butch Cottman, a community organizer working with the Germantown group. “The mutual responsibility component of RCI is underdeveloped.”

Early in the initiative, according to Yates, “The groups weren’t gaining self-confidence and didn’t feel like they had any freedom. And they were afraid to ask us for it.”

“Casey is open to changing itself and its perspectives,” says Wanda Mial, Germantown’s RCI Director for close to two years, “Every now and then they remember that they’re the parent, though, and put their foot down.”

Angela Wilson, a board member of the Detroit RCI site, says there’s a pattern to the foundation’s heavy-handedness. “The times when they have seemed to want to control the process have been when we were struggling,” she says. Tonya Allen, RCI Director for the Detroit site, concurs that when the initiative was struggling, a “hand-slapping” from the foundation prompted the group to re-energize its steering committee, which proved to be just what the project needed to get moving again. Says Wilson, “They back off when they can see leadership developing, or when the local group has control of the initiative and is moving it forward. If we are clear that we know where we’re going, they’re O.K. with that, even if they don’t agree.”

DSNI was willing to confront the foundation early in the initiative. The fact that the residents involved in the group were ready to fight for what they felt was best for their community, and were willing to risk losing the foundation’s money over what they felt was a critical issue – the local initiative’s structure – showed that DSNI had the capacity to lead the neighborhood through the process, says Yates.

It took some time for the Denver site, led by West Denver’s NEWSED CDC, to learn that it was acceptable to challenge the foundation. The site’s initial governance structure was overly complicated with too many different committees focusing on different issues, AECF had suggested, and should be simplified. Though site leaders were unsure that the suggestion was appropriate, they made an effort toward the change, to disastrous effect.

“NEWSED had opened up the process broadly, and with all good faith, and then when Casey told them they had to narrow their issues, they tried to honor what they thought they were being told to do, because they’re used to responding to a funder’s agenda,” recalls Nancy Franco, who provides technical assistance to the Denver group. When many residents voiced opposition to making those changes, and some stopped participating in the process because of them, it became important that the group take a stand and insist that because the local initiative’s structure came out of a community process it should remain.

“We wanted to tell Casey that this is who we are, if you don’t like it, you can take your money elsewhere,” says Manzenares, but it took some time to resolve to do so. When the group did work up the nerve to confront Yates, Manzenares recalls, his response surprised them. He was pleased. The group was standing up for what it wanted out of the initiative, out of the foundation, and that was what he had wanted from the outset.

According to Swinson of Germantown RCI, the relationship between that site and AECF changed during the initiative’s extended planning phase. The additional year gave the sites time to build the capacity of neighborhood residents and organizations, and to seriously consider how this relationship with the foundation worked, and gave AECF time to rethink its strategies. “They were too prescribed in their expectations in the beginning,” says Swinson, “but that has changed.”

“This initiative can’t work unless the communities are willing to disagree with the foundation,” says Yates. “We learn from that. The community needs to be able to engage and lead.”

Process and Politics

In addition to confusion over AECF’s lack of clarity about its expectations and definitions, “there’s a poor understanding or acknowledgment that there are different political dynamics on the ground at every site,” according to Cottman of the Germantown site. If the foundation had recognized this from the outset, he says, the program could have been to allow each site to deal with its unique situation more appropriately. “The foundation should have asked what political barriers there would be in the neighborhoods, and then set the format as far as time frame, demands, skills needed, and technical assistance.”

Germantown needed the tools and time to get over some initial political problems the initiative raised in the neighborhood. But the group didn’t have that chance. Philadelphia’s entrenched system of ward politics became an issue early on, when long time ward leaders felt threatened by the initiative, according to those working with the initiative. “I remember one ward leader coming up to me and saying ‘How dare you do voter registration in my neighborhood?'” recalls Mial.

A number of other community leaders had come by their positions in the neighborhood simply by championing a single issue, says Swinson, and other interested residents eventually joined in. The process for the new initiative, though, was one by which residents would elect representatives to govern and lead the project. Some of the “self-appointed leaders,” according to Swinson, weren’t happy with that process and even tried to obstruct it. Some ran for the GCCB board, but refused to participate further in the initiative when they lost in the election. “They didn’t want to cede control to a democratic planning process,” Swinson says.

While GCCB says it made efforts to include everyone in the neighborhood, most of the “old-style leaders” eventually lost interest when they found they could not dominate the process, recalls Swinson. Had these initial stages of the initiative allowed more time to build alliances among political factions in the neighborhood, Cottman says, GCCB might have had better luck drawing in participants from all sectors of the community. The foundation could have better prepared GCCB for such situations, he says, by providing organizational development early on.

But Yates says AECF did recognize those issues. “We pushed people to be community organizers in this initiative,” Yates says, and provided organizational development help in anticipation of lead organizations needing to overcome the type of political problems to which Cottman referred. But, he added, “Some sites are less than candid with us about problems,” and the initiative demands that a request for assistance come from the site before the foundation will make an offer.

Still, with such high expectations for the neighborhoods, AECF should do more information gathering up front, says Cottman. “The foundation needs to ask neighborhoods questions about the movement of capital, political dynamics, etc. How can you have systems reform without this? How can you judge success without thinking about these questions?” Without such elements as integral parts of the process, he suggests, the initiatives will fail at the neighborhood level when the foundation’s seven-year grant runs out.

The sites themselves, Cottman feels, are an untapped resource. “We need more sharing and analysis among sites,” he says. While AECF brings representatives from the sites together for cross-site visits a few times a year, these three-day meetings are usually topic-based and heavily scheduled with lectures and workshops, leaving precious little time for networking among the sites. When Cottman and Freeman suggested to foundation representatives that visits be solely for discussions among the sites about the initiative, their suggestion was well-received.

However, other RCI participants say that as helpful and as much fun as the cross-site visits are, they contribute to the ongoing problem of too much to do in too little time. Just doing the substantive neighborhood work for a CCI is incredibly time-consuming, they say, and adding cross-site visits, visits from evaluators and foundation staff, and increased attention from the media and other observers only limits their time in the neighborhood further.

That burden may seem great, Yates says, because RCI is structured so that not much happens without input from the sites, from developing technical assistance strategies to documenting the process. His impression is that the sites wouldn’t want it any other way. The foundation is flexible about the amount of time spent on these external issues, he adds, saying that the sites have a great deal of control over these visits. “We anticipated the amount of time these visits would take, and that’s part of the reason why the budgets are big enough for them to hire staff who just focus on RCI.”

Turnover in foundation staff also affects how well attuned foundations are to each site’s local dynamics. The Ford Foundation’s NFI, for example, doesn’t have a staff member dedicated solely to NFI “and that has been one of the challenges in terms of having staff on board that are with the initiative over time and can really be engaged in the work,” says Ruth Román, Ford Program Associate for NFI. Several different program officers have worked with NFI since its inception, which results in program officers being pulled in many different directions.

Technical Assistance

Another significant part of the relationship between foundations and CCI sites is technical assistance. Communities undertaking such projects often find themselves lacking some of the basic skills to make it work, such as running effective meetings or developing organizations, or finding financing for a project or developing a certain type of program.

In the case of RCI, this element of the relationship was tenuous at first, due to what seemed to be an overly prescriptive method of assistance. Sites felt they had little say over what types of assistance they received and that there was little coordination among the different providers.

A similar problem occurred early in the Ford Foundation’s NFI project as well, says Abdul-Salaam of the Hartford site. “Initially Ford brought in their own technical assistance people as they felt we needed them,” he says. “[The consultants] ended up gaining a lot of power and control, and a dependent relationship developed, which runs counter to the whole nature of the initiative, and led to problems around developmental growth.”

Too often the consultants “come out to talk at you, rather than to talk with you,” says Allen of Detroit’s RCI site, which puts the group on the defensive and doesn’t allow for a constructive exchange.

Early on in the initiative, recalls Veronica Barela, Executive Director of NEWSED, lead organization for the Denver RCI site, there were “too many consultants just showing up. We didn’t even know what to ask them.” Some even became a burden, she says, taking up valuable time and not really helping the initiative.

“There’s a tendency to have technical assistance come in after the collaborative has defined what it needs,” says Bangser of Ford’s NFI site in Hartford, “rather than providing technical assistance early enough to help [sites] define what they need.” Figuring out what’s wrong and what’s needed isn’t easy, Bangser says, and often the organizations that need technical assistance the most are the weakest in defining their needs for that assistance.

At the same time, another problem with technical assistance has been that some consultants seem reticent to lead the groups in a certain direction, according to Cottman of Germantown’s RCI site. He says this is particularly the case with those who run the cross-site meetings focused on a particular issue. “These are people with resources and extensive historical knowledge,” he says, “but they are careful not to analyze or lead.” He has been frustrated by what he describes as some of the consultants’ inability to discuss their issues in the context of the individual site’s situation, particularly in relation to a collaborative initiative. Most of the consultants are very focused on their particular issues, he says, such as education or welfare reform, and aren’t able to discuss them in the context of a holistic process or plan.

“The technical assistance we were offered was like being in a candy store,” says Wanda Mial from the Germantown RCI site. “But we picked the wrong candy at first and overindulged.”

“Early on it was chaotic,” recalls Bill Traynor, who coordinates technical assistance for RCI. “It was too supply driven, there were mismatches, there was too much thrown at the sites. . . Foundations have been erring on the side of too much technical assistance,” he says, coupled with too many expectations and too much reliance on that assistance.

In addition, Mial says that consultants from outside of the area often visit briefly and offer suggestions, but then their advice is not followed-up on after they leave. The Ford Foundation also relied heavily on technical assistance providers with national experience for NFI sites, which often wasn’t appropriate to the local situation, says Abdul-Salaam of the Hartford NFI site. Technical assistance providers should have deeply rooted knowledge of the community’s unique situation, he says, if their assistance is to be useful.

Despite the perceived overabundance of technical assistance to RCI sites, the neighborhood organizations were still not getting what they needed to launch the initiative. The lead organizations needed a great deal of assistance in organizational development to tackle the complex work of collaboration and participation. The foundation realized this too late, Yates acknowledges, and this contributed to the decision to extend the planning phase.

Once AECF heard from the sites that technical assistance was both helpful and an imposition at times, the foundation regrouped and hired a coordinator to handle technical assistance for all five sites. Some of AECF’s RCI sites are addressing the problem of inappropriate technical assistance by bringing in a local coach, who works with the neighborhood on a continuing basis, in effect, walking the groups through the organizational development and capacity building process and helping them stay focused and coordinated.

Thad Mathis, the coach for the Germantown site, says his role has been defined based on the neighborhood’s dynamics and goals. He’s an on-call advisor who helps the initiative’s staff and board members locate resources, helps the neighborhood communicate with the foundation, and serves as a “voice of conscience and a voice of discipline” as the initiative moves forward, he says. Not a staff member for the foundation, nor for the local organization, Mathis says his “insider-outsider” role allows him to work closely with the local initiative but keep enough distance to constantly consider broader perspectives and issues, which he also brings to the attention of the local initiative leaders.

Mathis says his background in local community development allows him to be a forecaster of sorts, helping neighborhood groups see potential outcomes of their actions. Through all his work, he says, a primary goal is developing the neighborhood residents’ and organizations’ leadership and capacity to achieve their goal of self-determination and self-reliance. While RCI funding will last longer than most grants, it too will end someday, he points out, and the neighborhood needs to be strong enough by then to carry on without those resources.

For example, in the case of a workshop Mathis coordinated as the neighborhood began drafting a strategic plan, his role was to help different participants develop a common vocabulary to guide them through the process and to help even out underdeveloped skills among participants.

Having Mathis available on an ongoing basis has been an invaluable resource, says Swinson. “He’s there when we need an independent view regarding our approach to the work as it relates to the community,” she says, and the continuity of having him work with the project over a long period of time “helps us stay accountable to our own work.” His understanding of the community as a result of his personal connections with Germantown, coupled with his knowledge of similar efforts on the national level, “helps us keep our perspective,” she says.

The position of a technical assistance provider is difficult, explains Yates, because a determination has to be made whether consultants work for the sites or the foundation. In the end, he says, AECF concluded that the technical assistance providers work for the initiative, acting as a kind of go-between for the sites and the foundation, ensuring that the two are communicating well and progressing through the project.

Foundation and technical assistance staff have worked to shift to a demand-driven approach to technical assistance for CCIs. This way, either the sites take more control over requesting assistance and linking it specifically to what they are doing at that moment, or the foundation and technical assistance team make a more concerted effort to anticipate what the sites need.

“The technical assistance team helps develop the trust relationship between the foundation and the sites,” explains Traynor. Technical assistance consultants work to sustain the partnerships by holding people accountable, raising issues that haven’t been clarified, and helping to flesh out arguments that may not be fully voiced.

But not all sites appreciate that role. DeSantis, of the Detroit RCI site, says she would prefer that technical assistance providers not act as a filter – she would rather address issues directly with foundation staff. Information flowing the other direction causes problems as well, she says, in that consultants are left to interpret the foundation’s expectations.

The Role of Reflection: Evaluating CCIs

Often categorized – inappropriately some feel – within the technical assistance realm is the process of evaluating CCI sites and overall initiatives. Evaluations, usually commissioned by the foundations, provide documentation of the initiative, feedback on what has and has not been effective, and suggestions as to what changes might improve the program.

Evaluators have long struggled with reporting on community development initiatives, largely because the primary model of evaluation, used in corporate and governmental settings, is geared toward improving efficiency and output, while the product of community initiatives is often less concrete. Quantitative data like the number of housing units built or jobs created can be captured, but the context is often more important, and a traditional evaluation is unlikely to document or analyze the processes and struggles behind the numbers.

For CCIs, which concentrate on capacity building, leadership development, and resident participation, progress is even harder to measure. The scale of the projects also make, it difficult to measure the changes in broad indictors that foundations want to see, particularly in such a relatively short time.

Just as the role of the foundation has changed in this type of initiative, the role of the evaluator needs to change as well, says Melanie Styles, program director for the Enterprise Foundation. “Evaluators can’t be the traditional outside observer,” she says, “they really need to work directly with communities.” That may involve some discomfort as to where lines are drawn between evaluators and players in the initiative, she admits, but the role of the evaluation has become “very formative in helping to improve the process.”

“[The] principle tension [with evaluations] is that there’s a focus on program evaluation.” Explains Pat Costigan, the Enterprise Foundation’s Director of Neighborhood Transformation through the early stages of its Sandtown-Winchester initiative. This method doesn’t work in CCIs, he says, because there is no sample that can serve as a control. He also points out that traditional evaluations rely a great deal on issues of causality – examining exactly what actions bring about what changes – which usually isn’t applicable to CCIs.

Like Styles, Costigan says evaluation teams have to play a more active role in the community. This should involve documenting as well as evaluating, he says, and evaluators must understand that outcomes won’t be measurable in the course of the initiative. Instead, evaluators should use mutually agreed upon markers, such as levels of participation and strength of partnerships, to gauge whether the project is on track or not. The evaluators should have ongoing interaction with the community, he says, helping them understand what evaluation and documentation is all about, and giving constant input.

“Too many evaluations tend to homogenize and boil down the issues to almost platitudes,” says Traynor, RCI’s technical assistance coordinator. “They’re not helpful if they don’t capture the learning that goes on during the process. In an effort to draw lessons they tend to overlook the exceptions to the rules, which are sometimes more instructive.” Instead of merely looking for trends and comparisons, Traynor suggests, it would be more useful to document examples or stories that aren’t necessarily comparable, but illustrative. And instead of simply drawing out similar problems among the different sites, evaluators should capitalize on their unique perspective of the initiatives and take a more active role in leading the way to solutions, he says.

Realizing the need for new evaluation methods, AECF enlisted the Organizational Management Group (OMG) Center for Collaborative Learning to evaluate RCI. Based in Philadelphia, OMG staffers visit the sites, sit in on cross-site conferences, and draft reports on both the overall initiative and the individual sites. But these reports don’t explain at a glance whether the initiative is a success or not, explains Tom Burns, Director of OMG. They’re intricate documents that serve a learning function more than anything else and are an integral part of the initiative. “We’re constantly asking how our evaluation contributes to encouraging organizational learning and collaboration,” he says. The reports focus less on the initiative’s impact on individual neighborhoods and more on the process the neighborhoods are undertaking.

The relationship between the site and the evaluation team is critical, says Burns, and as that relationship has grown, so has the sites’ level of trust in the evaluators. While some sites respond more positively than others to the evaluations, Burns says, they have all realized that, however critical the evaluations may be and however seriously the foundation staff takes that criticism, the sites are not going to lose their funding as a result. Some of the sites have even gone so far as to point out criticisms they felt were left out of reports after they were published, Burns says.

As a condition of taking on the task of evaluating the sites, OMG asked that it be allowed to evaluate the foundation’s role as well. Burns recalls that the first time he presented a report to the foundation and the sites, the fact that the evaluation was critical of some aspects of the foundation’s role “helped us gain with the sites, because we carried their complaints to the foundation.”

The evaluations have made a difference, Burns feels, in that the foundation and the sites alike have taken many of the reports’ comments to heart and altered their processes accordingly.

Veronica Barela of NEWSED in Denver also says the evaluation process was a “great experience to learn about ourselves,” adding that she found the evaluation more helpful than some of the direct technical assistance the group had received.

“The evaluations helped us do our jobs better,” agrees Wanda Mial, of the Germantown RCI site. Swinson agrees that the reports are helpful, but adds that they often fail to recognize the neighborhoods’ accomplishments, if those accomplishments aren’t part of the foundation’s prescribed plan, or if they are intangible. “It’s based on the foundation’s expectations, not on reality,” she says.

Yates says he recognizes the fears and suspicions the sites had when evaluators would visit, and says their concerns affected how useful the evaluation could be. At the same time, though, he agrees the evaluations have proven very helpful to both the sites and the foundation, and changes have been made to the structure of the program as a result of comments in some of the early evaluations.

Challenges and Opportunities

While it’s too early to determine whether or not CCIs have been successful in their overarching goals of community empowerment and systemic transformation, the experiences have, at the very least, provided important lessons on the relationships between foundations and the projects they fund.

“Too often, lack of understanding and trust, and struggles over power and accountability, undermine productive working relationships and achievement of the goals that the initiatives are intended to accomplish,” says Prudence Brown, a Research Fellow at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago who has written a great deal on CCIs.

“Each side needs to understand for itself and put on the table for the other its reasons for participating, making explicit self-interests that are usually left implicit,” says Brown. “This discussion should also include clarity about the constraints under which each side is working, about what is negotiable and what is not, and about the fundamental changes each is willing to make in support of CCI goals and principles.”

Ultimately, it’s all about balancing ownership and partnership within an initiative. A CCI cannot succeed without all involved parties clearly articulating their interests in seeing it progress, nor can it succeed without all parties demonstrating a willingness to work with and learn from their partners. As foundations and neighborhoods tread onto this new ground, they are stepping gingerly, and the result often seems to be a lack of leadership from any side, allowing the initiatives to drift. Only by together seizing the opportunity that the initiative offers can these groups hope to attain the goals they set for themselves.

Accompanying items to this report:

Selected CCIs
Resources and Contacts for CCIs
Getting the Most from Independent Evaluations
Executive Director Profiles

The January/February issue of Shelterforce contains Part II of this report, which explores governance, resident participation, and building collaboratives in RCI and other CCIs.

This article series was supported with a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For more information about the AECF Rebuilding Communities Initiative, contact the foundation at: 70 St. Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202; 410-547-6600; https://www.aecf.org

Editor’s Note, 2021: Shelterforce revisited this story to see if or how things have changed since it was written. Find out what we learned here.


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