Building the Right Team and Relationships

Launching a Successful Community Development Initiative: Unit 1 – People

Several people in a meeting

Building communities takes more than simply assembling bricks and mortar, understanding the market and being able to read a financial statement. PEOPLE play a key role in developing a successful community development project and/or initiative. Residents and community groups who understand their neighborhood’s needs and have a stake in its success are an indispensable requirement for neighborhood transformation.

Community developers should seek to build relationships and expand their network with other organizations outside of their sectors. Today, funders are increasingly seeking to invest in projects with cross-sector collaborations using a holistic approach toward community development. In this unit, we will examine the first three of the core principles of successful community development finance—community engagement, leadership and collaboration. Keep in mind that there is no right order for these three principles to occur and there are resources available to help strengthen skills in these areas.

Community Engagement

Community engagement icon

An important element of community development begins with defining the unmet needs of a community. But it is at least equally important to engage residents and other community stakeholders in defining those unmet needs and developing solutions. Community engagement is a strong value and fundamental practice of neighborhood revitalization. The importance of engaging the community is grounded in the belief that the public has a right to participate and to articulate what their needs are. It is believed that by using our “collective intelligence” and working together, we will more accurately identify problems and develop more pragmatic and effective solutions. Community engagement is a type of public participation that involves people in problem-solving or decision-making processes. It is a multifaceted, ongoing process. When community stakeholders are engaged in the process of redevelopment or planning in the early stages of a project, it tends to result in a higher likelihood of community buy-in. Does your neighborhood have organizations that need capacity building in community engagement? Organizations such as NeighborWorks America, a national community development intermediary, offer training and certifications in this area. 

Just as there is no right order for the core principles of community engagement, leadership and collaboration to occur, there is also more than one way to apply these principles. Let’s examine a couple of different approaches to community engagement.

Asset-based community development (ABCD), introduced by John McKnight and John Kretzmann, is a strategy used to discover a community’s capacities and assets, and to mobilize those assets for community improvement. It is a strategy often deployed during the community engagement process. The ABCD process focuses on identifying the strengths of a community and on how to bring those strengths to bear in community improvement activities. ABCD upends the traditional process of community development by starting from the neighborhood’s assets—including resident skills and local institutional strengths—rather than its needs. The process then supports those assets to create a more sustainable and community-driven path to neighborhood change.

Remember, assets exist elsewhere in your community or are available to your community in many different forms. What are some examples of assets in your community?

Using the ABCD process with the specific intention to amplify a neighborhood’s strengths rather than focus on its deficits leads to more sustainable improvement because:

  • Community stakeholders are invested from the outset
  • Capacity is built within the community for current and future endeavors
  • Local interest provides momentum; local assets and abilities provide the fuel for sustained change and initiatives are more likely to take root

The nonprofit Rebuild Foundation in Chicago is one organization that employs intentional community engagement. With a mission to rebuild the cultural foundations of underinvested neighborhoods and incite movements of community revitalization that are culture-based, artist-led and neighborhood-driven, the foundation provides opportunities and spaces for neighbors to come together and engage in meaningful exchanges that spark collaborative action.

Deliberative Polling® (DP) is another approach to building community engagement. It was developed in 1988 by Professor James Fishkin of Stanford University as a way to use public opinion research in a new and constructive way, presenting polling results with a human face. The approach is often applied to civic engagement initiatives requiring the participation of informed, “ordinary” residents in the discussion of important issues; it has been conducted face-to-face and online in the U.S. and numerous countries around the world. DP is especially appropriate for issues where the public may have little knowledge or information, or where the public may have failed to confront the trade-offs applying to public policy.

The process begins by administering a questionnaire on specific issues to a random, representative sample of the community. After this initial poll, a sample of questionnaire respondents is invited to participate in the DP by attending a meeting to discuss these issues. Prior to the meeting, participants receive balanced briefing materials on the topics that will be discussed. At the gathering, they are assigned to small groups with trained moderators. Participants pose questions—chosen by the small groups—to experts and policymakers during plenary sessions. The meeting concludes with a final questionnaire capturing participants’ considered opinions. Results are analyzed and released to the media soon after the event.

For an example of DP at work, consider the Hard Times, Hard Choices program, a By the People civic engagement initiative launched by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, working in partnership with the Center for Deliberative Democracy (CDD) at Stanford University. In November 2009, a random, representative sample of over 300 Michigan residents engaged in a face-to-face statewide Deliberative Poll around critical issues related to the state’s economy and budget choices leading up to the 2010 election. The resulting changes of opinion revealed in the final survey offer some dramatic recommendations for both policymakers and the public.

These are just two examples of community engagement approaches. Which style of stakeholder participation would work best for your community initiative?


Leadership icon

Leadership is a critical element in garnering support for a community development project and is another core principle in successful community development finance. A strong leader is essential for seeing a project through to the end. In addition, when projects encounter challenges—as many inevitably do—those that successfully overcome them tend to have adaptive leaders who possess the appropriate skillset to address the challenges. A visionary who serves as the champion of a cause has the capacity to leverage interests across sectors. This individual does not necessarily have to be the leader of an organization and can represent any of these sectors—grassroots, faith-based, civic, politics or business. During challenging times, an effective leader provides motivation, commitment and tenacity to other stakeholders who may be discouraged due to setbacks. Effective leaders will provide the skills to motivate stakeholders to remain committed and focused. Before you look for partners for your specific initiative, be sure of what you bring to the table, know who you are and where you are going.

Is there a need to develop local leadership in your community? Most cities offer civic programs and have universities that will help develop local leadership. A good starting point for identifying these programs is to check with your local chamber of commerce.


Collaboration icon

In today’s world, resources—time, energy and money—are limited, valuable and carefully allocated. Addressing complex community development problems requires adaptive leadership, cross-sector problem-solving and, ultimately, strategic collaboration. That’s why collaboration is the third principle comprising the “people” component of successful community development team building.

As any community development veteran can affirm, you may encounter barriers to effective collaboration. However, these barriers can be overcome with effective strategies, proper planning and adaptability. Revitalization collaborations that combine an effective strategy with the efficient use of resources will be the most successful and most supported.

In recent years, new experimental and innovative strategies have emerged from the community development field to reduce persistent poverty and increase economic opportunity in LMI communities. The term “community quarterback” was introduced in Investing in What Works for America’s Communities: Essays on People, Purpose, and Place, a publication resulting from the partnership between the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF), supported by the Citi Foundation, and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. The role of community quarterback is to identify the organizations and individuals working in a particular community and bring them together to align objectives and coordinate efforts, creating a strong neighborhood and paths to economic opportunity. 

To fulfill this complex role, the community quarterback must:

  • Build a collaborative of cross-sector partners to support integration, coordination and ongoing communication
  • Facilitate the creation of a shared vision of significant improvement in key outcomes for residents
  • Develop a comprehensive strategy that integrates people- and place-based approaches
  • Build the necessary infrastructure and processes to provide the collaborative with timely, useful data to guide continuous assessment and improvement

With more than 50,000 copies of the book distributed, the overwhelming response to this concept encouraged the Citi Foundation and LIIF to address the challenge described in the publication and launch Partners in Progress, an initiative that funds community quarterbacks across the country.

Another key takeaway from Investing in What Works for America’s Communities is that, because intergenerational poverty has complex roots that span multiple sectors, efforts to fight poverty must be integrated across sectors. Today, it takes more than a single approach to affordable housing, high-quality education or access to health care and jobs to move families and communities out of poverty; it takes all of these factors, and they must be coordinated around shared goals. 

In addition, anti-poverty strategies now include people-based efforts (e.g., education, health care, workforce development) as well as place-based efforts (e.g., housing, transportation, community safety). By working together across sectors to achieve a common goal, partners are more effective than they would be separately—a concept known as collective impact.

As a model of cross-sector collaboration through a structured approach to defining a system, its networks and defined outcome metrics, the collective impact framework has delivered extraordinary early results to address a wide range of social changes, from education and health to homelessness and carbon emissions reduction. As the community development field recognizes the need to adopt a more comprehensive approach to tackle the complex and multifaceted nature of poverty, the collective impact framework and its principles may be an important method.

Two examples of successful (people-based and place-based) collective impact models follow:

  • Opportunity Chicago (the Initiative) was a pioneering attempt to help 5,000 public housing residents prepare for and find employment over five years. Founded in 2006 through the collaborative efforts of The Partnership for New Communities, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and the Department of Family and Support Services, the Initiative was launched in response to the Plan for Transformation (the Plan). Adopted by CHA in 2000, the Plan was a nationally unprecedented overhaul of Chicago’s public housing. The Initiative was designed as a cross-sector collaboration that strategically convened and leveraged resources. You can learn more about this initiative by searching the web for “Opportunity Chicago, Chicago Jobs Council."
  • Purpose Built Communities helps struggling communities implement a proven model to end poverty, substandard education, unemployment, health disparities and other challenges threatening urban neighborhoods. The Purpose Built model for holistic community revitalization was crafted from the successful transformation in the mid-1990s of a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden, failed public housing development in Atlanta, Ga. In its place now stands a thriving community with quality mixed-income housing, a top-rated charter school, 95 percent reduction in crime rates, and substantial investments in commercial and residential developments. The model is a three-pronged approach to change, all guided by the “community quarterback”: high-quality mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college education pipeline and community wellness programs.

Summing it Up

People Play an Integral Role in Successful Projects

Successful community development initiatives start with a foundation of strong teams, and those teams are built on the foundation of three core principles—community engagement, leadership and collaboration. Community engagement is important because it allows stakeholders to participate in identifying unmet needs and engage in finding potential solutions. Equally important is the need for leaders who serve both as champions of an initiative and as those who leverage ongoing support. Finally, we discussed the growing role of collaboration among sectors, especially as the number and complexity of strategic partners grows.

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