Working Through the Community
Hello, everybody -
Very belatedly, I'm joining the listserv conversation on community capacity-building and community planning. I hope that my thoughts are helpful even at this late date. I apologize for not being available earlier but.....
At CCC we've been involved with these issues for over three decades. Our basic work is technical assistance to grassroots community groups in low-income communities, particularly communities of color. Our goal is to help people build the power and capacity to change their communities for the better.
Over the years, we have been involved with all kinds of groups and initiatives in low-income communities. We work with neighborhood groups, tenant organizations, community development corporations, community-controlled social services providers, community organizing groups, community-based coalitions and alliances, community-controlled partnerships, and "comprehensive community initiatives" of the type which many foundations now support. It's tough work but we love it.
There are several important lessons from our work and the closely related experiences of others.
First, in order to change things in a low-income community, there has to be very serious community involvement. This depends upon the development of grassroots community organizations which have real ties to the community, strong and representative leadership, and the staff and resources to chart their own course. This requires an emphasis on community organizing and leadership development so that the group develops a growing number of committed, sophisticated, and representative leaders. Without such an emphasis, it is impossible to get substantial involvement of low-income people in planning, implementing programs, marshaling power to bring about change, or strengthening community institutions and the community fabric.
Second, such grassroots groups will grow far more rapidly in power and capacity if they have access to outside help and ideas. It is romantic and unfair to expect people to build groups without such help. Technical assistance focused on organizational development can help people progress much more rapidly in building effective organizations and finding practical solutions to the community's problems. Capacity-building advice and assistance can help groups: broaden their ties to the community through community organizing, develop their boards through outreach and leadership development, address management problems, develop a community plan, attract funding, strengthen their staff, etc. Outsiders can also introduce new ideas and programmatic options, challenge current priorities, stretch people's thinking about what is possible, link the group with peers from whom they can gain ideas and support, etc. Groups progress much more rapidly with access to this kind of counsel and experience. But the assistance must be based on a relationship of trust and mutual respect. It is therefore essential that the group (not the funder) choose who will provide it with advice and assistance.
Third, the key to effective capacity-building is to provide advice and assistance which is specifically tailored to the particular organization being assisted. TA must be customized to the particular group and must take into account the unique leadership, priorities, resources, organizational strengths and weaknesses, opportunities, barriers and other challenges which that group faces. This requires that the people providing the help be extremely good at sizing up the situation and building a relationship of trust with the local organization. The TA group must focus on the issue which preoccupies the local group even if it doesn't seem central to the outsider, because that issue provides the outsider with the opportunity to prove it is there to help the group meet its felt needs. If the TA provider is successful in helping on that issue, over time it will have the chance to build a working relationship which will enable it to tackle more controversial issues, including organizational weaknesses, and thus contribute more substantially to building the community group's capacity.
Fourth, I agree with Bonnie and Richard about collaboratives. Miriam Shark of Casey and others have pointed out how extraordinarily difficult it is to build effective collaboratives. Most effective partnerships come out of years of working together or a very strong sense of common interest. It is particularly difficult to create formal collaboratives bringing together low-income people, service providers, government officials, and the private sector as their interests are very different and often in conflict, and their experiences, cultures and styles vary dramatically. Another layer of complexity is added when the group trying to convene the collaborative is a funding source, as there will be a great temptation to collaborate at a superficial level in order to attract funding, leaving more fundamental issues unaddressed. When program officers speak off the record about their experience with their foundations' "comprehensive community initiatives", most admit that their collaboratives have great difficulty gaining serious representation from the low-income communities where they function, and that most have had little success in bringing about significant change.
An added difficulty in creating formal collaboration in low-income neighborhoods is that low-income people will feel powerless and marginalized when they sit at the table with people who represent powerful institutions and have more education, etc., unless they are organized themselves. It is essential that low-income people have their own organizations, their own experience in leadership positions and in representing the interests of others, or they will be silent or ineffective in collaborations.
Fifth, there are particular dilemmas in initiatives which are started by foundations or other outside sources of funding. I disagree with Carlos about program officers being in a good position to be neutral conveners. Prue Brown, former Deputy Director of Urban Poverty at Ford and now with Chapin Hall, wrote an excellent paper on the dilemmas program officers face because they control the funding. That paper pointed out how extraordinarily difficult it is to create a truly honest and candid relationship between a funder and groups which are unwilling to be candid because they are concerned about making sure they get the funding they want and need. Without candor, the dialogue and action are severely restricted. At CCC we find that we have the same problem whenever we control a large amount of funding for a group - their normal candor disappears when they become concerned about whether they are impressing us enough to get the money. When there is no money involved, our relationship is candid, the discussion is far deeper, and we are far more able to be helpful.
I'm looking forward to continuing the dialogue.