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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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Heather Weiss

This is the first of two newsletters about the evaluation of community-based initiatives (CBIs), sometimes known as comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs) or community-building initiatives. The number of these initiatives has grown rapidly since the 1980s. They are part of a trend to provide more comprehensive services for children and families, especially economically disadvantaged ones, and to integrate more fully housing and economic development with family support services in neighborhoods and communities.

There is no such thing as a “typical” CBI. Almost all CBIs have developed place-based strategies to build on community assets, needs, and goals; to incorporate local participation and leadership; and to increase collaboration among social agencies to benefit residents. Services offered by various CBIs include: expansion and improvement of social services and supports, such as child care and youth development; health care, including mental health care; economic development; housing rehabilitation and/or construction; community planning and organizing; job training; and quality-of-life activities. However, their mix of services, as well as their structures and funding sources, varies enormously.

This issue provides a broad overview of the status of evaluations of CBIs and begins an ongoing dialogue among practitioners, evaluators, and funders about how to address the challenges involved in evaluating them. As the perspectives of CBI leaders are both critically important and infrequently heard, we begin the dialogue with a Theory & Practice article drawn from focus groups composed of the executive directors of five complex CBIs. They note that typically, episodic and categorical funding makes it difficult either to assess the effectiveness of their comprehensive services or to build the capacity for ongoing assessment and learning in their rapidly evolving organizations. The directors also surface tensions around the role of the community in the evaluation of CBIs and challenge funders and evaluators to develop and try out approaches that centrally involve community members in defining problems and using information to create and test solutions.

To open our discussion about the question of what CBIs can reasonably be expected to accomplish for disadvantaged individuals and communities, we asked Professor Gary Orfield, Director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, to examine these in relation to other antipoverty efforts. His cautions about the limits of local solutions to large, structural economic problems may help CBIs avoid over-promising about the employment and self-sufficiency outcomes they can deliver without more nationwide attention to job creation and employment policy. He also suggests strategies that will arguably enable families to stay in and help build their communities.

Given the apparent lack of a map of contemporary CBI evaluation efforts and the fact that many are in their early stages, we decided it would be more helpful to present a chart of ongoing evaluations rather than profile one or two as we usually do in the Evaluations to Watch section. While the chart is not exhaustive, it examines twenty of the major efforts underway and illustrates the wide array of approaches and methods currently used by evaluators.

Challenged by the nature and complexity of CBIs, evaluators are both trying new approaches and applying established methods in innovative ways. In our Promising Methodologies section, we describe four of these. Each is accompanied by an example of its current use with a CBI, as well as by suggestions for further reading.

With this issue, we introduce a new section entitled Spotlight. It will update our readers about new research on themes or issues discussed in the current or in previous newsletters. This first Spotlight draws from Harvard Family Research Project's Outcomes Evaluation Database. It summarizes the long-term evidence about a type of program increasingly included as a component of CBIs: two-generational interventions aimed at improving child development, parenting, and family economic self-sufficiency.

In 1997 we will devote a second issue to CBIs (Vol. III, No. 3). This will present the perspectives of funders and evaluators. As always, we invite you to submit summaries of your own work, suggestions for books, articles, or evaluations to be reviewed, additions to the chart of CBI evaluations, and ideas about issues that would benefit from a public discussion within the newsletter. The deadline for submissions is July 15, 1997.

Finally, we would like to thank Sybilla Dorros, our departing editor, for editing this issue and Louise Wills, our publications intern, for producing it.

Once again, thank you for making this a truly interactive newsletter.

Heather B. Weiss, Ed.D.
Founder & Director
Harvard Family Research Project

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project