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Picture of Prudence Brown
Prudence Brown

Prudence Brown is a Research Fellow at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago where she works in the Program on Philanthropy and Community Change. Her work focuses on the documentation and evaluation of community change initiatives, new approaches to learning from and providing assistance to these initiatives, and the role of philanthropy in community change. Prior to joining Chapin Hall, she was Deputy Director of the Urban Poverty Program at the Ford Foundation.

Q: What challenges do comprehensive community initiatives (a.k.a. community-building initiatives) present to those who design, implement, and evaluate them?

A: Among the most significant challenges is that we have very little impact data to answer the question of whether comprehensive community initiatives1 are effectively revitalizing distressed communities. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is due to the complexity of evaluating these initiatives and the second is related to the design of the initiatives themselves.

On the evaluation side, we know that traditional evaluation methods are not well suited to capture the breadth and complexity of evolving community change initiatives. We have done some initial work on alternative approaches using, for example, a theory of change framework. Another positive is that new community statistical systems and geocoding technologies have made it possible for community change initiatives to use demographic and administrative data to guide local strategy development and tracking. But we have yet to invest the kind of sustained resources needed to use these new measurement tools and test these alternative evaluation approaches over the life of an initiative. So we continue to struggle—with limited success—with problems of measurement and attribution, trying to causally relate specific initiative components to the range of outcomes they are meant to produce. I don’t think we should give up on this struggle, but I would like to see a greater commitment to a broader learning agenda, which would have an immediate benefit to those working to create community change.

On the program side, organizers of comprehensive community initiatives often face significant implementation problems because they underestimate their resources, capacity, time, and political will. This makes it very difficult to distinguish the strength of the driving ideas from the success or failure of their implementation. When you compound the problems of weak theories and unrealistic expectations with insufficient resources and lack of implementation capacity, it is not surprising that we are not learning as much as we should from current work on the ground.

Q: How are comprehensive community initiatives changing as a result of these challenges?

A: I worry that community initiatives are being scaled back due to disappointment in their outcomes, rather than addressing the need to match time and investment with the desired outcomes. I’m not opposed to wild ambition and far-reaching goals. People involved in these initiatives tend to be deeply committed to social justice and poverty alleviation and they know that a powerful vision can help them stay the course. And funders and organizers find that ambitious goals and bold actions can galvanize support for an initiative in the boardroom and on the street. But translating vision into action requires discipline, clarity, and a realistic assessment of what can be accomplished within a specified time period. We know that significant neighborhood change typically takes decades rather than years so we have to be willing to make that kind of sustained investment or live with more modest goals.

The fact that community change work is more complex and longer-term than was perhaps initially anticipated has led some funders to rethink their own roles and become more strategic about aligning their goals and strategies.2 This means disciplining strategy with theory-based logic, improving understanding of community history and context before taking any action, and investing more in long-term community capacity in recognition that the most pervasive and sustainable changes stem from a community’s ability to envision, develop, and lead its own solutions. Funders may also have to shape a role for themselves that goes beyond grantmaking to leverage their clout, credibility, and institutional resources on behalf of community change.

Q: What are the primary lessons that designers and stakeholders of comprehensive community initiatives ought to apply?

A: Much of the work reflecting on the ongoing experience with comprehensive community initiatives culminated in the Aspen Institute’s Voices From the Field II: Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change, developed by the Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Children and Families.3 That exercise was useful for bringing together different kinds of players—from communities, from the evaluation field, and others—to ask, “What lessons do we draw?” Many of those lessons relate to the importance of sound theory and coherent strategy and the processes for developing them. Voices From the Field II also underscored the need for investment in both the internal capacities of communities and their connections with outside political, economic, and social resources and forces.

As Voices From the Field II suggests, theory should not be an abstraction, but rather a concrete statement of plausible, testable pathways of change. At every level of a community change effort people should be able to articulate in very simple terms where they want to go, what they are doing that will get them there, and how they know they are moving in the right direction. This is the first building block for good practice. It allows initiative organizers to learn and make adjustments, to compare what is actually happening on the ground with what they thought would happen, and to understand the factors that may be causing any discrepancy. At this point in the field’s development, I would be very happy if all community change initiatives had this infrastructure for learning embedded in their ongoing practice. Evaluation goals and methods can be built on this foundation. But if you don’t have these basic mechanisms in place, systematic learning and evaluation are very difficult.

While there is increasing attention to the process of developing theory, strategy, and benchmarks, community-based groups typically have so few resources and so little management capacity that they often generate lists of benchmarks and outcomes for a proposal, but then put them aside and do not make them part of ongoing practice. When it is time to write the renewal proposal they bring out the lists and rework them, but this process does not create vehicles for learning and self-assessment as an end in itself—an important contributor to long-term impact.

Both this self-assessment process as well as broader learning can be facilitated by a coach.4 The role of this person is to observe funders and communities, ask them questions about strategy, help them clarify their choices, and recognize and work through fundamental tensions. The purpose of this technical assistance is to institutionalize a learning culture that involves continual dialogue, reflection, and experimentation, and places a high value on learning from what is and is not working. A coach is often able, for example, to see more clearly than either the funder or the community change agents when there is initiative “drift” or a disconnect between the vision behind the initiative and the action on the ground. A real commitment to learning requires that this disconnect be examined in an open and honest manner. Sometimes an evaluator can play this role, but often it requires a learning coach who has no other function except to help create a safe and productive space in which to provoke critical thinking, encourage accountability, and generate learning. Aggregating this kind of learning across initiatives has a lot of promise to make all of our work in this field more effective.

1 The author uses the term “comprehensive community initiatives” to identify initiatives that are based on two core principles: (1) comprehensiveness (recognition and response to the linked nature of community circumstances) and (2) community-building (recognition of the value of strengthening neighborhood capacity to foster and sustain changes in community circumstances).
2 For a more extended discussion of these issues, see Brown, P. Chaskin, R. Hamilton, R., & Richman, H. (2003). Toward greater effectiveness in community change: Challenges and responses for philanthropy. Chicago: Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago. Also available this fall in Practice matters: The improving philanthropy project at
3 Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Children and Families, Author. (2002). Voices from the field II: Reflections on comprehensive community change. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute.
4 See Brown, P., Hirota, J., & Pitt, J. (2000). New approaches to technical assistance: The role of the coach. Community: A Journal of Community Building for Community Leaders, 3(1), 20–27.

Marielle Bohan-Baker, Research Associate, HFRP

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