Core principles of community building

Community building — the process of strengthening the ability of neighborhood residents, organizations, and institutions to foster and sustain neighborhood change, both individually and collectively — is vital to the work of Comprehensive Community Initiatives and many other community-change efforts. The belief that community residents can be agents of change, rather than just beneficiaries or clients, is probably the quality that most distinguishes community building from traditional programs and activities.

Practitioners believe that community building is a democratic process and that the people who are most affected by what happens in a community have the right to be included in discussions and decisions about what and how things should be done. This dimension of the work often is what truly motivates leaders, staff, and residents as they carry out their daily activities. It underscores the values of equity, self-determination, social justice, and respect for diversity that they believe are fundamental to healthy communities.

The community-building principle also recognizes that strong communities are built on the strengths of their residents and the relationships among them. The isolation of poor neighborhoods can undermine residents’ emotional, psychological, and social supports and sap the energy and the will they need to produce changes. Community building tries to weave or repair the social fabric of a neighborhood by expanding and strengthening informal ties among residents. It also aims to link community members with supportive individuals, organizations, and resources outside the neighborhood.

Community building, as the name suggests, is an ongoing process. In the words of one funder, “Is there such a thing as a ‘built’ community? I don’t think so. There’s always room for improvement.” The goal is to put in place the will, resources, and capacity needed to sustain local improvement beyond the life of an initiative.


Although successful Community Development Corporations and other community-based organizations began putting the philosophy into practice well before it went by the name “community building,” CCIs played a pivotal role in placing the principle front and center, backing it with financial and technical resources, finding ways to implement it, and attempting to measure it. Community building’s position within recent community-change initiatives spans the spectrum from being a means to an end to being the end itself.

Community building as a means to an end

Some CCIs undertake community building as a means for reaching or enhancing programmatic goals (e.g., increasing employment, building better housing, improving health outcomes). From the perspective of these practitioners, community building is one of many instruments for change—something that occurs in the service of the initiative. According to one CCI director, “Community building must be done around real projects designed to revitalize the neighborhood in response to the needs and issues articulated by the community. It’s not just a matter of holding meetings. It must be outcomes oriented … it must be intertwined with programs. It’s not an approach by itself: it feeds on and is fed by outcome-oriented projects”.

Advocates of this view are sometimes impatient with the process oriented, “touchy-feely” community builders who, they believe, are lax about linking the work to outcomes. As a representative from one neighborhood-based employment effort explained, “If we find out that the neighborhood residents didn’t get jobs, we will not have succeeded. If we find out that they increased their self-esteem but didn’t get jobs, we just won’t accept that.”

Community building as an end in itself

Other practitioners believe that community building is an end in itself, a goal to pursue. Their initiatives use community building to drive all strategic decisions, and they assume that community-building outcomes—resident leadership, social capital, and neighborhood empowerment—are both valuable in their own right and essential for producing other types of change. People who subscribe to this view would argue that a community improvement effort that builds housing or increases employment but does not engage or empower residents is not successful.


The practitioners and stakeholders interviewed for this book identified the following themes of community building.

Community building is an overarching conceptual framework, not a program or technique.

Community building is variously described as a principle, framework, approach, or set of values that can and should underlie all community change work. Community building is not so much what is done to improve neighborhoods but rather how the work is done. It emphasizes community input and self-determination, attention to justice and equity, development of skills and knowledge, and connections among people and organizations.

Evidence that a community-building approach exists, therefore, comes from the qualitative aspects of activities. For example, a staff member who views his or her work through a community-building lens becomes more attentive to cultural differences among program participants and more appreciative of clients’ strengths and assets. At the organizational level, governance structures encourage residents to serve as staff or board members. At the community level, the initiative’s structure emphasizes broad-based local planning and collaboration among groups.

Community building is not an abstract concept; it contains concrete elements.

Based largely on the experiences of the last decade, practitioners and other change agents have defined community building as encompassing the following core activities:

  • Building the knowledge and abilities of individuals, through leadership training, services and supports, skills development, and employment
  • Creating relationships among residents through which they share emotional, psychological, and material support and can mobilize for collective action
  • Strengthening community institutions—from formal public institutions and private enterprises to informal networks, associations, and religious, civic, or cultural groups—so they can respond to local concerns and promote general well-being
  • Creating links between institutions so they can work collectively to improve the community

Recent community-change efforts have made these activities concrete in two ways. First, they have increased the quantity and quality of supports by funding new and better services, programs, and organizational development, often by appropriating good practices from other fields. Second, they have built individual and institutional abilities, created interpersonal relationships, and strengthened ties across stakeholder groups. For CCIs, these outcomes are the result of carrying out the initiative’s core elements: developing a vision, articulating goals, creating a work plan, performing the work, and assessing achievements.

Resident engagement promotes trust and legitimacy.

From the outset, CCIs face a fundamental dilemma: The change process is meant to be of, by, and for the community, but initiatives typically are launched by people and institutions outside the community. The challenge for externally triggered initiatives is to create a process that is viewed as legitimate, trustworthy, and responsive to community concerns.

Bringing residents and community groups into an initiative and preparing them to lead the change process helps to make a CCI’s efforts legitimate, both within and outside the neighborhood. As one resident noted, “Residents sell programs to other residents because of the trust factor … Lack of engagement creates a bunch of underutilized programs.”

Resident involvement also gives CCIs access to information about the community’s needs, strengths, and internal dynamics—what one observer called “real, lived experience.” That information, which otherwise might not be available to outsiders, is invaluable for strategic planning and program development.

Resident engagement is crucial, but not all the time or in every aspect of the work.

Most stakeholders agree it is vitally important to have residents participate in program planning, design, governance, and oversight. In fact, resident membership on governing boards has been a hallmark of CCIs since their inception, and it is typically mandated in the initiative’s design.

After more than a decade of experience, however, some practitioners conclude that not all aspects of community building require continuous investment by residents all of the time, especially the more operational and technical dimensions of the work. In the words of one funder,”It’s a technical process of taking people from the broad vision to the strategies for getting there, to the point of getting concrete about what the outcomes need to be. Who can do it? You need a savvy staff with very good consultants to do it. You can’t train the staff and the community at the same time. You need the staff to do the technical plan, and they can do it without undermining the capacity-building process. Why make them [residents] muddle through when we have the tools to move it faster? We can do it in a respectful way”.

It takes continuous effort and a deliberate focus to involve residents. It also takes a considerable investment of time and funding and a commitment to holding other stakeholders responsible for supporting residents in meaningful roles. Experience from many initiatives suggests that resident engagement often cycles up and down, with periods of high involvement followed by a lull in which activities are more staff-driven.

Community-building approaches have strengthened neighborhood leadership, connections among residents, and organizations’ capacities and connections, but the link between those assets and improved community-level outcomes is not well documented.

Evaluations of CCIs and related initiatives demonstrate that new leaders have emerged, new relationships have formed among individuals, participating organizations have become stronger, and various kinds of community collaboration have occurred. Evaluations of CCIs do not yet demonstrate that these changes lead to broader community well-being across a range of indicators. Nonetheless, practitioners hold deep convictions that these community-building activities matter, and they support their view with case studies and anecdotal evidence. There is a limited body of research that suggests that there are correlations between desired community-building outcomes, such as social capital, and improved neighborhood conditions. However, most evaluations have not directly measured the effects of community building or its impact on social and economic progress in neighborhoods.

Excerpts from Voices From the Field II: Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change, by Anne C. Kubisch, Patricia Auspos, Prudence Brown, Robert Chaskin, Karen Fulbright-Anderson, and Ralph Hamilton. Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute.

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