A practitioner's view on keeping the community in community development

March 2, 2015
By Dell Gines, Senior Community Development Advisor

The Kansas City Fed’s Dell Gines takes an insider's look at what he embraces as a "noble field."

Community development is a noble field. We are assigned the task of helping communities, and subsequently families and individuals, improve their quality of life by improving the economic and social conditions of their communities. One of the first recognized definitions of community development was presented in 1948 by the United Nations:

Community Development is a process designed to create conditions of economic and social progress for the whole community with its active participation and fullest possible reliance upon the community's initiative.

Essential to this definition is “participation.” Nor is it just any type of participation—it’s active participation. Also essential to this definition is the “fullest possible reliance upon community initiative.”  Again, this definition holds that it is not just reliance, but the “fullest” possible reliance. 

As someone who has worked more than half of my life in community development, I am concerned that we are increasingly eliminating the community from community development work. A field that initially relied on the community as the primary agent of action and change has moved toward almost exclusive reliance on philanthropy and nonprofit or government agencies as a primary agent of change. 

Community development, in many ways, has morphed from a people-based field that empowered individuals and community to one based on “transactions.” A transaction occurs when an authority or organization connects with a philanthropist or grantor and they form an agreement to address a community issue. This service-delivery model of community development looks at the community as a consumer of services provided by the beneficence of the funding community and organization. 

There are benefits to this model, such as the capacity to control and measure expenses, the ability to create clear intellectual capital in targeted development areas, and the short-run ability to direct resources to specific issues. It is my belief, however, that this model offers more long-run challenges than short-run benefits.   

One major challenge of the modern transaction model is that it disconnects the community from community development. If we hold that the United Nations definition is true, modern community development in many ways eliminates both active participation and the fullest possible reliance on the community. I would argue that this in turn disempowers the community and puts community development in an unwinnable position.

This transaction model is unwinnable because there will never be enough funding, technical or knowledge-based experts, nor philanthropic or community will to address all the challenges in the communities we serve. At most, we will create change on the margins in most of the communities; other communities will not have the social and economic growth to achieve the goal of community development. 

In my opinion, we have to create a better balance in the field of community development. We have to restore the role of the community. This requires us to look at models that are empowering at the local level and that bring a diversity of local thought into the problem and solution conversation. We also must look at models that provide financial support to emerging local groups that are working to grow their communities but as yet don’t have that “best practice” in place.

Bringing community back into community development allows us to create synergy that can only occur when the economic and intellectual resources of funders and support organizations are combined with the passion and understanding provided by the local community.

This in turn will create extensive, broad-based change that promotes stability and empowers improvement in the social and economic conditions of the communities we serve. Isn’t that our noble goal?