Reconsidering Traditional Community Development

April 30, 2015
By Dell Gines, Senior Community Development Advisor


The mission of community development is to help 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.

Designing programs that generate high engagement from community participants through traditional community development is challenging and rewarding. It is challenging because many current development models stray from community engagement and instead are based on a service delivery. For example, a nonprofit organization acquires a grant to provide a specific program or service. The program’s effectiveness may be evaluated by the number of participants who used the service and ultimately its effect on the condition it is trying to address. In this model, the community is viewed more as a client or customer.

There are some benefits to this modern model of community development. It is easier to identify tasks and roles. Organizations understand their role in delivering the service, philanthropists understand their role in funding the program and the community understands its role as client or customer. It is often a linear process that is fairly transparent and easy to understand.

On the other hand, traditional community development focuses on local community engagement and empowerment. Initially, it often is neither transparent nor linear. These models require a large investment of time to build networks, build trust and mutually create and clarify roles and outcomes. Organizations and philanthropists supporting these models need to understand the time required to create engagement; it cannot be accomplished overnight. Developers must learn to share power and control and embrace dramatically alternative viewpoints and behaviors offered by individuals and the community.

Executed effectively, traditional community development models can be rewarding and, most importantly, effective. Many problems faced by some of the most challenged communities are known as “wicked problems.” The term defines extremely complex, multifaceted problems. For example, poverty has many intertwined threads such as education, culture and the local economy. It is difficult to address such a complex problem by focusing only on one thread.

The benefit of traditional community development models is the creation of a holistic approach, one that engages and empowers the community by including it in the process of creation, implementation and management. In addition to this expanded view of how to address a challenge, the work of more stakeholders is brought to bear on the challenge. Finally, traditional community development provides ownership in the process, making it more durable and sustainable.

As traditional models of community development are re-emerging, there also is more research on the effectiveness of these models. Research shows these models improve local relationships. They also lead to stronger outcomes with higher local participation and partnerships between nonprofits and communities and they increase community support of policies and program initiatives.

As new programs and initiatives are designed to help improve local communities, identifying ways to engage and empower a targeted community of service may be a useful strategy to consider.

Learn more about grassroots community development through the Econ Avenue project.