Community Development Initiatives Need a Strategy
Your leadership team has decided it wants to make a big impact on ‘the community.’ The project could range from launching a new financial education program to running a charitable drive for a local school. Whatever the scope, you want to help your corner of the world gain a better outcome. Your organization wants to do community development work.
However, it is far too easy to confuse a program or project that has an impact with a strategy. If you are doing this, you are far from alone. It happens frequently, in organizations of every size and structure. In the beginning, your organization is not concerned about strategic planning because you want to help. You saw a local need and decided to just do what needed to be done to address it.
But then you got deep into the work, and it became part of what your organization does. You are sustaining something you did not put much thought into because it was the right thing to do. (And let’s be honest, if you are a non-profit you may have been responding to a critical funding opportunity).
So now your organization is HERE: At STRATEGIC PLANNING time. Time to set the goals for next few years. It is not uncommon for organizations to develop a laundry list of projects and tasks without asking WHY and WHAT.
Yet the WHY and WHAT are particularly important when thinking about work designed to move people to a qualitatively better place in life.
Without a WHY and WHAT, you might just be throwing the proverbial spaghetti-at-the-wall.
Before we move on to the strategy, let’s recognize the term ‘community development’ can be very broad. It means different things to different people, depending on experiences. Acting on the term might result in business development and outreach, community organizing, or could land on urban planning and economic development.
For these purposes, the definition of community development means taking a hard look at the barriers to social and financial well-being faced by people, and applying a specific business model to address those issues. The term community development is used widely in the non-profit and government space, but may more commonly be called social impact in for-profit circles.
If you ask the hard questions and find you really do want to use your organization to help solve a big problem, your vision should be big. The problems are already big.
Then, you must acknowledge the paradox of working toward social change. Anyone can do community development work, but not everyone can do community development work. Both are concurrently true.
Anyone can do community development work.
No one owns the market on contributing to their community, or caring about the common good. Without networks of interconnected people who provide mutual aid and community care, there is no ‘community’ in the development work. It does not take any special training to help people through your organization. Many organizations volunteer to feed unhoused people, make charitable contributions, and host school supply drives on a regular basis. These actions drive goodwill and positively benefit individuals in a given community.
Community development or social impact be performed directly or indirectly. When an organization creates a product or service tailored toward a community that is underrepresented, they are taking a direct approach. An indirect example of this work is an organization that donates a percentage of each sale to a charity.
We learn by doing. People connect and perspectives shift when we connect with experiences and situations outside their comfort zone. If someone stays in community development long enough, they are very likely to build experiences that help them understand systemic barriers. Gatekeeping around who is qualified to advance change does not serve society. That isn’t to say there shouldn’t be accountability when someone walks into social change work with blind spots. But any person or organization that wants to engage in community development should be invited to participate. We all have expertise and networks we can contribute.
Not everyone can do community development work.
It is also completely possible to stumble into community development work with a savior complex. No one is exempt from a desire for bigger purpose. It is core to human nature. As a result, people often discover a social issue and think it is new because it is new to them. In the United States, social change happens through engagement with advocacy and policy; processes that can take years. Many people have already been in the arena fighting for a long time. Good community development work involves respect, listening, learning, humility, and a dose of patience.
Organizations breaking into the community development and social impact space should take time to consider where they can begin well, what they would like to build upon, and who they can learn from and support.
Community development is also a profession that practitioners spend decades learning. It has its own technicalities, jargon, networks, stakeholders, and acronyms. Federal and state policies determine many of the conditions and parameters for solving social problems. As a result, there are a plethora of abbreviations relevant to the field. These acronyms include: NMTC, LIHTC, HUD, CDFI, SBA, FHLB, CRA, CDBG, LMI, and many more. Community development has lanes such as non-profit financing, affordable housing development, urban planning, small business lending, digital equity, youth development, and microfinance. The complexities and agencies behind each require technical knowledge. Like in any field, people working in the industry have different areas of specialization.
If your organization does not have the internal expertise yet, look to approach experienced organizations as partners to learn from. If you want to deeply engage in community development, find budget or funding to do it right.
What might a strategy look like?
If your organization is setting out to engage in community development, it is time to start asking mission and vision questions again. It could shift your organization’s core mission and vision in unexpected ways. An integrated community development strategy will evolve organizational mission/vision because social change must become part of your culture. It will change what you choose to do.
In this process, some organizations might realize their core goal is community goodwill and positive brand reputation rather than societal transformation. It is ok to acknowledge this, but its best to be clear this is the objective. Charitable donations and volunteer programs then become the strategy under a marketing or branding pillar. You will be more likely to reach your desired outcome because you have clarity.
Good strategy begins with people and relationships. This will never change, no matter what technologies and policies emerge.
You will build a real strategy when the organization becomes deliberate about the intangible, complex, human problem it wants to address. Acknowledge whether you have a strategy yet or just a tactic.
In the United States, much social change is rooted in community organizing. This is the process of collective voice, of people power moving possibilities forward through policy.
Put in time and effort to understand policies, local government, corporate stakeholders, resources within a community, and social services and advocacy groups working on the problem. Listen your community’s lived perspective, engage your team’s collective knowledge, and aim high. When you take the time to do the pre-work, your organization will also discover its role in the ecosystem.
Strategy is the ‘north star’ or the big vision that encourages an organization to persevere. In community development, the vision is qualitative. Your organization needs one. Metrics are tactics. Stay human-centric to build an effective strategy.
Profound Hope Industries is a consulting agency dedicated to helping mission-based organizations (credit unions, CDFIs, non-profits, and social enterprises) build effective programs that engage their employees, have clear objectives, get funded and don’t overburden capacity. Learn more.