Voices from the Field LEARNING

CCI Goals, Principles, and Operational Strategies

In recent years, funders, policy makers, and program designers have been exploring a range of approaches to revitalizing distressed neighborhoods. One important branch of these efforts is known in the field as “comprehensive community initiatives,” or CCIs. They are neighborhood-based efforts that seek to improve the lives of individuals and families, as well as the conditions of the neighborhoods in which they reside, by working comprehensively across social, economic, and physical sectors. They are based upon the concept of “community building” and are structured to promote individual and community empowerment. Beginning with a handful of nascent initiatives in the late 1980s, foundation-funded CCIs now number close to fifty. Government is also increasingly involved in comparable efforts, including the federal empowerment zones and a variety of city- and state-driven initiatives. This growing number of CCIs and similar endeavors suggests that the principles that underlie CCIs will continue to guide many aspects of current and future anti-poverty activities.

The CCI movement is, in part, a reaction against recent practice in the social welfare and economic development fields and, in part, a reformulation of earlier approaches. As a reaction against past practice, CCIs seek to replace piecemeal, categorical approaches with “comprehensive” efforts that cross sectoral and programmatic boundaries and attempt to build on the interconnections among economic, social, and physical needs and opportunities. As a reformulation of earlier approaches, CCIs build on the conceptual foundations of community development theory and practice that are represented by the Gray Areas Program, the Community Action Program, the Community Development Corporation movement, and related efforts. They employ the lessons from those experiences not so much as “models” for action but as a set of basic guiding concepts—including comprehensiveness, coordination, collaboration, and community participation and empowerment—and then use a wide range of organizational and programmatic strategies to promote positive community change.

While the individual efforts that constitute the field of comprehensive community-based initiatives differ significantly in structure and in the programs they put into place, they hold in common a set of fundamental goals, they are guided by a shared set of general principles, and they encounter similar operational needs and challenges. The abstract model visualized here provides a way to sort through the tangled on-the-ground implementation and operational dynamics of CCIs.

The Interplay
of Goals, Principles,
Operations and
  • Individual/Family Change
  • Neighborhood Change
  • Systems Change



  • Comprehensiveness
  • Community Building



    Operational Strategies
  • Governance
  • Funding
  • Staffing
  • Technical Assistance
  • Evaluation



  • Social Support
  • Education/Training
  • Economic Development
  • Physical Revitalization
  • Quality-of-Life
  • Fundamental Goals of CCIs

    Comprehensive community-based initiatives are defined in part by the ambitious goals they set for themselves. These goals go well beyond the remediation of particular problems, such as teenage pregnancy or insufficient income, or the development of particular assets, such as housing stock or new social services. CCIs attempt instead to foster a fundamental transformation of poor neighborhoods and to catalyze a process of sustained improvement in the circumstances and opportunities of individuals and families in those neighborhoods. They seek, furthermore, to change the nature of the relationship between the neighborhood and the systems outside its boundaries by ensuring that change is locally grounded but also draws upon external sources of knowledge and resources. Thus, CCIs set out to promote change at three levels: the individual or family, the neighborhood, and the broader, or system-level, context.

    Change at the Individual and Family Levels

    CCIs seek to build capacity and improve the quality of life of individual neighborhood residents and their families. They aim to increase both the quality and quantity of activities designed to improve educational outcomes, employment, and the health and well-being of neighborhood residents. At the same time, CCIs place priority on strengthening the personal, political, or “process” skills that enable people to motivate and lead their peers. They recognize that their neighborhoods need both types of individual development, and deliberately build both into the agenda.

    Neighborhood-Level Change

    CCIs are concerned with the accessibility and quality of social support, economic opportunity, and physical infrastructure within the target neighborhood. This generally encompasses efforts to improve or increase the housing stock, neighborhood infrastructure, the business/commercial sector, education and training institutions, the social and civic support network, cultural vitality, and other quality-of-life activities. By and large, the strategies that CCIs pursue focus on building the capacity of existing local institutions responsible for these aspects of neighborhood life, or supporting the creation of new organizations to do so. CCIs are also concerned with the qualities of collective life provided through community attributes such as strong personal networks, “social capital,” and a “sense of community,” as well as the neighborhood’s capacity to handle conflict, solve problems, and/or express its voice and represent its interests in the larger economic and political arena. By definition, these are qualities of neighborhoods, and the unit of analysis is the collective, not the individual.

    Systems-Level Change

    Change within a broader context is often necessary in order to create individual and neighborhood change that is holistic and sustainable. CCIs explicitly seek to improve the quantity and quality of services and other investments provided by outside systems (including social services, schools, the judicial system, commercial activity, and private sector investment) and to increase access for neighborhood residents to the structure of opportunity that exists at the municipal or regional level. This often involves a political empowerment agenda for the neighborhood that includes community organizing, better representation of neighborhood interests in city-level decision-making forums, or gaining commitments for improved corporate responsibility toward the neighborhood.

    Central Principles of CCIs

    CCIs hold in common a set of principles that guide their creation and unfolding. The two central principles, under which other basic convictions are subsumed, are comprehensiveness and community building.


    The principle of comprehensiveness addresses the full range of circumstances, opportunities, and needs of individuals and families living in CCI neighborhoods and the relationships among them. Their interrelationship argues against categorical approaches that focus on discrete problems or opportunities in isolation from other facets of life. A focus on the creation of jobs in a given neighborhood, for example, without taking into account residents’ educational circumstances, or their need for supports such as child care, transportation, and training, would be limited both in vision and in potential benefits. The principle of comprehensiveness calls for constant consideration of systemic connections among issues.

    Most CCIs give attention to the following goals, in principle if not yet in action, and aim to achieve synergy among them. Some of the activities that CCIs take on in pursuit of those goals are also listed:

    The charge to think comprehensively is normally interpreted as working across these various sectors. CCIs aim to recognize and reinforce positive connections among them in order to enhance chances for improving outcomes.

    Community Building

    The principle of community building is explicitly stated in the charge of most initiatives and implicit in both the mission and approach of all CCIs. Fundamentally, community building has to do with strengthening the capacity of neighborhood residents, associations, and organizations to work, individually and collectively, to foster and sustain positive neighborhood change. For individuals, community building focuses on enhancing the capacity of neighborhood residents to access resources and effect change in their lives through a range of mechanisms, with leadership development often playing a central role. At the associational level, community building focuses on the nature, strength, and scope of relationships (both affective and instrumental) among individuals within the neighborhood and, through them, connections to networks of association beyond the neighborhood. These are ties of kinship, acquaintance, or other more formal means through which information, resources, and assistance can be delivered. Finally, for organizations, community building centers on developing the capacity of formal and informal institutions within the neighborhood to provide goods and services effectively, and on the relationships among organizations both within and beyond the neighborhood to maximize resources and coordinate strategies for neighborhood improvement.

    CCIs aim to be effective vehicles for building capacity among residents, among neighborhood associations or networks, and among formal neighborhood institutions. They view residents and local institutions as agents of change rather than as beneficiaries or clients. CCIs, therefore, are as much about how neighborhood transformation occurs as they are about putting into place a comprehensive set of programs that might produce that transformation. All CCI participants, in one way or another, emphasize that creating connections among people and among institutions is a core theme, or even the core theme, of their efforts.

    Operational Strategies

    To translate these principles into action that can foster broad neighborhood change, CCIs make strategic choices that are reflected in their structures and operations. These strategies are manifest in various aspects of CCIs, including governance, funding, staffing, technical assistance, evaluation, and program development.


    In many ways, governance is the key operational dimension of CCIs and the one through which the other operating strategies are negotiated and played out. It concerns the creation of mechanisms to guide planning, decision making, and implementation, as well as to locate accountability and responsibility for action undertaken.

    Because the change strategies represented by CCIs are formulated as initiatives that seek to engage in comprehensive action, the functions of governance—participation, planning, decision making, oversight, program implementation—tend to be formalized. This may take shape in a nonprofit entity newly created for the purpose of initiative governance. Alternatively, the governance function may be assumed by a collaboration among individuals or among institutions, usually but not always allied with an established organization such as a community foundation or a community development corporation. Almost invariably, however, these initiative governance structures are designed to include in their membership a diverse body of “stakeholders,” including neighborhood residents, local business owners and civic leaders, representatives of various community-based organizations, members of public-sector agencies including city government officials, and members of the private and nonprofit sectors in the broader community. Often in a single initiative, there are several layers of governance that structure the roles of local and non-local participants, including funders, staff, technical assistance providers and consultants, and evaluators.

    Governance is thus both structure and process: it attempts to operationalize the central principles of comprehensiveness and community building through the organized engagement of a range of participants both within and beyond the target neighborhood. Comprehensiveness is addressed by assembling participants with different experiences, different fields of expertise, and different access to resources who, through interaction and common endeavor, might overcome categorical boundaries. Similarly, the very process of community building is accomplished, in part, as a result of initiative governance because a variety of “stakeholders”—from neighborhood residents to city leaders—become engaged in neighborhood transformation in a formalized way.


    CCIs are generally foundation-sponsored initiatives. Grant funds are meant to be flexible and responsive to the priorities established by the local governance structure. Generally, however, CCI funds are not used to cover ongoing program costs, but are used instead for planning and management, capacity building, seed funding for new activities, and the like. CCI funds are not meant to replace major public-sector funding streams such as education or safety or private-sector investment, but rather to help ensure that those dollars are used as effectively as possible and to leverage increased financial flows into the neighborhood.


    Most neighborhood initiatives rely to a large extent on a core staff person who, as project director or coordinator, facilitates the planning process and takes responsibility for moving from planning to action. In some CCIs, additional staff provide administrative assistance or manage individual activities, such as community organizing or specific CCI projects. As the complement of staff in an initiative grows, CCIs generally place high priority on recruiting from the neighborhood itself.

    The staff may be located in a “neutral” organization, such as a local intermediary or a community foundation, in a newly created organization or collaborative structure, or in a specially created slot within an existing neighborhood entity such as a community development corporation. Regardless of where staff members are based, they are generally accountable to the wide range of CCI stakeholders.

    Technical Assistance

    The provision of technical assistance in CCIs takes several forms and is meant to serve several functions. Technical assistance may be provided centrally by a funder or it may be sought by the CCI governance entity and other participants. It may be furnished by one or multiple providers. It may focus on process issues (such as governance, board development, strategic planning) or programmatic issues (such as service provision, land use, financial instruments). Technical assistance providers may be used as supplementary staff to get concrete work done or they may be asked to promote long-term capacity building by focusing on the transference of skills and knowledge to neighborhood residents or organizations. Each of these choices may support or complicate adherence to the principles that guide CCIs, and may have a significant impact on the structure, processes, and outcomes of a given initiative.


    Evaluation in CCIs generally serves at least four functions, any one of which might be more or less emphasized depending on the particular initiative, its developmental stage, and its funder. First, evaluation can be formative, providing feedback to various initiative stakeholders, such as funders, staff, or residents. Because CCIs are generally recognized to be learning enterprises, formative evaluation is often given high priority. Second, evaluation might be more summative, seeking to provide evidence of ultimate or periodic progress after a given period of time. Third, CCI evaluation might serve a “social learning” function, attempting to draw out generalizable lessons for policy and for future research and experimentation. Finally, CCI evaluation can promote the community capacity building and empowerment agenda of an initiative, especially if evaluation tools such as theory specification, data collection, and information analysis are in the hands of the residents or community institutions.

    Evaluation may be provided—or imposed—by funders or sought out by local participants; it may work with or separately from other institutional support components such as staff, technical assistance, and funding; it may engage participants to varying degrees in design, implementation, and analysis. As with technical assistance, these choices relate differently to the principles that guide CCIs, and they may affect both ongoing implementation of and ultimate learning from a given initiative.

    Program Development

    Given the broad goals of CCIs and the broadly stated principles of comprehensiveness and community building, the scope, direction, and intent of programs developed under the initiatives are virtually unconstrained. They often cover a wide range of functional areas and seek a wide range of outcomes. The set of programmatic choices made by a CCI less often constitute a coherent approach in themselves than an effort to enhance, build on, and support programmatic activity already in existence. Thus, programmatically, CCIs seek to fill gaps, connect resources and activities, build capacity, and organize constituent elements of the communities in which they work.

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