Voices from the Field LEARNING
EARLY WORK OF
Getting Started: Findings from CCI Practice
Lessons for Operations
Governance and Establishing an Institutional Base
Across various groups of actors in CCIs, there is agreement about the need to develop a local governance mechanism to carry out a CCI. The form that it takes, however, can vary tremendously according to local circumstances.
The complex nature of the CCI enterprise places special demands on whatever governance structure is put into place for planning and implementing the initiative. In the critical early stages of a CCI, the question of instrumentality tends to focus around the choice of working through an existing organization, or "lead agency," such as a community development corporation or a service agency, or creating a new mechanism such as a collaborative board or coalition.
One side of the argument suggests that working through a strong existing organization in the neighborhood, with a professional staff and the best technical assistance that foundation money can buy, is the most strategic and effective way to ensure improvements in individual and community circumstances. In the words of one observer: "The anointing of that lead organization may be despotic and autocratic but it is also effective." For example, there are many people who see CDCs as experienced and "pragmatic" organizations that already have the ability to work effectively at the neighborhood level, can "set up very practical governing structures," and know how to get "the important players to the table." As one observer notes, "to try to do a broader based collaborative in a neighborhood where there is an effective CDC...is missing a real opportunity and resource."
But CCI participants at all levels voice cautions about working through a strong lead agency. One important concern is that existing organizations in the community have vested interests to protect, whether they are social service organizations, CDCs, schools, churches, public housing tenant organizations, or even experienced community organizers who might have a more political agenda. As one director recounts: "We went through the [process of asking] is there legitimacy attached to any of these alternatives, and ultimately became convinced that the answer was no, that they all had baggage." Those interests might relate to funding base, political base, or even particular personalities, and it is difficult for an outside organization, such as a funder, to appreciate those intricate relationships.
The second caution is that existing institutions also have an established way of doing business and, therefore, operational constraints to taking on the CCI agenda:Where we see problems is where grants are given to already existing organizations to direct the community development process, but they, in fact, already have their own purpose and mission.... They cannot be expected to adjust, to be inclusive and reach out further.This is particularly the case when an initiative, working through a technically sophisticated organization like a CDC, puts the community building agenda on the front burner and expects a change in operating style:The more sophisticated CDCs are not terrific collaborators.... They've kind of gotten used to doing it on their own. And because of their concern with capital and the time value of money and all the things that developers care about, they don't have time. Process is not something they've really done a lot of in the housing development world. And so this notion of partnership-if not total collaboration-is proving to be kind of challenging for them.Creating a new collaboration of some form is the other principal governance strategy that CCIs tend to follow. In these instances, there is no one lead agency. Individuals are brought together, sometimes as representatives of their employer agencies and sometimes without formal representational roles, into a new decision-making and management structure. Generally, these structures are made up of residents and non-residents who are perceived to have access to outside resources or power. Their degree of formality varies widely, from temporary ad hoc collaboratives to formal boards that go on to create new, independent 501(c)(3) organizations.
Creating this new form of collaboration is seen as necessary in some of the most depleted neighborhoods, either because they lack strong neighborhood institutions or because those that exist are unlikely to be able to deal with the political, technical, and other demands that a CCI places on an organization. Even where strong institutions do exist, CCI designers may nonetheless choose to create a new collaborative structure as a mechanism for avoiding the problems of entrenched interests and ways of doing business. The new collaborative is seen to allow an initiative to start with a clean slate:If you really want to affect a whole community, to not start with a 501(c)(3), I think, is a better idea. Because you're then, by definition, legally formless. And that gives you some time to actually get to know who's in your community, and not set the rules so tightly on the front end. So I would say some coalition or collaborative structure that's loose enough to be able to get going on things and do a lot of exploratory stuff, to put together a vision, a plan, would be the ideal if you're trying to affect one neighborhood.But creating a new collaborative has its costs as well. New collaborations need to develop operating procedures from scratch and they need to earn their legitimacy. The process of creating a new institution, whether formal or informal, is so cumbersome that some feel that its prospects for effecting real change are actually weakened. One observer describes the experience of one community group:They brought together sixty-two agencies, and there was this incredible process. They produced a product, this plan, that had some seventy-three initiatives in there. Most of it pretty do-able, I thought. I mean it was not one of these pie in the sky, let's have a mall and all. It was real stuff. The problem is, they can't get it done. There's the plan, there's all these initiatives, but when they try to decide, okay which one of the seventy-three do we do first, they can't-because it was a consensus thing, because there's really no driving force there except the coalition.Moreover, a contrived collaborative may not survive beyond the foundation's funding:One of the problems with the collaboratives that are created, in response to a funder's initiative, is that they're not very durable.... [In one initiative] it took so darn long for the collaborative to form itself. You know they spent all their time trying to figure out, well, what is it that this funder really wants? And the truth is it was so new for everybody they didn't really know for sure.... But very few of those collaboratives still exist.Thus, although the question of working through a lead agency versus creating a new collaborative may appear central to those in the early stages of CCI design, a clear conclusion from the experience of CCIs that have been in operation for some time is that the question sets up a false dichotomy. All CCIs are simultaneously working with existing organizations and creating something new. A new collaborative will need to work with existing neighborhood institutions, and an anointed lead agency will be required to interact with the neighborhood in new and different ways. Therefore, if the enormous weight given to the "new vs. existing organization" decision is based on the search for shortcuts on the capacity-building front, it is now clear that few, if any, such shortcuts exist.
The key is to ensure that form and function are well matched, and that one dimension does not get too far out in front of the other. One long-time observer of the field warned that the new CCIs seem to spend too much effort up front tweaking the governance structure, even before the CCI activities are well defined:In my experience, one mistake that's made in these initiatives is to start first with trying to figure out a structure and process as the first challenge. In the things that I've seen work, whether they're called CCIs or something else, it sort of goes the other way. First, there's a powerful notion or concept or idea somewhere that drives people to action. Then there's leadership that's able to move it forward. And then that leader, working with the powerful idea, defines, creates, makes up, cobbles together, process and structure to suit his or her style and to carry it forth. Now, that's my experience of why and how things work.Those who are designing the governance structure of a CCI need to have the tools to assess neighborhood circumstances and flexibility to respond to them, so as to maximize the initiative's potential to be comprehensive and to pursue its community building agenda. For example, a new CCI needs to recognize and respect the neighborhood networks that are in place. CCIs are not operating in virgin territory, and in any neighborhood there will be a number of existing organizations, many of which will have participated in one or another poverty alleviation or community development initiative in the past. In part because of their foundation or other high profile sponsors, CCIs can too easily fail to involve key local actors. Several CCIs can describe mistakes that they made on this front, the tensions that they created, and the complicated backtracking that they had to do to make up for their mistakes.
In another example, there is clear consensus that even if an existing lead agency is selected (such as a CDC or a settlement house), it must have a resident base and a record of being an effective and inclusive community planner. One funder reported a positive experience: "Lead organizations, well chosen, have the capacity to go out and bring other people to a table that is created out of their own will, for the good of their own community."
Regardless of the ultimate structure of the initiative, a series of tailored management and technical support activities are implied. For example, a new collaborative is likely to have a whole range of needs from group-building and joint "visioning" exercises to establishing a checking account. The lead agency approach has its own start-up needs:If you're going to go with a lead agency, give them a chance to get their feet on the ground, figure out what direction they think they need to go in. And then build their collaborative, and open up a very democratic process. But [the challenge is to] not put them in the same boat as everybody else in the community because then they're not going to be able to exercise their leadership role.Funding and Spending Issues
Three funding issues that are particular to CCIs seem to be emerging: the use of funds, the structure of funds, and the relationship between the funder and the initiative.
The use of funds. Despite their ambitious goals CCIs are not generally wealthy undertakings. Their funding is not of a magnitude to finance new services, new housing, new jobs, new commercial development, and the like. Funds are used instead for staffing the initiative, for community planning, for training and capacity building, for seed money for new projects that will attract and leverage large-scale financing downstream, and for "glue" money to bring activities and institutions together in an effort to produce synergy. The most important characteristic of the funds is that they are flexible.
The structure of funding. Given the long-term nature of the CCI approach and mission, long-term funding is critical to the success of an initiative. (Most participants define long-term as at least ten years.) It not only allows initiatives to develop far-reaching change objectives, but, just as important, it creates a longer window for the initiative to build its support base in the community, develop its governance structure, and put in place an implementation strategy that builds incrementally from short-term activities. The funding must allow time for the laying of a foundation that will support successful implementation and community building. Unfortunately, most funding cycles are of shorter duration than is required to put into place a sustained process of neighborhood transformation. The danger of a short-term funding commitment is that initiatives will be tempted to deliver quickly on "show me" products at the expense of investing in community building.
Long-term funding that appreciates the importance and pace of community building still needs to be strategically structured and to include some form of accountability. One director even feels that a guarantee of long-term funding can encourage initiative participants to get "soft" and can remove the incentive for short-term action. Several participants across groups suggest that foundations should not put all the money up front because a sudden influx of money can distort the planning process: while it may serve to bring a range of actors to the table, it can lead to a focus on distribution of dollars rather than the development of a collaborative process and a shared strategic plan. Several funders and CCI directors suggest that a series of grants for planning, organizational development, capacity-building, and implementation, given out on the basis of mutually agreed-upon evidence of short-term progress, is in the best interest of both parties. In fact, some suggest that it is not even necessary for major funding to flow in the early stages of an initiative, that funding should instead serve as an incentive for action and reward for progress. Thus while the funder needs to commit a significant level of funding in order to be taken seriously, the important element is the commitment of major, long-term support, not necessarily the up-front allocation of those dollars.
The role of the funder. Experience with the inside-outside tension shows that the principal funder of a CCI often plays several roles beyond providing core funding. The funder may frame the initiative conceptually, establish ground rules for action, define initiative goals, identify and convene participants, and define the terms of success. The funder may also serve as an important spokesperson for the initiative over time in the policy world and among other potential funders.
This enhanced role places special demands on a funder's ability to act as a collaborative partner in the initiative and to navigate the line between providing helpful guidance, direction, and accountability on the one hand and imposing its authority from the outside on the other. Thus, amid all of the many groundbreaking activities that a CCI must do, it must also develop new terms for the relationship between the initiative and the funder, one that is a working partnership where both sides can grow, change, and continue to support each another as the initiative develops.
Staffing and Technical Assistance
CCI participants across the board agree that staffing the initiative is decisively important, but that its importance is often underestimated. Strategic choices regarding staffing appear to be critical for the operational success of CCIs for two principal reasons.
The first is that, because CCIs are underspecified at their outset, it falls upon the staff to develop as well as to manage the initiative-as one person described it, "to invent the plane while you fly it." Thus, the flexibility that characterizes so many dimensions of CCIs heightens the importance of the staff role. Moreover, the role of the staff person is likely to change over the course of the initiative, and the visioning talents needed to set the direction for the initiative are not the same as the practical skills required for day-to-day implementation.
Second, because of the breadth of the goals of CCIs and the range of participants involved, initiative staff are asked to mediate between a number of constituencies. Consequently, they require strong organizational and communication skills, political acumen, and an ability to work across a number of substantive areas at once. All participants agree that it is less important to find someone who is technically sophisticated (since technical assistance on particular issues can be contracted for) or who is already familiar with the neighborhood than to recruit someone with strong leadership and process skills.
There does not appear to be any natural "pipeline" for CCI staff development, and sponsors have encountered difficulty locating a pool of candidates. Moreover, given the range of duties they fulfill, staff "burn-out" is, not surprisingly, a significant problem. The process of putting resources in place to support staff in their work needs to be thought through more systematically.
Participants also agree that the provision of technical assistance of all forms-from help on process issues such as board development and strategic planning to consultation around technical issues such as housing development and project-related investments-is critical to the success of a CCI. But TA provision is complicated by inside-outside tensions. CCI directors, staff and governance members argue for greater control over the selection and direction of technical assistance providers as a way of ensuring a good match between provider and neighborhood needs and of holding the technical assistance providers accountable to the local group. In this case, the sponsor might structure the general technical assistance strategy and recommend providers to the initiative, but would not be the final decision-maker. Many also recommend that funds for technical assistance be set aside by the sponsor so that they do not appear to compete with project funds.
The following are suggested ways to ensure that technical assistance is used to best advantage:
By and large, initiatives report more success with "technical" technical assistance (on issues such as housing development or school reform) than with "process" technical assistance (on topics such as strategic planning, management, or community engagement). Given the complexity of the task at hand, initiatives may be served by designating a "coach" for the initiative: an objective party who can provide advice, support, guidance, and encouragement to the various players in the initiative. One of the primary roles of the coach would be to help the other players in the initiative to recognize and work through the fundamental tensions that must be negotiated as the initiative develops. This role could be played by an individual or institution. One emerging mechanism for managing this process is the locally based intermediary. Politically independent, in part because it does not compete for funding with local agencies, and able to work at various levels, the intermediary can convene diverse stakeholders to discuss options for change, help to staff the change process, and build local capacity for reform, often using data and research as organizing tools.
- An initiative must be clear about its definition of the problem and what is needed, so it can use technical assistance effectively and not be driven by it.
- It is critical to engage technical assistance providers who know how to listen to the initiative and community, provide practical options to accomplish what needs to get done, and then allow the initiative to decide next steps.
- Technical assistance need not come from professionals or academics; at times, peer-to-peer consulting or input from neighborhood people can be the best assistance, especially in areas such as community organizing or recruiting and engaging residents.
- Community control of technical assistance funding and contracts can help make sure the initiative gets what it wants.
Evaluation of CCIs is far more complicated than evaluation of more circumscribed programs. Because of this complexity, and because of the experimental nature of CCIs, many funders have invested heavily in the evaluation of CCIs. They aim both to maximize the learning that comes out of the initiatives and to advance methodology in the evaluation field. Important lessons are being learned by CCI evaluators, funders, and initiatives, at this point having more to do with specifying the nature of the problem of evaluating CCIs than with devising solutions to those problems. But general guidance can be derived from recent experience.
From a research perspective, CCI evaluations are problematic for several reasons. First, the initiatives have multiple, broad goals, the achievement of which depends on an ongoing process of interaction or "synergistic" change. Capturing change at all levels and across all sectors is a key challenge, as is determining how to measure the degree to which an initiative is exploiting interdependencies. Second, the particular objectives identified and strategies chosen to promote progress toward these goals often develop and change over time. CCIs are learning enterprises and develop organically as they go along. Third, many of the activities and their intended outcomes are difficult to measure. Developing a way to assess such concepts as capacity building, social capital, and leadership development will be crucial to making judgments about CCI effectiveness. Finally, the units of action for these efforts-neighborhoods-are complex, open systems in which it is virtually impossible to disentangle all of the many variables that may influence both the conduct and outcomes of initiatives. Evaluators, therefore, face tremendous difficulty in drawing causal links between initiative-sponsored actions and community-level outcomes.
One activity that appears to characterize the task of the CCI evaluator is to assist the various initiative stakeholders to gain clarity on the overall vision or "theory of change" of the effort; that is, on long-term outcomes and the strategies that are intended to produce them. The evaluator's inquiry skills and methodological expertise can then help an otherwise underspecified initiative to identify the interim outcomes or markers of progress that correspond, at least theoretically, to those longer term outcomes. Once those steps occur, a review of measures and methods for obtaining those measures can be undertaken by the evaluator in collaboration with the community and the funder.
These activities clearly depart from the evaluator's traditional role and place evaluators in the midst of process-product and inside-outside tensions. For example, evaluators often find themselves playing a quasi-technical assistance role that includes strategic planning, information referral, project reporting, and public relations.
To make the most effective use of resources and serve the interests of the initiative, evaluators are likely to adapt the evaluation methodology over the course of the initiative to match the pace of progress. In the early years, when the CCI is focusing on planning, building relationships, and developing capacity, documentation and ongoing feedback to aid course correction may be most appropriate. The evaluator may work intensively at this time to help identify the initiative's theory of change, and baseline data may also be collected, with the understanding that changes in major social indicators are only likely occur over the long run. Then, later in the initiative, as strategic plans are completed and projects are put in place, a more rigorous, outcome-oriented evaluation may be appropriate. This strategy suggests that a range of methodologies and both quantitative and qualitative data will need to be woven together. Finally, most initiative participants stress the importance of developing an internal capacity for self-monitoring and assessment, and suggest that this should become a core element in any evaluation plan.
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