A major issue of concern in sustainable community development (SCD) programs involves the fact that practitioners will not be working with the SCD target community forever – the project will end. And the community must rely upon whatever capacity it has developed for carrying on the activities and programs the community has committed to after the practitioner departs. The capacity the community must build upon, which the practitioner is central to the development of, relies both on the leadership skills that can be learned by the people in the community as well as the different collaborative partnerships that can be developed with others to add to the ability of community planning and action-taking skills that are built up within the community membership.
There are seven essential ingredients that contribute to sustainable community change and will lead to the capacity a community needs to maintain its well-being into the future.
- Clear vision and mission — those initiatives with a clear and specific focus, such as increasing rates of childhood immunization or lowering the rate of unemployment, bring about much higher rates of change than broad “healthy communities” efforts which lack a targeted mission and objectives. The vision and mission may reflect a continuum of outcomes.
- Action planning — Identifying specific community changes (that is, new or modified programs, policies, and practices) to be sought is extremely important for identifying actions that need to be implemented. The Strategic Sustainability Plan should be quite precise, specifying with whom, by whom, how and by when each action step should be carried out.
- Leadership — A change in leadership can dramatically affect the rate of change brought about by a community group. The loss of strong leadership can be particularly difficult for a community. Acquiring strong leadership can keep community members engaged, on-track, and able to achieve some of the objectives originally proposed.
- Resources for community mobilizers — Professional community mobilizers or organizers can aid in following up on action plans. It can be very difficult to maintain an organization without qualified staff. Paid organizers can reliably help fan the flames and keep the level of excitement about the community group and its goals at a consistently high level.
- Documentation and feedback on the changes brought about by the group — It’s also very important that people keep a record of what they have done and how they have done it. Having this history can be an invaluable guide for the community group’s work. Looking regularly (at least quarterly) at what the group has done, how quickly it has occurred, and outside events that affect the group’s work has been shown to spur groups onto even greater heights.
- Technical assistance — Outside help with specific skill assignments, such as action planning or securing resources, is also a way to ensure a group’s efforts to transform its community.
- “Making outcome matter” — Finally, grant-makers also have the ability to increase rates of community and systems change through offering incentives or disincentives to their grantees. For example, the annual renewal of multi-year awards or the offering of bonus grants could be based on evidence of progress or accomplishment by the community group.
There are a number of indicators that can be used to inform an SCD target community that they have contributed significantly to building the community capacity of the group. These are indicators of residual commitment, resources, and skills that will be required after the consultants go home, the community is on its own, and stakeholders want to continue the momentum of change. These indicators include the following.
- Expanding, diverse, inclusive citizen participation: In a community where capacity is being built, an ever-increasing number of people participate in all types of activities and decisions. These folks include all the different parts of the community and also represent its diversity.
- Expanding leadership base: Community leaders that bring new people into decision-making are building community capacity. But the chances to gain skills and to practice and learn leadership are also important parts of the leadership base.
- Strengthened individual skills: A community that uses all kinds of resources to create opportunities for individual skill development is building community capacity in an important way. As individuals develop new skills and expertise, the level of volunteer service is raised.
- Widely shared understanding and vision: Creating a vision of the best community future is an important part of planning. But in community capacity building, the emphasis is on how widely that vision is shared. Getting to agreement on that vision is a process that builds community capacity.
- Strategic community agenda: When clubs and organizations consider changes that might come in the future and plan together, the result is a strategic community agenda. Having a response to the future already thought through community-wide is one way to understand and manage change.
- Consistent, tangible progress toward goals: A community with capacity turns plans into results. Whether it’s using benchmarks to gauge progress or setting milestones to mark accomplishments, the momentum and bias for action come through as a community gets things done.
- More effective community organizations and institutions: All types of civic clubs and traditional institutions – such as churches, schools and newspapers – are the mainstay of community capacity building. If citizen organizations and institutions are run well and efficiently, the community will be stronger.
- Better resource utilization by the community: Ideally, the community should select and use resources in the same way a smart consumer will make a purchase. Communities that balance local self-reliance with the use of outside resources can face the future with confidence.
Almost everything significant that happens in the world starts with a leader or a group of leaders who care enough about something to organize and get others moving toward a goal. Not all leaders are needed for lofty goals, however. Sometimes a person with the right combination of characteristics is in the right place at the right time: to short-circuit panic and help people find their way out of a burning building, for instance, or to buoy up spirits or find the right strategy in the midst of an exhausting and frustrating advocacy campaign. Nor does leadership have to be dramatic.
Communities, advocacy efforts, and grass roots and community-based organizations need these people, just as the larger society needs the Martin Luther Kings. They make positive growth and change possible, and improve the quality of life for everyone. But they don’t come out of nowhere: the right people are much more likely to step up when they’ve had some experiences that make them feel they’re capable. These are the kinds of community members that community leaders should always be on the look-out for.
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