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Learnings from Evaluating Neighborhood Quality-of-Life Initiatives

Most neighborhood-focused change efforts are designed to improve residents’ overall quality of life. The assumption is that if we are able to improve neighborhood conditions such as housing quality and affordability, employment options, the quality of local schools, and the sense of community among residents, then residents’ lives will improve. This thinking is grounded in research that has shown, over and over, that environmental factors affect our lives and the quality of our lived experiences (Ili? et al., 2010; McCrea, Shyy, & Stimson, 2006; McCrea, Walton, & Leonard, 2014).  Improving neighborhood quality of life is complex, though, and requires local leaders to intentionally decide on the structure of implementation efforts, the problems that are addressed, and the process for shifting priorities. Drawing upon Community Science staff’s experience observing and evaluating neighborhood change efforts, as well as a review of recent literature, the following article highlights learnings to help guide funders, community-based organizations, and community members endeavoring to implement neighborhood quality-of-life initiatives.

Make sure residents are central to design and implementation. Meaningful resident participation in neighborhood change efforts is critical for their success. And for it to be meaningful, residents must hold power and have a vote in key decisions. This may include resident participation in planning sessions and on committees. It definitely includes resident leaders holding seats on any created governing committee. Experience has shown that an additional step is also needed — local efforts must build capacity of both the residents and any coalition partners. Residents may need training on the collaboration structure and how it functions, information on group norms, and offline support to navigate issues that arise. Coalition partners need education and support to help them stretch into sharing power, including understanding why it is critical and best practices for doing so.

Clearly acknowledge who is driving implementation and how that affects strategy development. Neighborhood change initiatives tend to be driven by residents, by local agencies or nonprofits, or by funders. The driver of change will affect how work is prioritized, what challenges are faced, and how implementation is structured (see next point). When residents are driving change, there is more likely to be meaningful resident engagement and greater chance for sustainable change over time, but financial resources are more likely to be limited, at least at the outset. When funders are driving change, leaders need to invest more time early in the process to build resident and organization trust and to really wrestle with the role that residents will play and how they can be provided a decision-making role in strategy development and implementation.

Decide on the best implementation structure for the community. The best implementation structure for a neighborhood’s quality-of-life efforts will depend on (1) who is driving change; (2) the number of engaged resident leaders, high-capacity nonprofit organizations, and committed local funders; and (3) stakeholders’ history of working together. In general, there is a continuum of options ranging from formal collaborations, including the collective impact model with shared decision-making and careful coordination, to loose networks of individuals and organizations working fairly independently toward the same goals (Frey et al., 2006; Kania & Kramer, 2011; Austin & Seitanidi, 2012; Provan & Kenis, 2008; Wang et al., 2020). The more comprehensive the effort, the more likely a formal coalition will be best. This is because change will need to be pursued on multiple fronts (i.e., many stakeholders will be needed), and coordinating across organizations will be critical to avoid duplicate efforts and working at cross purposes. The challenge of formal coalitions is that they require time to develop and operate. It is essential to identify who is responsible for coalition leadership, coordination, and communication so that it happens and the coalition itself does not consume organizations’ and residents’ time and energy that they would otherwise invest in solving community problems.

In neighborhoods where the focus is narrower, where implementation is driven by residents, or where there are fewer active stakeholders, a simplified coordinating approach may be sufficient. Stakeholders can rally around a common vision, perhaps set out in a neighborhood plan or elevated by a neighborhood crisis, and meet periodically to share ideas and resources and, for the most part, continue pursuing independent activities while keeping the common vision in mind.

Prioritize community needs to be addressed — everything cannot be addressed at once. Community needs, particularly in disinvested areas, are interconnected and occur within interconnected systems. This complexity creates a tendency to try to fix everything wrong in a neighborhood in one round of effort. This can be seen in past comprehensive community change initiatives, which were designed to transform places and the lives of residents within a short amount of time. Experience showed, though, that such comprehensive change initiatives were difficult to implement and rarely widely successful (Kubisch et al., 2010). This is, in part, because it is difficult to sustain sufficient funding and level of effort from leaders and residents to achieve transformation. Building from this experience, funders and neighborhoods benefit from focusing efforts on a smaller number of opportunities or areas of change. This prioritization should be done in keeping with local assets and strengths and in partnership with residents (i.e., residents have an equal vote in decision-making). Other deciding factors might include identifying a mix of easy-to-implement and thornier issues, focusing on topics where residents and volunteers feel great passion or selecting issues where momentum for change is accelerating. In all cases, it is important for the stakeholders to define the community needs and the parts of the system related to those needs their work will address.  This prioritization helps to ensure that all stakeholders have a consistent understanding of priorities and emphasis. It also helps to ensure that staffing, volunteering, and funding resources are focused, increasing the likelihood that meaningful change in the focus areas will be achieved (something that is less likely when limited resources are dispersed across a large number of investment areas).

Once the core needs are identified, it is critical to understand the interrelationships between the selected problems and the surrounding systems. Doing so helps to identify barriers and opportunities for change and to ensure that sustainable solutions are developed. One way to do this — to stay focused and also mindful of the interconnections — is to select a small number of community needs to address, map the systems that intersect with those problems in helpful or harmful ways, and then identify parts of the surrounding systems that they might also affect, being careful not to expand too far and exceed local capacity for implementation.

Adjust strategy only with intention. During implementation, it is very common for change efforts to hit barriers that relate to other community needs that, unaddressed, might limit the effectiveness of efforts. For example, an initiative focused on affordable, quality housing and public safety may find that out-of-school youth have a critical need for housing and that this need is a key contributor to public safety issues. Insights like this often lead stakeholders to dive headfirst into trying to address the newly identified need without carefully considering trade-offs and without exploring organizations or individuals who are already working on the issue. Both steps are essential to the long-term progress of the effort. When thinking about who else is working in the field, the collaboration should identify relevant players and consider whether it makes more sense to try to bring them into the effort or if it is better to stay in communication but not take on the issue in a substantive way. The collaboration may decide, after reflection on the overall goal of the effort, that this issue is critical and needs to become part of the change effort. If that is the case, stakeholders need to decide what other work will be delayed or dropped or identify additional staffing or volunteer resources as well as funding that can be invested into the new effort to support its success.

Invest in learning. Take the time to draft a pathway of change and then use it to design a learning strategy. This is important because documenting a pathway of change often highlights where stakeholders share different expectations for how change will happen or different priorities for where to start implementation. Identifying these differences early allows for candid conversation and compromise. It also illuminates places of disconnect — where the planned strategies are not likely to affect the ultimate objectives. Once priorities are established, a neighborhood can then focus on measuring progress toward desired outcomes. It is critical to focus measurement on the areas where a community is trying to create change. This helps to keep data collection manageable (i.e., fewer things to measure and ask about on surveys) and also focused on the indicators that implementation is likely to affect.

While neighborhood change work is never easy, these learnings from multiple neighborhood change efforts can help to increase the success of implementation and enhance neighborhood quality of life.

References

Austin, J. E., & Seitanidi, M. M. (2012). Collaborative value creation: A review of partnering between nonprofits and businesses: Part I. Value creation spectrum and collaboration stages. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 41(5), 726–758.

Chavis, D. (2015). Emerging action principles for designing and planning community change. Gaithersburg, MD: Community Science.

Frey, B. B., Lohmeier, J. H., Lee, S. W., & Tollefson, N. (2006). Measuring collaboration among grant partners. American Journal of Evaluation, 27(3), 383–392.

Ilic, I., Milic, I., & Arandelovic, M. (2010). Assessing quality of life: Current approaches. Acta Medica Medianae, 49(4), 52–60.

Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 9(1), 36–41.

Kubisch, Anne C., Auspos, P., Brown, P. I., & Dewar, T. (2010). Voices from the field III: Lessons and challenges from two decades of community change efforts. Washington, DC: Aspen Institute.

McCrea, R., Shyy, T. K., & Stimson, R. (2006). What is the strength of the link between objective and subjective indicators of urban quality of life? Applied Research in Quality of Life, 1, 79–96.

McCrea, R., Walton, A., & Leonard, R. (2014). A conceptual framework for investigating community wellbeing and resilience. Rural Society, 23(3), 270–282.

Provan, K. G., & Kenis, P. (2008). Modes of network governance: Structure, management, and effectiveness. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 18(2), 229–252.

Wang, R., Cooper, K. R., & Shumate, M. (2020). The community system solutions framework. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/community_system_solutions_framework_offers_an_alternative_to_collective_impact_model.
 

  •   The concept of quality of life includes environmental factors (in this case neighborhood characteristics) as well as family characteristics and the individuals’ internal well-being. Because community development initiatives are best suited to affect environmental factors, we have narrowed the focus of this article to neighborhood quality of life.
  •   Another great resource focused on broader community change efforts is Community Science’s Emerging Action Principles for Designing and Planning Community Change, which can be found at https://www.communityscience.com/pdfs/CS_Vol1-1_2015_v9_fugr5.pdf.
  •   For simplicity, we use the term collaboration in this article to refer to the range of organization structures that might be used.
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