Building Knowledge about Community Change: Moving Beyond Evaluations
This report has two purposes: to summarize what we have learned over the past 15 years about how to evaluate community change initiatives, and to identify strategies for enhancing the evidence base about what it takes to improve conditions in poor communities. The conclusions in the report are based primarily on the experiences of a group of comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs) in the United States and the United Kingdom, which vary widely in terms of their size, institutional base, sources of funding, scope of activities, policy inﬂuence, and so forth.
It is possible to envision a more commonly determined, collective knowledge development enterprise than currently exists in all the stand-alone CCIs and stand-alone evaluations. This endeavor would begin with taking stock of the existing knowledge base in the ﬁeld, followed by efforts to organize systematic learning around core questions, challenges, and unknowns. An example might illustrate this point:
- Because of the work that has been done on CCIs over the past 15 years, we can now begin to specify what we mean by terms like “building internal community capacity” and “external community inﬂuence” with enough clarity that we can better describe their role in an initiative’s theory of change. This clarity and speciﬁcity should allow us to develop indicators and measures of these otherwise murky community-building concepts. Having accomplished this, the next step becomes clear: We need to determine what community building contributes to community change efforts and focus on demonstrating the connection between community-building outcomes and other key indicators of community wellbeing, such as higher employment rates, better health outcomes, and improved educational achievement.
This new work can be done, as in the past, on an initiative-by-initiative basis. But greater progress could be made if it were undertaken at multiple sites or across multiple initiatives. This 8 The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Changewould allow systematic comparisons of how strategies, implementation, and outcomes vary according to, for example, the history and trajectory of the neighborhood, the local political and economic environment, the capacity of the organizations participating in the initiative, and the level of social cohesion among the residents of the neighborhood. Evaluations will, of course, continue to be an important part of this knowledge development process, but they will make the greatest contribution if they can be more focused and intentional about answering high-priority questions that have ﬁeld-wide signiﬁcance.