A Holistic Overview of Community Development

A comprehensive overview of Community Development. You’ll learn what it is, how it works, and why it is so crucial to the future of our communities.

If you’ve landed on this page, it’s likely that you care a lot about material poverty and inequity. You’re dissatisfied with just treating symptoms of poverty. You want to know what you can do to make lasting change in people’s lives. 

If that sounds familiar, you are probably ready to move from  providing relief to practicing development. Community Development is the practice of disrupting chronic poverty by creating new systems and environments. 

This article will give you a comprehensive overview of Community Development. You’ll learn what it is, how it works, and why it is so crucial to the future of our communities. Most importantly, you’ll see how to create a Community Development strategy in your own city.

The most important thing to remember while reading: change is possible!


Sections of this Holistic Overview

  1. What is Community Development
  2. How is Community Development Different from Relief Work
  3. Why do Community Development
  4. How to do Community Development
  5. How to Create a Plan for Community Development
  6. Evaluating Community Development Impact

What is Community Development

First and foremost: Community Development is a place-based, solutions-oriented response to  material poverty. It seeks to end the inequities, not just alleviate their effects. To this end, Community Development focuses on systems and environments that create poverty.  

Community Development looks for integrated, multi-faceted interventions. Since poverty is expressed in complex and unique ways in each community, it relies heavily on partnership and local buy-in. It’s impossible to reduce poverty on the whole by focusing only on one “issue.” A comprehensive, strengths-based approach is key.

Most Community Development efforts will be: 

  1. Placed-Based
  2. Community-Led
  3. Structurally Focused
  4. Iterative and Evaluative
  5. Long-Term-Oriented
  6. Multi-faceted and Holistic

Ultimately, you can recognize Community Development when consistent, multi-dimensional revitalization unfolds in a neighborhood. Here’s what it looks like: things are getting better and the same neighbors are still around to enjoy it!

How is Community Development Different from Relief Work

WATCH: Shawn Duncan Explains the Difference Between Charity and Development

Relief work, also known as charity, gives direct material assistance to individuals. Examples of relief efforts include operations like soup kitchens and emergency-response teams visiting natural disaster sites. 

At its best, relief work blunts the impact of a crisis. It staves off the worst effects of calamity and chronic poverty like hunger, illness, and exposure. Relief is especially important when a situation is too volatile to make long-term plans. 

During crises, relief work is essential. The trouble arises when people apply relief tactics to long-term, intractable inequities.  Unlike Community Development, relief work or charity cannot change chronic issues.

Instead, Community Development lays the groundwork for a community to become healthy. When Community Development succeeds, the need for relief shrinks. This remains true even in times of crisis. In the best scenarios, Community Development decreases a community’s need for external aid.

Relief work and Community Development are essential to humanitarian causes. Relief focuses on short-term, one-way giving. Community Development builds long-term capacity.

Why do Community Development

Compassion is not enough to disrupt chronic material poverty. Community Development puts that compassion to work using a strategic framework to end poverty. It’s compassion + strategy + evidence. 

People around the globe do Community Development to create more flourishing for people. You might want to do Community Development if you believe:

  • Every person deserves a chance to thrive
  • Every person should have their needs met with dignity
  • Inequities we see are harmful and wrong
  • People should have a chance to self-determination in a place they love.

Traditional charity models provide a lot of activity and services but don’t produce a lot of long-term improvement. Unfortunately, charity efforts often unwittingly support the systems that create chronic poverty. 

Community Development is a systematic and effective way to actually reduce chronic poverty. If you want to produce outcomes that last, opt for this approach!

Click here to see how our parent organization made big changes in housing equity with a Community Development approach.

How to Do Community Development

Every Community Development endeavor should have a few common steps. The following practices represent a specific model we have developed. It’s called Holistic Neighborhood Development.  

#1 Get Proximate to a Neighborhood

Location matters. In the USA, a person’s zip code predicts their future income, life expectancy, and a host of others life outcomes. Often, it’s the single-most accurate indicator of current and long-term well-being. Research shows that only the half-mile radius around a person has a large effect on their life. Chronic poverty operates on a hyper-local level.

Holistic Neighborhood Development takes this reality into account by focusing on a small geographic area. Ideally, it happens one neighborhood at a time. 

It’s best to choose a neighborhood where you are physically present. Nothing can replace the keen insight that comes from living in a neighborhood day in and day out. Proximity helps you understand the systems, norms, and cultures that influence that neighborhood. 

Community impact always begins with forming trusting relationships with neighbors. 

**If you want to do Community Development work in a neighborhood where you cannot or will not live long-term: 

Identify an organization or establishment that is deeply rooted in that neighborhood. You may still do Community Development work in the neighborhood. But you will have to closely follow the lead of this organization and other partners on the ground.

# 2 Assess Status, Strengths, and Challenges

Successful Community Development takes time and assessment. It requires a multi-dimensional understanding of a neighborhood. Begin to notice the unique assets and unique challenges of that place. Moreover, notice how each of these assets and challenges interact.

A thorough assessment can save you a lot of time and heartache. If a neighborhood has a beloved job-training program, there’s no need to create a rival one. It may not be helpful to try to get people jobs elsewhere in the city. A good assessment gives a clear idea of what’s already working and where gaps remain.

An in-depth assessment can include surveying residents, mapping the community, and understanding the history and identity of the place. These are valuable pieces of information to build up a strategy that works for everyone.

#3 Align with Potential Collaborators

As you assess the strengths, challenges, and voice of your neighborhood, you WILL find people who are already doing great work. These might be individual residents who have a strong positive influence on the community. They might be institutions like local schools, churches, or businesses. It’s essential to cultivate relationships with people in these positions of influence. To move your Community Development work forward, it is necessary to align around common objectives. The assessment phase will often bring these priorities to light! 

How do you get to know them? Introduce yourself! Seek out ways to spend time with principals, teachers, civic leaders, pastors, and more. Listen to what their experiences and dreams for the neighborhood are. The more you identify common priorities and goals, the better you can coordinate. 

A multi-faceted, collaborative approach to local solutions has the best chance of success.

#4 Activate a Long-Term Plan

Once you’ve gathered a coalition who want to work together for change, get together and create a plan. One way the Lupton Center loves to do this over a period of 2 years through our City Shapers program. It takes time to create a plan, implement it, and make adjustments along the way. 

Remember that Community Development typically unfolds over a period of years, even decades. Activating a long-term plan with your collaborators keeps everyone moving in the same direction.

How to Create a Plan for Community Development

Creating a plan for Community Development in a Neighborhood takes time. It’s always helpful to have outside voices mentoring you or coaching you through the process. We like to provide people with opportunities for mentorship like Leaders Lab. Here’s an overview of how to create a plan.

#1  Identify Key Priorities with Partners

Once a group of collaborators agrees to do neighborhood development together, then it’s time to choose focus areas. 

One way to find a focus area is to look for factors that have a disproportionate impact. For instance, think of housing instability in a specific neighborhood. Neighbors are transient due to unemployment and a lack of affordable housing. This problem creates a downward spiral — new people don’t want to move into the neighborhood because it has a high vacancy rate. Elderly neighbors live alone on their blocks and want to move somewhere safer. Local schools struggle for traction with families who move. Prospective businesses don’t have enough of a customer pool to move in. Collaborators in a neighborhood like this might decide they want to tackle housing.

Whatever linchpin the group identifies, the next step is figuring out if you can do something about it. In the example above, an organization might be able to generate more housing stock. But if they need to lobby for new zoning laws before doing anything, it might be a less strategic choice.

Basically, look for the systems that create inflection points in your neighborhood. Then, figure out if they are within the group’s realm of influence.

#2 Decide who will do what

When we think of holistic development, it’s important to remember that no one organization can do it all. Partnership is key. Identify which community partners have the expertise to tackle a certain system. 

Even as you collaborate, remember to create integrated solutions together. Every initiative you undertake should serve multiple purposes. For example, when FCS opened Carver Market & Community Grounds, they didn’t just provide access to coffee and groceries. They employed 12 neighbors and gave the neighborhood a safe place to hang out. 

Work together to create solutions that will work on multiple fronts. Then, decide who is most suited to undertake them and how others can support. 

#3 Evaluate Community Impact

Data guides every successful community development effort. When creating a plan for neighborhood revitalization, it’s crucial to define success. Neighbors should have a massive voice in this process. We highly encourage every community development organization to solicit regular feedback from neighbors.

Benchmarks and targets should focus on measurable change in poverty indicators. These could look like homeownership rates and vacancy rates for a group focusing on housing. It could mean the local unemployment rate for a group doing social entrepreneurship. A community health organization might look for a reduction in health emergencies.

Once you figure out what success looks like, create a SMART goal for set periods of time. We encourage periods like 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years. You can always revisit these, but they will create accountability as you move forward.

Evaluating Community Development Impact

Community Development is all about eliminating chronic material poverty. So the best way to evaluate Community Development work is to find out if it’s doing that. 

It’s tempting to only measure program outputs like meals served. They can be important measures to show whether an organization is fulfilling its commitments. But these metrics don’t show whether those meals were effective in reducing poverty.

Look for results that show poverty is declining in the neighborhood. Of course, chronic poverty isn’t just about money. Disrupting chronic poverty can include things like physical health, food security, or a sense of neighborhood cohesion. 

In order to find the right measure, it’s crucial to know what change neighbors want to see. If they want fewer vacant houses in the neighborhood, it might not be strategic to measure unemployment rates. If parents want to see more learning opportunities for their kids, measuring average household wealth might not work. In these examples, the metrics may indicate poverty reduction. They just don’t map onto what the community sees as success. Choose a metric that will connect with the change your neighbors want to see.

Evaluate your results at regular intervals. And be sure to invite neighbor and partner feedback often. Take heart and keep tracking! This holistic approach does yield results over time. Even better, the results you get are lasting ones. 


Our program manager, Monica, stands in front of a community art piece.

Community Development disrupts chronic poverty. It’s collaborative. It focuses on systems and solutions. Ultimately, it impacts neighborhoods and individuals at the same time. At its best, Community Development creates an environment where people can thrive. These efforts create a long-lasting impact and transform communities for good. 

We are so glad that you are taking steps to make a lasting impact in your neighborhood! Click here to keep us posted on your journey, we’d love to connect.