Revisiting the Critical Elements
of Comprehensive Community Initiatives

A Study Conducted by Staff of
The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation,
United States Department of Health and Human Services

Bruce Gray
Angela Duran
Ann Segal

February 1997

The ASPE Study Team included Kathleen Bond, Disability, the Office of Disability, Aging and Long-Term Care Policy, Barbara Broman, the Office of Human Services Policy, Angela Duran, the Immediate Office of the Assistant Secretary, Bruce Gray, the Office of Human Services Policy, on detail from the Health Resources and Services Administration, Emily Novick, the Office of Human Services Policy, Ann Segal, Team Leader, the Office of Human Services Policy, Richard Silva, the Office Human Services Policy, Carolyn Taplin, the Office of Health Policy, and Hal Wolman, the Office of Program Systems.


We would like to thank the administrators, board members, and staff of the following organizations, as well as those residents and administrators from collaborating institutions with whom we met. Visiting the initiatives and meeting with such a committed, wise set of people humbles and enriches those of us involved in policy development. We are extremely grateful for their participation, enthusiasm and honesty. We offer the cross-initiative lessons and insights that they shared with us in the hope that such information will prove valuable to the field.

Center for Family Life in Sunset Park
345 43rd St.
Brooklyn, NY 11232
Sister Mary Paul, Director of Clinical Services
Codman Square Health Center
6 Norfolk St.
Dorchester, MA 02124
Bill Walczack, Executive Director
Dudley St. Neighborhood Initiative
513 Dudley St.
Roxbury, MA 02119
Greg Watson, Executive Director
Eastside Community Investments, Inc.
26 North Arsenal Ave.
Indianapolis, IN 46201
Dennis West, President
Greater Germantown Housing Development Corporation/Germantown Settlement/Wister Neighborhood Council
48 East Penn St.
Philadelphia, PA 19144
Stephen Kazanjian, Executive Director/CEO (GGHDC)
Emanuel Freeman, Executive Director (GS)
Grace Hill
2600 Hadley St.
St. Louis, MO 63106
George Eberle, Jr., President
El Puente
211 South Fourth St.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Luis Garden Acosta, President and Founder
Local Investment Commission
3100 Broadway, Suite 226
Kansas City, MO 64111
Gayle Hobbs, Executive Director
Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, Inc.
3917 Minnesota Ave., N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20019
Lloyd Smith, President and CEO
New Beginnings
Department of Social Services, Room 843
1255 Imperial Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
Connie Roberts, Director
New Community Corporation
233 West Market St.
Newark, NJ 07103
Monsignor William Linder, Founder
Sandtown-Winchester Community Center
1114 North Mount St.
Baltimore, MD 21217
Ronica Houston, Executive Director
Swope Parkway Health Center
3801 Blue Parkway
Kansas City, MO 64130
E. Frank Ellis, President
The Walbridge Caring Communities Program
5019 Alcott Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63120
Khatib Waheed, Director

A special thanks to Anita Miller, Program Director, Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program (New York), Mitchell Sviridoff, Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow in Urban Policy at The New School for Social Research (New York), and Bob Bolter, President, Jubilee Enterprise of Greater Washington (D.C.), for their advice and assistance.


Initial Project Development
Visit Methodology
Principal Reasons Why Initiatives Have "Survived"
Key Elements
Community Participation
Final Thoughts


This report is based on a study of a set of comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs) from across the nation. Those CCIs chosen were subjectively judged to be successful in moving toward their goals by informed experts and met the following criteria: they have been operational for at least the past five years; they are focused on improving the status of children and families; they use multiple funding sources; they provide multiple services and supports; and they are large enough to have the potential for significant impact in a community.

The study focuses on the lessons and insights gained through the experiences of these initiatives. Project analysts first reviewed the conventional wisdom concerning elements necessary for such efforts to survive (used as a proxy for success), then conducted site visits that involved extensive discussions with executive directors, staff, board members, community residents, and partner agency administrators. The wisdom offered during these discussions is distilled here in the hope of informing the field and guiding federal activities.

The study was conducted by staff of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The office is responsible for policy development, policy analysis, planning, and evaluation and research related to all issues of concern to the Department, including linkages of Department programs to other public and private sector services and supports.


For many years, experts in the field of child and family services have encouraged the development of comprehensive support strategies. This approach reflects the understanding that the needs of children and families vary greatly--individually, as a family unit, and over time--and that a number of children and families have a multiple set of needs that must be met in order to move toward self-sufficiency. No one service or support can be expected to yield significant results if a child or family is overwhelmed by unaddressed problems. In recent years, many experts in the field of child and family services have broadened their vision to include a stronger focus on community development and employment as crucial to achieving their goals.

Experts in the field of economic development have also come to recognize that their success depends on broadening their strategy. Until the early 1990s, these experts had largely focused on reclaiming a neighborhood through improved housing and employment opportunities. They have subsequently begun to include a wide variety of health and social services for the community in their plans, recognizing that many people need such supports to achieve and maintain self-sufficiency.

As those from various fields have moved closer toward adopting a shared view of what is needed to gain positive outcomes for children, families, and communities, numerous articles and books have articulated the principles and steps believed most important to building comprehensive support systems. These lessons were culled from observations of the early initiatives, which were most often funded by foundations or government grants. Perhaps the most frequently identified lessons have been that making significant changes in service systems and revitalizing communities is extremely hard and often frustrating work and that each effort is idiosyncratic, formed by the circumstances of the community and the resources available.

Those who believe in comprehensive change strategies and recognize the difficulty of achieving them have long advocated rigorous evaluation to prove its value. In a day of cynicism about interventions for vulnerable populations and a day in which evaluation has become an increasingly influential part of the budget decision process, having proof of success can be essential. However, few experts in the field would argue that there is a reliable evaluation design for the type of community-wide initiatives that feature multiple intervention strategies. Consequently, though evaluators are making progress in this area, it remains difficult at this time to document success or test the elements of success for CCIs.

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) in the United States Department of Health and Human Services has long maintained a commitment to encourage the creation of comprehensive, community strategies for assisting low-income children and families. This commitment has led the Office over time to support related policy analyses, planning grants, case studies, technical assistance materials, and evaluations, as well as to support the development of new evaluation strategies and related legislative and regulatory proposals.


As the Federal Government, states, and communities undertake significant changes in the way they do business, it is unclear to what extent communities will take advantage of this shift in decision-making authority to the local level by restructuring their services and support systems. As decisions are made, it is important for all those involved in policymaking, and in the creation and support of comprehensive initiatives, to re-examine the early lessons found in existing literature. How have those lessons held up over time? What revisions or expansions to the lessons are required?

In 1996, then-Assistant Secretary Peter Edelman approved a plan to have ASPE staff conduct such an analysis. In an ideal situation, the analysis would have assessed both successful and failed initiatives. However, ASPE was faced with limited resources for such a study, as well as with an inability to interview a wide range of participants in initiatives that had failed. In addition, the absence of strong evaluation findings made it difficult to identify successful initiatives. Consequently, this Office decided to use two tests as proxy measures of success: (1) "survivability," defined as being operational for at least five years and having multiple funding sources (so that one, single source of funding does not explain survival) and (2) the judgment of a number of experts in the field that they believe an initiative is having a real impact on its community. The decision to select this proxy was based on the idea that for a comprehensive initiative to survive over time in a community and to garner the resources needed to survive, it must be perceived as having significant value for that community.

Once a proxy for success was developed, a study team of ASPE health and human services analysts was recruited, under the direction of Ann Segal, Deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Services Policy, to reassess the elements of success. The team began by defining broad eligibility criteria for the initiatives to be studied. (See Introduction) The team then reviewed the literature and interviewed a set of experts to identify both those elements cited as essential for success and candidate initiatives that met the established criteria.

The team ultimately selected a set of fourteen initiatives representing varied developmental paths and origins (e.g., health, community development, education, social services), and identified five areas in which they sought to test the conventional wisdom as to what makes a CCI program succeed: leadership/management, comprehensiveness, community participation, collaboration among community partners, a family-centered orientation, and financing. It was initially assumed that these terms and phrases would prove useful in grouping the information gathered. For the most part, they serve as subject headings in Section VI below.

In two cases, however, the initial labels proved inappropriate. Contrary to our assumption, "comprehensiveness" was rarely mentioned; it apparently connoted too great a focus on a possible end result of community change, rather than the process itself. Consequently, it was replaced with the concept of "responsiveness," which better embodies the respondents' belief in the importance of an organic growth process related to community needs. Secondly, the concept of a "family-centered approach" was identified only by some of the front-line human service workers, and therefore, it did not prove to be a useful organizing principle for this study of broader, comprehensive community initiatives.

The final result is that the data from our interviews and observations are organized around the following themes:

  1. Leadership/Management
  2. Responsiveness
  3. Community Participation
  4. Collaboration
  5. Finance


During the summer of 1996, project analysts visited the selected initiatives and interviewed a variety of people--executive directors, staff, board members, community residents, and partner agency administrators--working with and served by each initiative. Project staff consistently sought to meet with individuals from various professional levels and perspectives. Interviews tended to last from one to two hours and were loosely based on a discussion guide developed by project members and field tested at one site.

The intent of this study was not to develop case studies or to profile the initiatives. The intent instead was to gather together lessons and insights that could be shared with those in the field striving for similar results. Interviewees were guaranteed confidentiality, unless they wished otherwise, and were assured that the findings would not be used in any program audits. After the visits were completed, all findings were discussed with the entire team and a draft report was prepared. That draft was reviewed by all team members, selected experts, and various initiative representatives.

Four additional caveats should be stated at the outset.


The following are, in essence, those primary lessons learned from those interviewed concerning the survival and success of their community-change initiatives.



Various interviewees made the following points regarding the mission, vision, and philosophy of their initiatives:


Almost every site mentioned strong leadership and management as a reason why its organization has survived as long as it has. Below, we describe some of the specific points about leadership and management that were made by those interviewed.

The Leader

At almost every CCI, interviewees spoke of the importance of a strong, caring, and committed leader. Below are some of the descriptions commonly heard and examples offered:

Many of the sites visited have engaged in extremely ambitious undertakings. One offered to build a road abutting its facility if the city would agree and allow it to issue a bond. The initiative had a track-record of such undertakings; several years earlier, it had raised the ground for its new center by 40 feet. Another site, a community health center, purchased a former nursing home. At the time, the center had very little cash to invest in renovation and faced grim fundraising prospects. The purchase energized the community, however; funds were eventually secured, and today, the health center is located in the renovated space. "Be bold," counseled one director of finance. "Don't take no for an answer."

The Staff

Solid leadership capacity was not limited to the executive staff of those initiatives visited, but was well-cultivated throughout the organization. Interviewees revealed the following characteristics of staff as similarly crucial to initiative success.

The Board/Governance

Initiatives use a range of board and governance structures to get people from the entire community involved in making decisions. On the one hand, they may have an executive board with a range of members including residents, service providers, philanthropists, and business, civic, community and political leaders. On the other hand, they may have smaller neighborhood advisory bodies comprised of just community leaders and residents and a separate board strictly for fund-raising purposes.

The range of decision-making authority also varies. Boards may just provide a rubber stamp approval of staff or community proposals or actually develop ideas and implementation plans and present them for a vote. In one example, neighborhood advisory groups develop proposals which are then sent to an overarching board for approval.

While the structures and decision-making may vary, there are nonetheless certain lessons to share regarding such bodies:


By definition, all the initiatives visited were "comprehensive," yet as previously mentioned, few of those interviewed, without being prompted, described their initiatives as "comprehensive" or claimed that they offered "comprehensive" services. "The goal of the initiative is to meet the diverse needs of the population," one executive director told us. "It isn't to be comprehensive in some abstract way." Most, however, did speak in terms of strategies of incremental growth and of being responsive to community and individual needs. Consequently, study team opted for the concept of "responsiveness" as a more appropriate heading for this section.

Interviewees made the following main points about responsiveness:

Most administrators, however, stressed the importance of knowing when you are taking on more than you can reasonably and effectively handle. One executive director claimed that "the way in which we fulfill our mission is to recognize that we can't be all things to all people. We have to maximize our resources by collaborating with others."

In contrast, those initiatives that began as community development corporations have made the most progress in pursuing economic development. As one administrator put it, "the best base (for such development) is...with CDCs because they're entrepreneurial; they know how to do deals." One CDC-based initiative persuaded a grocery store chain not only to open a supermarket in the community but also to delegate much of its hiring to the initiative. As the director of finance for the initiative noted, "everything we do now is economic development and community development."

Even the most enthusiastic advocates of pursuing economic development, though, counseled realism. One administrator put it bluntly: "We know we're not going to get a Bloomingdale's here."


Resident involvement was universally cited as a key element of initiative survival. However, staff, administrators and residents alike offered important qualifications to this position. The following section is organized into three subsections: Effective Community Outreach, Sustained Resident Involvement, and Primary Challenges to Community Participation.

Effective Community Outreach

To survive, various staff and administrators argued, initiatives must use effective outreach and provide for substantive, beneficial, and enjoyable resident involvement. Those interviewed offered useful advice on soliciting and maintaining such involvement.

Two qualities of staff seemed to contribute most in attracting resident involvement:

Sustained Resident Involvement

"Making it easy" has two primary facets: 1) providing multiple "entry points" for initiative services and activities, and 2) recognizing that many residents, particularly those with very low self-esteem, will be extremely apprehensive about getting involved.

As for the third criteria for "Making it Fun," one administrator put it nicely: "People get together to have fun and to do things that will benefit them...If you tell them it's work, they won't come." Unfortunately, the importance of making it fun is often overlooked in the rush to "design and implement programs."

Primary Challenges to Effective Resident Involvement


Collaboration, according to one executive director , "is ultimately a question of money, power, and control." Descriptions of what "collaboration" entails varied widely among sites. For the purposes of this study, initiatives were defined as "collaborative" if they involved three or more partners from separate, independent entities/organizations and separate domains (e.g., health, education, community development) who share responsibility for decision-making and for providing resources through a joint governance structure. So defined, collaboration at most of the sites visited is rare and a low priority at best. Various administrators claimed such collaborations are too often based on chasing money, and result in either "circus tent" situations or "shotgun marriages." "If fees are attached," argued one collaborator, "that says this is not a partnership."

On the other hand, forming alliances between autonomous organizations was frequently cited as a key element of initiative survival. Alliances offer more provisional arrangements, based on mutual benefit, that do not formally limit an organization's autonomy. Consistency is crucial in developing and maintaining such partnerships. "The city knows," said one interviewee, "that (our organization) will not embarrass them." Politicians and high-level bureaucrats also appreciate initiative administrators and staff who understand and largely accept the constraints and culture they face. At one site, a state agency director has occasionally taken political risks in supporting the initiative's development. It is important, explained one interviewee, that those in the community realize how hard it is sometimes for government officials to respond to community requests.

Where successful, alliances tended to demonstrate the following features:


Those interviewed stressed the importance of adequate, stable, and flexible financing. However, as pointed out in Section V, decategorization of funding was rarely cited as a "necessary condition" for change. Administrators appeared to be far less unified on this issue than study team members had anticipated.




Financial Planning & Management

Effectively demonstrating success, however, does provide an opportunity to shape government and foundation priorities. Thanks largely to the experiences of one site, a regional foundation has revised grant making guidelines to reflect the importance of community participation.


The insights from this study are presented to assist those working to create effective, comprehensive community strategies for working with low-income children and families. We fully recognize that there is, and should be, a variety of strategies, and elements of strategies, that lead to positive change. Each initiative we visited was unique, but certain shared themes and elements did emerge during the project's numerous interviews. In general, project visits revealed a more fluid, tactically-nimble approach to community development than existing writings portrayed. Initiative growth tended to be organic in response to highly contextualized needs and related opportunities. One interviewee compared the approach to jazz improvisation, with elements provisionally arranged based on a solid thematic foundation.

One fundamental challenge of this approach is to integrate effectively strategic planning. Most interviewees argued that while such planning is important, it is most useful in conjunction with quick, tangible results--"Plan and do simultaneously"--rather than build toward a single "comprehensive planning moment." The selected initiatives also tended to take full and timely advantage of a catalytic event, to sustain this momentum with a visible signature development or effort, to focus their service strategy on leveraging existing resources and programs, and to keep the initiative's sense of mission vibrant.

This last condition--periodically revitalizing the sense of mission--has a great deal to do with leadership. The conventional wisdom posits that charismatic leadership is an element of success. While interviews confirmed this, the charisma was not generally isolated in one person, but tended instead to be found throughout the organization. Many of the executive directors interviewed extend authority and autonomy to staff and freely recognize and honor the skills of others. Directors and staff alike also revealed remarkable levels of commitment and patience. Most of their initiatives, as they pointed out, have taken years to achieve their current levels of effectiveness and stability.

Perhaps most notably, the administrators demonstrated that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well within the not-for-profit sector. The success of these initiatives is due in large part to the entrepreneurial skills and energy of those involved and to their willingness to make many tough business decisions based on bottom-line accounting considerations.

Three final findings deserve special attention here. In keeping with the theme of flexibility, the initiatives tended to shy away from formal collaborations that involve joint governance structures, preferring instead to form alliances as needed that do not limit organizational autonomy. The emphasis is on partnering to achieve certain objectives, rather than on creating additional organizational structures or true shared accountability. Second, while it was noted as a constant challenge, the initiatives reflected a remarkable degree of community involvement and support. This level of support, however, is conditional; involvement of residents has to be both substantive and sustained and initiative activities should be driven by resident-identified community needs. Finally, contrary to expectations, decategorization of funding was not considered a "necessary condition" for change. Many administrators have apparently developed effective methods for minimizing the negative aspects of categorical funding. What was clearly emphasized as more important than decategorization was a sustained funding commitment. Genuine change takes time. Initiatives must be accountable for their efforts from the outset, yet must be allowed to grow organically.

The ASPE study team learned a great deal while conducting this project. We feel privileged to have met with such a diverse, committed group of administrators, staff, residents, and organizational partners. Their skill, energy, and patience are remarkable. We also appreciate the added wisdom of the recognized experts with whom we also consulted. We hope others will benefit from the lessons and insights shared in this document, and we welcome comments in this continuing dialogue.