How community initiatives achieve impact

What is the value of community initiatives to society? What do we hope they will achieve? In this section, we explore the question of impact.

Direct impact

Direct impact is normally measured against the organisation’s theory of change to determine whether or not the organisation is able to achieve its intended goal (Leviner, 2006). Are services provided to the underprivileged? Are policies and laws changed as a result of the group’s work? Is there more public action and support for the causes? Additional measures of success include the reach of their work and the sustainability of their efforts (ibid). Thus, having a clear mission and vision, and having evaluation tools is key to ensuring organisational impact (Coates and David, 2002).

Indirect impact

Beyond direct impact, community initiatives can also have a latent effect on the communities they work with. A community initiative that is truly ground-up is expected to work closely with, and tap on the capabilities of, the community. This enables communities to take ownership of their situations, thus strengthening community relationships and values (Wiseman, 2006). Community organisations thus develop communities to be more independent and collaborative (Haugh, 2006). Individuals that participate in community initiatives build up their own social capital and networks, and become more empowered to participate in larger decision-making processes, leading to more active citizenship. Scholars have deemed the involvement and empowerment of community members as a key determinant of success for community initiatives (Mayoux, 2003).

This research engages specifically with direct impact.

To do this, we view community initiatives through the lens of an urban prototype. As informal, voluntary, self-organised projects with limited resources, they should not be expected to fulfil important urban functions in perpetuity. Thus, we consider them to have a limited amount of time to do something meaningful, or to find a way to sustain their work in the long-term.

Critique

Burn out, loss of key members, insufficient funding, lack of momentum are just a few reasons that initiative leaders have stopped their project. As effective as these groups may be, they are often lacking resources and have competing priorities that do not allow them to focus sufficient energy and effort on their community work. At times they are pushed beyond their capacity to do things that are above and beyond the responsibility and ability of ordinary citizens. By lending acceptance and support to groups that provide welfare for the less-privileged, governments are accused of shifting the responsibility of welfare provision to citizens instead of working on radical transformations to improve the current systems and structures in place (Hoekstra & Dahlvik, 2017). These groups become a bandage to problems within the system social service provision, and so long as they are in operation, there is less incentive for the government to change the way things are done (Mansuri and Rao, 2004).

An alternative

An alternative way to consider community initiatives is through the lens of the urban prototype. Government agencies are continually trying to find new ways to engage with their constituents about their needs and desires. What if community initiatives were indeed considered as one of the highest forms of public participation? If they are used to identify new insights about the society and urban systems that they operate in, and to generate novel solutions to address problems and concerns? What innovations or grounded realities do they surface that can inform existing policy and practice?

Identifying ideal outcomes

To respond to these questions, we identify three “ideal type” outcomes. These are pathways that a community initiative can take to have longer-term, structural impact that lasts beyond their own activities. If we are to take community initiatives seriously as a form of public participation, or as ‘co-creators’ of our cities, we will need to equally consider how to deliberately connect them with these pathways towards impact.

OUTCOME 1

The initiative succeeds in directly changing a government (or other institutional) policy or practice. For instance, an agency might learn from a ground up initiative that provides care for older residents in the community, adapting the initiative’s outreach mechanisms and list of identified needs into their own methods of conducting social work.

This type of outcome is considered to result in a systemic change, in that there is a fundamental shift in how the issue will be addressed in the future. If the community initiative were no longer to continue, the change they affected would continue to last over time.

OUTCOME 2

The initiative stimulates large scale individual-level behaviour change, and/or prompts others to replicate or initiate their own projects. When consumer behaviour changes, or public pressure mounts, institutions may also follow suit.

An example is the #metoo movement, which sought to mobilize public opinion on sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, leading to several companies and governments to subsequently change their own HR practices and policies.

OUTCOME 3

The initiative finds a sustainable way to directly provide a form of service, such as distributing meals for the homeless. Thus, the initiative has an impact on a person or situation’s immediate circumstances, but may not address the root cause of the issue.

To move towards an ideal type, an initiative would need to develop a long-term service provision model which is likely to be able to sustain itself over time. Initiatives that provide services but which are unsustainable, on the other hand, may risk building a dependent constituency and leave a gap in service provision when they discontinue.

Evaluating Outcomes

 

To test this evaluation framework, we reviewed 29 community initiatives in Singapore against the three types of outcomes. The initiatives were selected to cover  a range of types, sizes and organisational models, and included only initiatives where the researchers had a good working knowledge.

An evaluation scale of 1-10 was used to assess the initiatives against each type of outcome: lowest (score of 1-2), low (3-5), medium (6-8), and high (9-10). Each range corresponds with a written description (see Appendix below) that helps to create consistency within the scoring.

This exercise does not assume that each resident-led initiative has the aim or ambition to achieve transformative outcomes – some even state their main objective is to have fun. Thus, it is not a judgment on the initiative; rather a conceptual effort to consider whether, and in what ways, community initiatives are having a deeper impact on society and urban systems.

The research team conducted the evaluation based on interviews, personal knowledge and desk research (social media, regular media, websites, etc.), and discussed each initiative to calibrate the evaluation scores.

Findings

 

The initiative evaluation shows large variations in the extent to which community initiatives achieve different types of outcomes. Changing institutional policies and practices was the lowest scoring type of outcome, averaging 2.7 on a scale of 1 to 10. The initiatives were more successful in achieving change through public awareness, averaging a score of 3.7 out of 10. However, it was clear that the initiatives were highest ranked on their ability to act as service providers within the community, with an average score of 5.7 out of 10.

We also evaluate how the initiatives score on 14 organisational dimensions: leadership charisma, leadership commitment, leadership experience, internal hierarchy, sophistication of outputs, formality, funding, novelty, innovation, ambition, network, public presence, public acceptance and partnership with government. The average scores across these dimensions show that, on average, initiatives are highest in leadership commitment, public acceptance and mission fulfilment (i.e., their activities directly relate to their stated mission). On average, they score lowest in government partnership and innovative approaches and tools. For more information about each of these categories, please see below Appendix.

Organisational dimensions of community initiatives (average score of 29 initiatives, scale of 1 to 10)

Government Partnership, 4.00%
Public Acceptance, 7.20%
Public Presence, 5.70%
Network, 5.90%
Ambition, 5.70%
Innovative Approach/Tools, 4.20%
Uniqueness of Initiative, 5.90%
Mission Fulfilment, 7.10%
Funding Sufficiency, 5.80%
Initiative Ownership, 5.90%
Leadership Experience, 5.40%
Leadership Commitment, 7.10%
Leadership Charisma, 6.40%

Finally, we considered whether some organisational dimensions might be correlated with different types of outcomes. This can be particularly useful in the context of capacity building for community initiatives. If there are indeed certain characteristics that are associated with more impactful initiatives, training and other support infrastructure might be maximised by focusing on these areas. To explore these relationships, we conducted correlations using the software R.

Change in institutional policy/process

Organisation DimensionCorrelation with OutcomeAverage Score of Initiatives
Government Partnership.624**4.0
Network.440**5.9
Mission Fulfillment.416*7.1
Formality.371*5.2

Change in public awareness/behaviour

Organisation DimensionCorrelation with OutcomeAverage Score of Initiatives
Public Presence.507**6.4
Ambition.474**7.1
Network.434*5.4
Commitment.371*5.9
Innovation.370*5.2

Sustained service provision

Organisation DimensionCorrelation with OutcomeAverage Score of Initiatives
Mission Fulfillment.673**7.1
Funding.486**5.8
Public Presence.411*5.7
Commitment.439*7.1
Formality.433*5.2

* Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level
** Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level

The charts show significant correlations do exist between organisational dimensions and outcomes (Column 2: Correlation with Outcome). For instance, having a strong network of other groups and institutions to tap on is significantly correlated with groups that are effective in changing institutional policy/process and changing public awareness/behaviour, but less important for sustaining service provision. Conversely, having sufficient funding is important for sustained service provision, but less important for changing institutional policy/process or public awareness/behaviour.

The third column in the above charts (Average Score of Initiatives) shows the average score of all 29 initiatives for that organisational dimension on a scale of 1-10. Organisational dimensions that have a high correlation and a low average score could be a useful starting point to consider where to focus future capacity building efforts.

Appendix: Evaluation Criteria

The evaluation criteria for outcomes and organisational dimensions are outlined in the below tables. Please note that the names of the evaluated initiatives and their respective rankings are not included for privacy reasons.