Though the discipline of community economic development (CED) is, undoubtedly, interdisciplinary in nature, it does encompass key characteristics. For instance, CED fundamentally refers to a community oriented process that provides enhanced local social conditions and economic opportunities. The combination of social and economic development within a community is meant to bring about a higher sense of well-being which, more often than not, targets disadvantaged groups. This progressive approach at development combines numerous schools of economic, sociological, and psychological thoughts to accomplish the goals of community organization and building, as well as increased social capital and well-being.
CED projects often promote a sense of communal engagement to address pre-identified issues. By encouraging participation in these projects, practitioners and stakeholders can provide a systematic way of promoting economic activity through community actions. However, without a proper monitoring and communication plan between all parties, CED projects can often fizzle out. This piece discusses monitoring, communication, and evaluation strategies to help sustain CED projects beyond the implementation phase.
Project Monitoring and Communication
CED projects can become disorganized and subsequently difficult to manage without a monitoring system in place to track its progress in line with the intended outcomes. Monitoring for both timeliness as well as project goals can help keep the project’s tasks organized and on schedule with the target completion date. Simultaneously, communicating this progress to the project’s funders, stakeholders, and the community as a whole is an essential management strategy since it allows the steps of implementation to be adaptive yet still timely in nature. For project funders, follow up is imperative to show a project’s success and possibly receive funding once again in the future. A stakeholder communication plan is also beneficial to keep all important parties on the same page toward the intended project ambitions. Finally, communicating with the broader community is essential since these are the folks that will be directly impacted by a project.
Communication to Funders
Since many CED projects are new ventures, it is extremely important to have a vision of the funding organization and its goals for the project. Understanding the project strengths, weaknesses, and unique qualities will be pivotal in helping funders comprehend how the project is progressing. Specifically, knowing each funder and what they need to hear will help the project administration team understand how to communicate with them. Best practice approaches include personal meetings, telephone conference calls, emails, detailed reports, and newsletters – depending on the timing, situation, and specific funder. Overall, working to minimize monetary risk through a funder communication plan can alleviate concerns of an inefficient CED project.
Communication to Stakeholders
Communicating with identified project stakeholders in an effective way is of utmost importance. Knowing each specific stakeholder and their level of involvement can help inform the best method of communication. For instance, constant communication to a general contractor or those assisting in feasibility studies is, in most circumstances, important, yet periodic contact with tangential community members and lower level stakeholders such as local nonprofits may be acceptable as well. It is all circumstantial. Some stakeholders will be in touch on a daily basis in terms of collaborative work, but for the other, less involved ones, less frequent communication may be acceptable. The formation of stakeholder committees may also be a strategy for the ongoing management of a CED project or organization.
Communication to the Community
The community communication plan is more complicated since community members are not typically in touch with a CED project and its administrators in any timely manner. It is possible that some may even be against a project altogether. Nevertheless, town meetings and symposiums are an effective tool for community outreach, as is a project website. In this respect, considering content, mood, and design is imperative. Keeping positive emotions flowing from the project management team all the way through to the citizen can help effectively and clearly deliver the message of choice. Other ideas for community communication include flyers/brochures, (e)newsletters, press releases/conferences, news stories in local papers, and television coverage. Word of mouth communication is also important.
It has become evident that CED project evaluation measures have become increasingly important with intense competition for funding. For such efforts, project administrators must focus on striving to report consistent data on success metrics. Often times, evaluation and success metrics focus on socioeconomic indicators. For instance, if a CED project’s overarching goal is to lower poverty rates or lower costs of living in a community, evaluation measures should utilize secondary data sources, as well as non-participant observation, to offer insight to pertinent changes over the lifespan of a project. An evaluation schedule should also be developed, which is typically ongoing from the start of the project and examined in incremental steps after that. Understanding the cost effectiveness of a CED project is also important. Economic value may be evaluated via cost-benefit analyses, while social value should be looked at through an inclusion/accessibility/identity lens. This social value, while difficult to quantify, may provide a strong platform for a community to flourish moving toward the future.
Collaboration is integral to a CED project’s success, and the same holds true for the evaluation steps. Here, it is vital to keep in mind that the scientific properties of reliability, validity, and sensitiveness all come into play in the evaluation of the project’s intended outcomes. An evaluation matrix is an extremely useful strategy to outline a CED project’s outcomes in terms of the data that needs to be gathered and time-frame to utilize.
Having a strong monitoring, communication, and evaluation plan for CED projects can enhance the project’s sustainability. This is vital as a project moves from its initial actions and outcomes to those of the intermediate and long-range. A continuous and adequate flow of administrative and financial resources can further sustain the output needed to improve social conditions as a CED project moves further from its implementation phase. Financially, while securing funding is an initial focus, maintaining funding for project operations may be important. Politically, having a visionary project administration team is integral toward sustained success, while also accounting for potential leadership changes. Socially, having community buy-in on what a certain project can do for their lives can help as a project moves past the implementation phase.
Having a sustainability plan that keeps all members (i.e., funders, stakeholders, and the community) involved and knowledgeable is vital for any CED project to prosper. In essence, community acceptance, understanding, and engagement are required for survival. Following detailed monitoring, communication, and evaluation steps can keep a CED project on track while also allowing adjustments to be made that can drive a project’s success and viability over time.
Featured image: Author presenting with colleagues for Belpre, Ohio Economic Development Plan community stakeholder meeting, Spring 2017. Image by Karen Waller.