Spotting Community Ownership

The term “community-based” has been hijacked. Just like “rights-based programming,” or “participation,” or “capacity building,” it has become over-used and thus less understood in the development sector. Unfortunately, especially within the HIV circles in which I traverse, the term “community-based” has been reduced to simply referring to the locality in which services are delivered.

Yet for me, if an organization or a project is genuinely community-based, it has much more to do with its relationship to its constituency.

Is there genuine community ownership? Are the people served invested in the outcomes of the program(s)?

But most importantly, how can we know?

I am currently working with a small foundation that has identified working with community-based organizations as a key criteria of their grantmaking to support projects for children in the developing world. As they grow, however, creating a shared and operational understanding of the term “community-based” is proving tricky.

Whether on a site visit or reading through a stack of proposals, a person can be so concerned with what is happening on the ground that how can be overlooked or ignored. Yet the processes of decision-making within local relationships and power dynamics are often the make-or-break factor in development projects. (See a great post on this at Staying for Tea.)

Working in places in which I have not been able to use a shared language or in which I have not had sufficient contextual knowledge, I know that have made and will continue to make assumptions about various aspects of local dynamics. In some cases, especially early in my career, I did this only to find out later that there was some serious tokenism going on (See Arnstein’s 1969 Participation Ladder, Figure 2.) or that the so-called representatives were not sanctioned to speak on behalf of the community.

Over time, I learned to identify and to test my own assumptions about community ownership. I learned that my gut could tell me quite a lot, but that it could also deceive me.

I also learned that the questions I ask myself as an outsider could be useful and important tools to determine if a development initiative is occurring for or with the community, a sometimes subtle but vital distinction.

Attempting to make the implicit—explicit can be incredibly valuable for seasoned or newbie do-gooders alike. Thus I am sharing here a list of questions I am developing to help the foundation and anyone else who has an interest in determining the level of community ownership. What are the things we can look for? What informs our gut reactions and subsequent thinking?

The following questions are by no means exhaustive, nor are they meant to be used as a checklist to ensure all aspects of community ownership are present in a development project. Rather, the following questions contain subjective ideas that are still dependent on one’s definition of community, as well as varying contexts and factors. Some may seem rather obvious, but taken as a whole, I hope they can help us to not only spot, but also uphold and support community ownership as a fundamental building block of social change.

Questions to Help Spot Community Ownership

(1) Who participated in the planning of the project or program? How were/are decisions about priorities made?

(2) Do community members recognize themselves as part of the local organization’s constituency?

(3) Are elements of reciprocity present? To what extent are local resources and/or in-kind contributions being mobilized to support the program?

(4) How does the project/program build upon the efforts of groups or relationships that pre-date formal funding opportunities?

(5) Before a particular project began, how did the community demonstrate stewardship of shared resources or prior accomplishments?

(6) Is the story you are presented about “our problems” adequately balanced with the story of “our endeavors to change this”?

(7) Can community members of various ages, gender, position, etc. articulate a projects goals or effects?

(8) Is the local organization (or the on-the-ground implementer in the case of international NGO projects) clear about what how a strategy or activity is or will affect people’s daily lives?

(9) What is the quality of interaction between members? Is mutual respect and care demonstrated? Are more than just a few people engaged?

(10) To what extent in the project/program you are working on functioning in collaboration with other neighboring organizations or government officials?

This list will continue to develop. I welcome readers’ suggestions for other questions or adaptations to these in the comments.


Related Posts

Listening to People on the Receiving End of Aid

Rethinking Trust, by Ben Ramalingam

More on Why ‘How Matters’

Seeing the future in sovereign local organizations – Part I

PBS Documentary Shines a Light


  1. One of the basic difficulties is that communities (and perhaps even individuals!) are not homogenous, unified entities. They are fractured, fractious, complex groups that contain competing interests, factions, groups, loyalties, alliances, feuds, families, faiths, genders, clans, ethnicities… So you end up always with a qualified answer: grey, never either/or.

    For instance, if a women’s CBO engages 10% of the women, is supported by another 5%, is opposed by 2% and the rest don’t care… is it “community owned”? At what point do these stats flip the answer from “yes” to “no”?

    I suspect that the answer to that depends on the details of what you are trying to do with the CBO.

  2. Well done Jennifer. I’m not sure “hijacked” is quite the right metaphor for me, since I think the erosion of meaning has come from within, rather than outside our field, but certainly we have become much more proficient at using the right language and increasingly sloppy about ensuring that our work actually reflects what the original terms implied. Who knows what people mean anymore when they call something “sustainable” or “participatory”. I suppose it won’t be too long before we erode the meaning of other terms that imply a specific methodology or philosophy. I wonder in 10 years how flippantly we’ll throw around terms like Most Significant Change, transformative evaluation, or appreciative inquiry.

    BTW, I’d love you to post this at the Staying for Tea FB page.

  3. I appreciate the difference between examining what happened on the ground and HOW the process evolved. For me, since we do not have anyone visiting the communities where we give support, it is a matter of getting the right questions to ask about how everything unfolded. This would require a qualitative examination of the project rather than just the numbers. Thanks for the post!

  4. I really agree with the misuse of ‘community based’ when it honestly is only a location indicator, or range limit, rather than truly felt by the community as something done themselves. But – supporting a community to access ideas and services connections does need outside help, and maybe outside skills. If one lives in a community for over ten years, can one become enough of a part of the community to be able to call it community based?

  5. Sasha Rabsey

    Thanks so much Jennifer. These questions are so helpful when a funder is on a site visit and trying to assess how resources they will be providing will be used.

  6. Samuel Maruta

    From where I am standing as at once a ‘community’ person, a leader of a CBO and an NGO person in Zimbabwe, I find this debate quite interesting, especially since I recently began asking similar questions. Some of you might have read my recent blog post on ‘CBOs in community development in Zimbabwe’. I think that the full report makes very interesting reading. Of late I have been thinking that maybe one day we will have to do away with the ‘based’ in ‘community-based’.

  7. Respected Sir/Madam

    PMF (Peace of Mind Foundation) is working an on going CHALLENGE to improve public health and social life. This is an excellent opportunity for your congregation and your organization to lift up the plight of our Pakistani hungers brothers and sisters. Please consider voice of poor Pakistani hungers and support in education and health and income generate resources.

    The project started functioning in 15 slums areas where hundreds of O.P.D patients were discovered to be suffering from various illness, the PMF has made the medical facility available to the people in these areas as well. The future plan is to make the same facility available to the people living in the outskirts of the city as well in the rural areas which are sadly neglected in this part of the world. The meaning of peace of mind foundation is that 15000 families residing in 30 slums areas will be facilitated through different projects in uplifting their economics status through our programs.

    The work is an ongoing process at PMF it is trying to improve and to extend the structure, and net working relations with more GOs +NGOs, this in turn will benefit the patient/clients effectively. The project is seeking partnership through your small contribution in “helping us to help others.” Your contribution will be highly appreciated in cash and in kind as a little help goes a long way.

    Best regard
    Sajid Bashir (Director)
    Email to:,

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  9. Vijay

    I would like to add a question, related to ownership. As the project progresses are there good examples of the priorities identified by the most vulnerable (taking examples from the AIDS response, families headed by children or women) providing direction to program priorities and how these areas identified are being met?

    I guess I am trying to stress the importance of who participates, who is involved or whose ownership.


  10. I really appreciate this post– I have actively been avoiding the word “partnership” in my work because its overuse means that we lack any shared understanding of what the term means.

    I work with bi-cultural communities… communities of people here who have committed themselves to helping communities elsewhere in the world. There is another whole line of questions that we could ask about these bi-cultural communities in terms of their commitment to the “how” of collaboration over the results (and therefore shared learning), as well as how they navigate around sharing the risk of social change work in addition to the successes. So many people travel somewhere in the world and see a problem they want to address. How they construct their support of the poor community is critical in the project’s long term success.

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  13. The given list of questions is helpful in understanding the extent of community involvement. There is a need of having some tool developed to gauge representation.Many questions we ask and efforts we do in order to make our interventions ‘owned’ by the community. We often fail due to ownership of representation. This democratic norm need be delimited when it comes to community development because it’s the need of every member of the same community. As we see that Human Rights are for each and every individual and individuality runs over the group rights if group norms are violating someone’s dignity.The tool I am asking for would resolves the question number 2 as I see many other questions are attempting to probe the same.Another significant aspect your questions raise are the bonds community generates in responding to your interventions. I would value them even if those have no monitory value.The individual differences within a community and cultural differences between my organization and several of the communities we are working with create a rainbow which urges keep on working and satisfies the developmental soul.

    Arif Khalil, Islamabad

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