Spotting community ownership: A reminder

These days I spend more of my time talking country ownership than community ownership, but they are one in the same, just at different units of analysis.

So reposting a part of “Spotting Community Ownership” to remind myself as much as anyone.


The processes of decision-making within local relationships and power dynamics are often the make-or-break factor in development projects. If a local organization or an aid project is genuinely community-based, it has much more to do with its relationship to its constituency than to the locality in which services are delivered. Is there genuine community ownership? Are the people served invested in the outcomes of the program(s)?

And most importantly, how can we know?

preparedtoseeAs an aid practitioner, 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 related post with explanatory participation ladder) 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. Thus I am sharing here a list of questions I have developed for aid workers, grantmakers, social entrepreneurs and anyone else who has an interest in determining the level of community ownership in a program. What are the things we can look for? What informs our gut reactions, but then can also inform our subsequent thinking?

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 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 a community’s or population’s “problems” adequately balanced with the story of the community’s strengths and endeavors to change this?

  7. Can community members of various ages, gender, position, etc. articulate a project’s 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 community members? Is mutual respect and care demonstrated? Are more than just a few people engaged?

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

These 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 an aid organization’s work. The questions also obviously contain subjective ideas that are still dependent on one’s definition of community, as well as varying contexts. 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 informed funding decisions.


This list will continue to evolve. Reading it again now, I see that when it comes to country ownership, the discussion becomes more focused on who is in control of resources. Let me know what comes to mind for you – feel free to suggest other questions or adaptations in the comments section.


Related Posts

Community Resilience: An Untapped Resource for Sustainable Development?

Already “of” the community

Subjective, squishy, touchy, feely, and fundamental: Partnership matters

Don’t change the message. Change the messenger.

What’s missing from the aid effectiveness debate? Overlooking the capacity of local organizations


  1. Yidnekachew Tilahun

    Community ownership? yes the community should decide decide what is relevant for them and what they need from others. However, who should take the initiative to identify/prioritize/ choose what should be owned by the community? their representative/s? selected by whom? who invite participants? from the beginning if it is not owned/ appreciated by the community why we “intervene” ? how do we understand our perspective is their perspective? how can we deconstruct our perceptions of the community and understand the real situation in the community?

  2. Liz Clarke

    From my experience in South Africa – in most cases the tokenism continues. Organisations have their own “core business” and poorer communities have their own most pressing needs and often there is little “fit” between the two. The passage of projects undertaken under these circumstances is very predictable – a tick box of activities within a given time frame and then move on leaving disappointing results. The more “technical” project planning becomes with clearly articulated objectives and targets – the more likely it is to be the work of a detached fund raiser. I like the questions to help spot community ownership – and when elements of these issues are present in a project it is a whole different ball game and I have seen amazing things happen!

  3. Clement N Dlamini

    It is difficult for communities to own what they didn’t initiate. I have found it very challenging for communities when development practitioners come with a rigid agenda that doesn’t allow any room for adaptation. Truth of the matter is our agendas majority of the time are not aligned to the immediate needs of the beneficiaries, such that at the end of the day the one who has to compromise really is the beneficiary. In the game of development for us to foster ownership we need at design level to involve communities, not just mere involvement but make it meaningful involvement not a form of tokenism. Make it meaningful in such a way that beneficiaries have the allowance to sway the direction of an intervention to suit them rather than this narrow focus of suitability according to the practitioner/donor. If communities feel they are making meaningful contribution to a project it is easier for them to own not as a stakeholder but as something that “belongs” to them and be willing to defend and protect it. With that being said it is important to invest in ownership in as much as we invest in activities/interventions because life and death of an intervention lies on people falling in love with it and making sure that they defend it. If we can do that then we are our way to ownership and most importantly sustainable development.

  4. In most cases you have to look at policy documents. To thoroughly find out if members who are actively participating in day to day running of organizational business and have some level of legal protection to own a stake in such business. You always have to study policies at different levels of administration and if ownership legally belongs to the people, it will definitely yield transparency in resource management. Tokenism as you mentioned in your article will allow a few founders of organizations hire resourceful people in a given community to mobilize a vibrant community to create good picture in the face of donors. Avoid being over shadowed by a vibrant community that will be created once in while with help of tokenism to avoid members from voicing out their real thoughts and insight. Participation and involvement quite mean the same and can be demonstrated without making considerable change to community, ownership can be demonstrated at all levels through policies that legally protect people’s decisions on management of resources.

  5. Pingback: Sorry but it’s not YOUR project: Why possessive adjectives are the most detrimental aid jargon we use | Practical Initiatives Network - the PIN blog

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