Steps in a community diagnosis project


Visitor Question: What are the steps in starting a community diagnosis project? Our neighborhood group wants to start an assessment and diagnosis of conditions in our own neighborhood and in the adjoining ones as well. What are some tips about how to proceed? If we got the city involved, could we compel these other neighborhoods to cooperate with us? Do you think the city might help us, or foot the bill for someone else to help us? Or do you think this is something that our dedicated volunteers can do themselves?

Editors Reply: We are not sure what you have in mind when you say community diagnosis project, so our answer will be broad-ranging. That isn't a term that is in wide use in the community development field, but maybe it should be!

The closest thing to this we have described on this website is a community SWOT analysis. SWOT is an acronym, and it stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. We suggest that you comb through that page and adopt the tips from that content that will help you.

On the other hand, your choice of the word "diagnosis" suggests that you have some community ills, and you want to know what is causing them and how to cure them. In effect, you might have already identified the weaknesses and the threats, and now you want to know what to do about them. You might even want to know what this profile of weaknesses and problems is called so you can communicate it to others.

In that case, we suggest that you not confine yourself to looking at the negative. Identifying positive resources you have at your disposal also is an important part of the process because it can help maintain morale and even excitement about your community diagnosis project. A group in Chicago identified an approach they call asset-based community development, and we urge you to read the asset-based community development page on our site, follow the links there, and begin to see the world through that lens as you plan the assessment and diagnosis.

As for a step-wise approach to this assessment and diagnosis, begin by discussing how detailed you want your analysis to be. Is the outcome you are daydreaming about something you could write on one page and publish in your newsletter or email blast? Or are you thinking of a multi-page booklet that would be used in your dialogue with your city government, potential funders, or social service providers?

This brief but sharp focus on your desired outcome will help you determine whether you can do this project by yourselves or whether you will need some paid professional hep.

You can approach this as a volunteer project only, and if you have a small treasury as would be typical of most neighborhood groups, you should do this. As a volunteer project, have your board brainstorm the types of information you would like to pull together. If this is a problem-centered assessment, figure out who has the skills to research potential solutions on the internet or the time to interview experts and leaders of other successful neighborhoods in your city or even nearby cities. It is better to have a conversation at the beginning about who is available to do what than to plan an extremely ambitious effort that gets bogged down quickly because volunteers don't have the time or skills to complete it. Think of it this way: if you plan a simple project and it finishes quickly with your volunteers still having more energy, you can always ask them to dive more deeply into a particular topic of interest. But if you are too ambitious in your outline, volunteer burnout can last for months or even years, spilling over into everything you do.

For an example of how to look at an all-volunteer project, you should check out our housing condition survey page. Yes, we are recommending our own website at a really boring rate, but honestly, we do have a number of pages that will help you answer your question, and our pages are written in an easily understandable manner. Many neighborhoods would consider housing a big part of what needs to be assessed or diagnosed, so that page alone might give you a blueprint for action.

As for other potential partners in the project, if you can talk your city government into helping you in any way, whether with funding, dedicating a staff members to the project, or just offering informal advice from time to time, this no doubt would be beneficial. The added perk is that any staff members you talk with are more likely to become allies later in implementation of any strategies you identify.

Your desire to involve adjacent neighborhoods is entirely appropriate, but it is also somewhat likely to lead to complicating your project. It's certainly worth an initial conversation with each of them to determine their likely interest and capacity to help, as well as their openness to learning about their own and your neighborhoods. Frankly some neighborhoods don't want to hear any bad news and will resist any findings that they feel reflect negatively on them. But give it a try; often adjoining city neighborhoods have similar problems and issues. As they say in my city, tennis shoes run from one neighborhood to another quite easily.

As to compelling other neighborhoods to participate, if you seriously want to do this, you need to talk your city into taking the lead on the entire project. If you try to use power, leverage, or prestige to maneuver a nearby neighborhood into participating despite their reluctance, you certainly cannot expect warm relationships with that community. Use persuasion instead, and if that fails, leave them alone, barring city takeover of the community diagnosis project. Now that doesn't mean that you refrain from commenting on problems that are leaking into your neighborhood from an adjoining neighborhood; it just means that any report or even presentation should refrain from the blame game and just present any evidence that you have that your crime problem originates next door.

In brief, then, we suggest the following steps:
1. Discuss internally and agree on the complexity of the project you have in mind.
2. Describe on paper the goals or objectives of your community diagnosis project. Don't skip this step; if this exercise is difficult, it means you don't have sufficient clarity about your purpose.
3. Determine if you need help and advice taking either of the above steps or figuring out how to proceed, and if so, what organizations, governments, universities, and websites might be able to help you.
4. Make overtures to adjoining neighborhoods that you would like to have cooperate, and then make a decision about which neighborhoods will be covered.
5. Figure out whether you have the resources, including volunteer and financial resources, to produce your desired product. If not, scale it back until it is manageable.
6. Explain your plan at a community meeting and to any other boards, commissions, and organizations that would appreciate knowing what you are doing. If you have a friendly local foundation or frequent donor, you may need a special presentation to that entity. Consider that the earlier they understand the diagnosis project, the more likely they are to help supply funding for implementing the recommendations that arise from the community diagnosis. They might even surprise you with an offer of funding for the diagnosis project itself.
7. Create a clear division of duties and responsibilities; make this detailed if you are doing all the work yourselves, but even if you are so lucky as to be able to afford an outside consultant, determine who is responsible for supervising the consultant and supplying necessary information.
8. Proceed with the work. As the assessment and diagnosis progresses, begin to discuss how to present the findings and what action steps are feasible as a result of this work.
9. Present your results to neighborhood residents, adjacent neighborhoods, the city government (especially elected officials and any city departments whose work is implicated), potential funding sources, businesses, civic organizations, and nonprofits.

If you plan a really extensive diagnosis, you may want to use it as the nucleus for producing a neighborhood plan. If so, be sure to read about the community planning process, which also could give you some good hints about how to organize yourself for the project at hand even if you don't anticipate going so far as to prepare a formal plan.

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