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Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability

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?

As 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.


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