Beyond the Neighborhood

Policy Engagement and Systems Change in the New Communities Program

By Robert Chaskin, Mikael Karlström

Comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs) emerged in the late 1980s to address the needs of disadvantaged neighborhoods through community development, collaboration among community-based organizations (CBOs), and community participation. Most CCIs have pursued neighborhood-level activities rather than promoting changes in the policies and systems that shape neighborhoods’ broader prospects for success. While there have been growing calls for CCIs to pursue policy and systems change more actively, their capacity and propensity to do so have yet to be carefully examined. This report explores policy and systems-change efforts and orientations in the New Communities Program (NCP), a 10-year, $47 million MacArthur Foundation initiative developed and managed by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Chicago (LISC/Chicago). NCP operates in 16 Chicago neighborhoods through 14 local community organizations designated as "lead agencies" that work with other CBOs in their respective neighborhoods. The report is based on qualitative research that was conducted between 2009 and 2011 as part of a larger evaluation of NCP being conducted by MDRC in partnership with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and other researchers.

The report presents case studies of four lead agencies conducting policy and systems-change efforts to improve, respectively, state budget policy, mass-transit planning, commercial development, and bank foreclosure practices. It also examines LISC/Chicago’s approach to policy and systems change and explores whether and how NCP could work more actively and intentionally in this arena.

Key Findings

  • Key organizational and environmental factors influenced the agendas presented in the case studies, and strong alliances with elected officials and others were critical to moving them forward. The four lead agencies consistently preferred persuasion and collaboration over confrontation. Even when their agendas were modest, considerable perseverance and agility were needed to make progress. Yet, even when they did not achieve their initial aims, these efforts often generated unexpected benefits, such as new relationships with influential individuals and entities.

  • LISC/Chicago has developed considerable capacity to broker resources such as funding and technical support on behalf of NCP community efforts by cultivating key relationships in the public and private spheres. It avoids traditional advocacy and rejects contentious tactics. It has built trust with influential actors and institutions by being useful to them rather than making requests or demands, and has generated opportunities to collaborate on developing policies and programs from the "inside," most notably in its relationship with city government.

  • The MacArthur Foundation and some lead agencies have urged LISC/Chicago to develop a stronger policy posture and help orchestrate an initiative-wide policy platform that can leverage the potential combined influence of the NCP neighborhoods. This prospect raises questions about how to identify shared agendas, how to pursue collective action, and whether to form alliances with organizations that are more oriented toward an advocacy and systems-change role.

The NCP evaluation will end in 2013. Additional reports are planned on NCP’s adaptation to the changing economic climate, its longer-term role in supporting neighborhood improvements, and trajectories in NCP neighborhood quality-of-life indicators.

Document Details

Publication Type
June 2012
Chaskin, Robert and Mikael Karlström. 2012. Beyond the Neighborhood. New York: MDRC.