This paper is presented as part of the Working Papers series for COMM-ORG: The On-line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. Copyright is held by the author.  It is reprinted with permission from NFG Reports, by  Neighborhood Funders Group,  Spence Limbocker, Executive Director,  6862 Elm St., Ste. 320,  McLean, Virginia 2210, phone 703-448-1777, fax 703-448-1780, e-mail To cite, use: [author] [date] [title], paper presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference on Community Organizing and Development., originally published in NFG Reports, 1998.

Rowing the Boat with Two Oars

April, 1999

By Steve Callahan, Neil Mayer, Kris Palmer, and Larry Ferlazzo

Typical Characteristics
Project-Based Community Development
Power-Based Community Development
Using Two Oars to Row the Community Development Boat
The Sacramento Valley Organizing Community
Childspace Management Group & Cooperative Development, Inc.


Anyone who has ever tried to row a boat knows the difficulty of making any progress if you use only one oar or paddle on one side. Much the same phenomenon characterizes the approach of many organizations within the broad universe of community development, both "project-based" and "power-based." Power-based community development refers to projects that primarily emphasize broad-based organizing, leadership development, and constituency building for systemic change. Project-based community development refers to organizations that primarily focus on delivering specific services such as affordable housing, commercial retail development, childcare, job counseling and training, job creation enterprises, and other programs and services.

Proponents of both project-based community development and power- based community development have debated which is more effective. Rather like rowing the boat with two oars, these two approaches increasingly need to be used in an optimal mix. Many community-based organizations are increasingly using these two strategies, and their related tactics, in complementary ways. And when employed in a timely and sophisticated manner, organizations are reaping results at a more accelerated pace and on a greater scale than ever before.

From the perspective of a funder, if a community development group does not actively employ both a power-based approach to community development and a timely and effective project-based focus in a strategic fashion to meet common ends, this could raise questions about whether funds are being well deployed in a particular community development project. Perhaps more importantly, foundations must examine even more closely the use of these approaches in tandem, since such approaches are serving to reweave the social fabric in communities and to strengthen "civil society"—a topic now receiving much attention in foundation circles. A broader and more long-term commitment to a combined project- and power-based approach to human development by the foundation world is merited.


Defining the universe or scope of organizations involved in neighborhoods is difficult. While no single source documents the number of service providers in neighborhoods, there are thousands of organizations working in low-income neighborhoods that fit the project-based description. Some of these groups may incorporate community organizing into their programs, while others may focus on the development of strong neighborhood associations.

Some organizations share characteristics of both a power- and project-based approach, though most do not. The following characteristics of project- and power-based community development are generalized and therefore may not apply exclusively to one type of organization or the other.

Project-based Community Development
The 1994 census of the National Congress for Community Economic Development (NCCED) estimated that there were between 2,000 to 2,200 community development corporations, approximately 90 percent of which reported being involved in various aspects of the affordable housing "industry." CDCs, however, represent only a small portion of the broad range of service providers operating in low-income neighborhoods, and this discussion applies to this broad range of service providers.
Typical Strengths:
  • a project focus delivers needed services such as transportation, childcare, social services, housing, jobs, retail services, and micro financing to low-income communities.
  • boards usually include local representation of various stakeholders in communities.
  • organizations tend to have some technical expertise in housing, real estate development, business, etc.
  • Typical Weaknesses:
  • organizations can become disconnected from local interests; boards are not always representative of low-income base.
  • high cost of supporting many small organizations that do not produce to scale.
  • "consensus" approach to change can result in status quo power relationships, which can constrain possibilities for change over time.
  • organizations do not often exhibit strong power and can have difficulty bringing opposing forces to the table to negotiate and expand the pool of resources available to address problems.
  • Power-based Community Development
    The number of active power-based community organizations is also difficult to estimate. The number of groups affiliated with any of the major national organizing networks or training centers (including ACORN, DART, Gamaliel, the Industrial Areas Foundation, PICO, NTIC, OLTC, Midwest Academy, etc.) is estimated to be in the neighborhood of 400-500. Many hundreds of independent organizations are engaged primarily in community organizing of one stripe or another.
    Typical Strengths:
  • based on widely held common values in civil society and emphasis on participation in pluralistic, democratic institutions.
  • emphasis on systemic change, which has potential for large scale reforms, not just short term palliatives.
  • emphasis on leadership development and the local needs and "interests" of low-income people.
  • emphasis on the accountability of local elected and other public officials.
  • relatively low-cost with replicable techniques and strategies, particularly on a network basis.
  • can lead to expansion of resources, not just competing for a fixed slice of the pie.
  • proven use of the tactics of polarization and depolarization as necessary elements to effect change in the public realm.
  • Typical Weaknesses:
  • emphasis on "process over product" can sometimes obscure progress toward concrete goals.
  • confrontation is sometimes utilized as a sole strategy, instead of as a selective tactic, and can be counterproductive.
  • sometimes difficult to maintain balance between short-term issue work and building power of the organization and leadership development for the long term.
  • organizational strength needs to be constantly maintained and leadership rebuilt repeatedly over time.
  • local focus may present difficulties in dealing with larger regional, state, or national issues.
  • lack of strong technical expertise and implementation capacity can limit the impact of an organizing victory.
  • As one can see from these definitions, the two styles of community development differ in key ways. In assembling resources, for example, organizations that emphasize a power-based approach may well mobilize people to fight for an increase in resources, whereas organizations using project-based approaches usually compete for existing resources on a performance basis. In the multiple steps of implementing a program, project-based organizations often have more technical expertise than power-based ones, and such expertise is fundamental to successful implementation. While both may have the capability to garner capable partners, this is often not the case. The strengths of the two approaches need to be more consciously combined for maximum impact. Organizations that use primarily power-based or project-based approaches can either collaborate with one another to achieve higher impact, or begin to develop their own internal capacity to do the same. Alternatively, they can remain isolated from one another, continuing to row their boats with one oar.


    Two strong, effective organizations—Sacramento Valley Organizing Community (SVOC) in Sacramento, CA, and Childspace Cooperative Development, Inc. in Philadelphia, PA—illustrate how power-based and project-based approaches can complement one another. SVOC is a community organizing group affiliated with one of the largest and oldest national networks of community organizations, the Industrial Areas Foundation. Childspace is a private, nonprofit service provider. SVOC is receiving technical assistance from the Center for Community Change’s initiative on sectoral development, funded by the C.S. Mott Foundation. Childspace and SVOC have also been funded through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. These two organizations effectively combine power-based and project-based approaches primarily by partnering with other organizations. Using both oars has contributed to the success of these organizations and will do the same for others engaged in community development work.

    The Sacramento Valley Organizing Community (SVOC)
    SVOC is an organization of nearly 30 predominantly Latino Catholic and African-American Protestant churches working in a three-county area (Sacramento, Yolo, and Solano) in Northern California. In addition to its broad-based organizing work, SVOC’s project activities include voter registration and turnout, affordable housing and micro cooperative business development, naturalization assistance to immigrants, and, more recently, a welfare reform campaign.

    SVOC’s congregations, particularly in African American neighborhoods, identified "welfare reform" as a threat to low-income residents and their communities. These churches, located in neighborhoods with the highest concentration of recipients, have organized an improved system for training welfare recipients for jobs in church-based centers. The program provides counseling groups, mentoring, childcare services, hard and soft skills training, and training in community and labor organizing.

    Consistent with its primarily power-based approach to community economic development, SVOC leaders (members of the church congregations that are located in low-income neighborhoods) control areas of implementation. This differentiates SVOC from a typical project-based approach, wherein "professionals" run the show. SVOC welfare reform campaign members lead meetings and negotiate agreements on an ongoing basis with three large health care systems, the county welfare system, the Headstart program, the housing authority, and others in the region. Community members interview program participants, give leadership training to program participants, evaluate the performance of training agencies, and work closely with employers to facilitate hiring. In the process, SVOC leaders and organizers balance the building of strong, mutually respectful public relationships with officials and service providers with the use of their political might to mandate adequate resources, timely implementation of program components, and results for its low-income constituency.

    SVOC’s power-based approach not only involves community leaders but usually emphasizes, to a greater extent than project-based initiatives, the preparation and transformation of leaders over time. The several hundred active leaders involved in SVOC’s initiatives are trained (and often transformed) to be able to:

    Although SVOC is an organizing group whose primary goal is to build leadership and power among low-income people, it also—like a strong project-based approach—employs and values technical expertise when implementing a program, which contributes significantly to the pace and scale of results achieved. Technical advisors from the Center for Community Change and Legal Services of Northern California work closely with SVOC to inject information about best practices and help organizers and leaders strategize and focus their efforts. SVOC also uses technical advice to determine how to maximize limited resources and negotiate complex financial, legal, and bureaucratic languages and systems.

    SVOC has partnered with other institutions to bring in the expertise needed to deliver services to welfare recipients, but, like a strong power-based organization, has also used its political muscle to ensure results. Once SVOC negotiates agreements with key partners, the group ensures movement by getting public commitments. A recent assembly of 1,800 SVOC members made a formidable impression on the top management of the three health care systems who attended, which led to a public commitment to hire over 200 program participants. The political pressure brought to bear by SVOC and its allies (the Mayor, the Service Employees International Union, and others) helped convince the health care systems to hire people and got the agreements quicker and on a larger scale than it likely would have with a project-based approach alone. SVOC leaves the bulk of program implementation, such as employment training and counseling services, to the private industry council (PIC), the county welfare department (DHA), and the community college. SVOC jointly supervises PIC and DHA staff assigned to work on the SVOC program, which includes a 30-day job readiness component, further remediation when needed, and longer-term health-sector-specific employment training.

    Also, by strategically partnering with a local community college, SVOC was able to respond to employer labor shortages by introducing a new curriculum to the Sacramento region and recruiting interested students. Due to recent hospital restructuring, a demand for certified nursing assistants (CNAs) trained to work in hospitals had arisen, and no program in town had yet responded, despite the fact that hospital CNAs earn higher wages and are offered more career mobility than nursing home CNAs. SVOC helped bridge this gap to better serve employers and program participants that will probably land better jobs than they would have without its help.

    As a result of SVOC’s efforts, there are systemic changes in how and how well services are provided to employers and welfare recipients, but there is also new power that can be used to tackle the next issues that arise. It is the quality of SVOC’s services that will prepare people for work and keep employers hiring SVOC candidates, but it is their power-based strategies that win larger-scale resources, coax key reluctant partners to make and deliver specific commitments, and develop strong community leaders that will ensure ongoing, sound community development.

    Childspace Management Group & Cooperative Development, Inc.
    First started in 1988, Childspace Management Group (CMG) is a worker-owned cooperative, established to respond to the need for affordable and higher quality day care in low-income neighborhoods while improving the pay and working conditions of childcare workers. CMG contracts with a nonprofit organization to operate two childcare centers serving approximately 170 middle and low-income children in racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Philadelphia. The two centers employ about three dozen people, each of whom is offered the opportunity to become an owner after one year. As owners, the workers make policy decisions affecting the centers, including passing the annual budget. In 1996 a separate nonprofit organization, Childspace Cooperative Development, Inc. (CCDI), was established to replicate the worker-owned childcare center model in other locations. CCDI has established a center in the low-income community of Richmond, CA, and is exploring several additional sites. Further, in 1997, CCDI received a grant to hire staff to work exclusively on organizing and advocacy promoting quality early education in Pennsylvania.

    Although Childspace takes a project-based approach to delivering services, and does not organize community leaders, as does SVOC, it has used a power-based approach to improve working conditions at the center and has been involved in organizing and advocacy in the larger community. This has become a critical element of CCDI’s strategy since childcare workers continue to be among the lowest paid workers in society at a time when welfare reform requires all recipients to find and keep work.

    Childspace staff knew from their experience working with young children that the major obstacle to providing quality programs was a lack of resources needed to provide decent working conditions for teachers. They knew that an excellent childcare program is predicated on excellent teachers, and that it is hard to attract and retain good teachers if the working conditions are hard and the jobs offer low pay with little or no benefits. Childspace joined a citywide group of childcare center directors who organized the first Worthy Wage Day rally in the city with over 2,000 attendees. As part of this organizing effort, workers and parents circulated petitions to ask the Pennsylvania General Assembly to approve legislation which would enable childcare teachers to have their early education degree loans forgiven. This was an important victory, as it encouraged people to become trained in the field.

    Childspace was also able to use power-based approaches to make changes system-wide for childcare workers. The group went on to found the United Child Care Union, an independent union chartered under the National Union of Hospital & Health Care Employees, which was unique in many ways. For instance, the founders knew that the movement needed to be inclusive of all types of care and formed two divisions: one for workers at childcare centers and one for in-home family childcare providers. The founding resolutions also called for organizing across the sector, instead of site-by-site, and encouraging employers to join an Employer Association that would bargain collectively with the entire union under a master contract, which would set a minimum standard of fair labor practices for the field. The Union and the Employer Association could then work together to promote increased public and private support for the early education field and improved standards of quality in terms of individual teacher and program accreditation. This is one approach that addresses a number of the complex issues that affect the quality of care for young children.

    CCDI is committed to helping others establish worker-owned childcare centers to improve working conditions within their own centers, as well as encouraging organizing work to affect the entire sector, as both are necessary to ensure that all children have access to a good quality care in their crucial early years.


    The proven effectiveness of strategies that more directly connect power-based and project-based community development should lead the foundation community to take several specific actions, including:

    1. Engage in appropriate best practices research to better guide philanthropy in its funding of community development and establish clearer benchmarks of achievement and excellence for groups utilizing the complementary strategies of power-based and project-based community development.

    2. Submit all community development project funding to an analysis of its organizing components as well as its program delivery capability, and vice versa.

    3. Establish and increase new programs committing multi-year capacity building funding to groups that are effectively blending organizing and development.

    4. Be cautious of approaches that suggest that fundamental power relationships and structural injustices that effect the poor can be altered without tension or conflict.

    Steve Callahan is Economic Development Coordinator for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Larry Ferlazzo is the Lead Organizer for the Sacramento Valley Organizing Community. Neil Mayer is Project Director for Economic Development Initiatives of the Center for Community Change (CCC), and Kris Palmer is Economic Development Specialist for CCC.