Community Development & Growing Democracy Series, Part 8: Key factors for generating positive collaborations and partnerships in community development and the growth of local democracy?

By Hannah Lebovits, Assistant Professor at University of Texas, Arlington (and former Growing Democracy project manager)
[Part 7: University’s Role]

Collaborative community partnerships can generate long-term community development efforts. But, only when these partnerships maintain a governance structure that ensures voice, representation, justice, and inclusion for those who have been historically marginalized from this work. 

Important elements of community partnerships include:

  • Trust building and collective power structures 
  • Clearly stated goals and deliverables 
  • Open and honest communication 
  • Feedback systems and accountability 

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are one of the most common forms of collaboration for community development. In this model, the development project or agenda is worked on by both public agencies, such as governmental organizations, and private ones- including fully private business partners and quasi-private nonprofit ones. 

PPPs can be successful when the existing structure of the issue or project simply requires additional actors to push it across the finish line. Specific redesign efforts would be a good example of a successful PPP. In this case, a single building or small space is the subject of the community development effort and there is little debate about how it should be designed or maintained. 

However, when the community development effort is hotly contested or revolves around more fuzzy concepts such as participation and community power, they can often fail to produce something that is universally deemed valuable and good for the community. One reason they often fail is because the balance of power is not geared towards the community. Community members can immediately sense that their input is not welcome and that their testimony will not be appreciated or believed. 

Furthermore, PPPs can lack clear goals that are well-communicated to the public, making many residents of the area confused and frustrated by the work that the partnership is engaged in. Even when the vision is communicated, the mechanisms for input or action might not be. 

Lastly, one of the most common reasons that these efforts might not generate long-term success is that they do not build internal feedback systems to ensure accountability. When PPPs lack any checks and balances- internally between the partners and externally with the community, more broadly- even individual projects can fail to meet the expectations of the residents and partners, let alone sustained development efforts.