Sustainable Community Change

Cornhusker Economics May 25, 2016Sustainable Community Change: A Proposed Model

When you drive across Nebraska, have you ever wondered why two neighboring communities look and appear to act so differently? Or have you wondered why one may be growing and moving forward while the other one seems to be stuck in time?

At first glance it appears that the original resource base and location had many similarities. The two communities probably started out, historically, at about the same time. So what happened to create such different outcomes?

This is a question that plagues individuals who work in the area of community development. One might think it would be simple to answer. In reality, it is like peeling back an onion… the layers of community leadership and participation, key decisions that were made or not made, available resources, and levels of investment typically reveal different outcomes that define a community’s future path.

Both maintaining and increasing economic growth is always a key issue for communities and it demands a huge amount of attention. But communities also deal with many social issues, directly or indirectly, like providing educational opportunities, reducing the poverty rate, improving available childcare and recreational opportunities, and increasing the access to healthcare. Social issues are directly connected to economic growth and they add another layer of complexity to a community’s future.

Developing or growing a community is no easy task. So from a community development perspective, is there a way to help a community navigate these issues over time in a positive way to stack the deck, thus allowing them to move more easily toward a more positive future?

One proposed model is called Roots to Fruit (see Figure 1.). It was recently developed by two researchers, Thomas Klaus and Edward Saunders, who worked with communities on the specific social issue of reducing teen pregnancy. The model takes a big-picture view of sustainable community change and is applicable to a wide variety of situations that communities often find themselves addressing. From the author’s perspective, “Community engagement guided by a high-performing infrastructure leads to sustainable community change that progresses through a measurable sequence."
Sustainable Community Change (Fruit)Social Attitudes - Policy, Practice & Systems - Behavior Normalization Transformation Legitimization Awareness/Education throughCommunity Conversations & Engagement Leadership Collaboration& Backbone Continuous SystemLearning &Improvement "Root Process" Community Participation Community Readiness Stages of Community Transition
A Perspective to Community Change
There are two major components of this integrated model for facilitating long-term community change: 1) the root processes, and 2) the stages of community transition.

Root Processes
This cluster of factors lays the groundwork to establish a diverse, participatory, and well-performing community infrastructure. These components support and foster the collaborative community change necessary for solutions to emerge. The processes include four components:
  • Community readiness for change - This is often indicated by past experiences where the community was successful in working on issues that required collaboration across organizations and institutions. It also shows the presence of the human capital needed in the community to provide the kind of leadership needed to work across groups.
  • Community participation—For change to be long lasting, participation by a diverse group of individuals is needed. Typically this is defined by having different genders, races, socioeconomic status, ages, sexual orientations, etc.
  • Leadership collaboration - This really steers the effort and should have a mix of subject matter experts as well as group process experts. It also identifies the backbone organization, which is a group that is responsible for the day to day work of the collaboration. These efforts might include such works as communication, fundraising, helping with meetings and developing technology tools, etc.
  • Continuous system learning and improvement - This is how the other components of the root processes stay future focused and effective. It is about monitoring the quality, checking to see what works and what could be improved, and learning from the process so that the effort is continually improving as it moves forward. 

The Stages of Community Transition
The authors, Klaus and Saunders, consider the stages of transition as a way to look at community change over time. The stages translate into the changes in the perception of value for the community change. The sequential stages that they identified include:
  • Awareness raising and education through community conversations and engagement.
  • Legitimization – When it becomes assumed this is an issue that should be pursued and that the group now owns that particular issue and is the “go-to” group.
  • Transformation happens over time if there is a steady growth of local community members who see this issue as important. It now can transform or convert other members who may have been initially resistant to the effort.
  • Normalization “is the point at which the solution to the problem has become embraced and owned by the community." 

Food for Thought
This model looks simple at first glance, but in reality, the root process is challenging to develop and to maintain. Community readiness, participation and leadership collaboration are impacted by many variables within a community – they are not static. Continuous learning, unfortunately, may be assumed. Perhaps not enough time is actually dedicated to discussing what was learned, cutting short that aspect of the process.

As we look for sustainable community change regardless of the particular issue, there is much to be learned from other disciplines. This model, developed by researchers who focus on business/leadership and social work, adds a new dimension to the base of knowledge for practitioners as they strive to assist communities focused on long-term community change.


Cheryl Brukhart-Kriesel
Extension Specialist, Community Vitality
Department of Agricultural Economics
Panhandle Research and Extension Center
University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Klaus, T. W. & Saunders, E. (2016). Using collective impact in support of communitywide teen pregnancy prevention initiatives. Journal of the Community Development Society, 47: 2, 241-258.