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Stages of community development

Many experts believe that all communities move through identifiable stages, or phases.  As you consider the information offered below, take a moment to think about the stage, or stages, that your communities are in.

A community is a collection of people with a common interest.  The collection may be as small as two people or as large as the planet.  The common interest might be social, geographic, work-related, religious or any other interest.  Most people think of a geographic interest when the term community development is mentioned.  In other words, community usually refers to place.  The place may be a neighborhood, a town or part of a large city.  The people and the physical surroundings make up the community.  In this column, we will examine the stages of community development more in terms of the people in the community.

In their book “Creating Community Anywhere,” authors Carolyn R. Shaffer and Kristin Anundsen propose the following five phases of community development:

Phase 1, Excitement – Getting high on possibilities;

Phase 2, Autonomy – Jockeying for power;

Phase 3, Stability – Settling into roles and structures;

Phase 4, Synergy – Allowing self and group to mutually unfold; and

Phase 5, Transformation – Expanding, segmenting or disbanding.

While these phases are applicable to groups in general, my comments will be from the perspective of one who is often asked to facilitate groups that have expressed a desire to come together for the purpose of planning the future.  For whatever reason, a community decides that it wants to change.  It is in effect saying, “We are ready to build a new community.”  That is the essence of the first phase.  People are excited.  They dream of the possibilities.  They come up with a plan and a vision for their community.

In Phase Two the power-grabbing begins.  This happens when some members of the community realize that other members are not what they said they were or not what they were believed to be.  The community becomes no longer unified.  Some members become angry, disillusioned and disappointed.  They will either try to change the other member, or members, to what they thought they should be, or they will unconsciously retaliate. While this sounds negative, it is an important part of the process because this is where leaders emerge and where some fundamental issues begin to get resolved.   This is where open communication and paying attention to individual and group needs results in moving to the next phase.

Phase Three is one where individuals can say what they feel, and feel like they are being heard.  Criticism of the community is tolerated and considered healthy.  Roles have been defined, and with luck community members are in the roles that bring out their individual highest and best use while making the most valuable contribution to the community.  It is the phase when someone will say, “Let’s call on Jane for that task because she does it better than anyone else.”

In Phase Four, individuals are no longer satisfied with just pleasing themselves.  They are looking to become more.  The physiologist Abraham Maslow would probably call it “self-actualization.”  We often hear it referred to as “giving back to the community.”  

Phase Five is a rebirth in which the community sees itself as feeling the need to serve a larger community.  This often happens in the business community after a company has been so successful that it finds that it is beneficial to look externally to contribute to the success of its town or, for example, its chamber of commerce.  

So which phase is your community in?  One way to determine that is to examine whether the community is internal, i.e. doing things for itself, or external, meaning doing things for a larger community.  If the former is the case, then your community is probably in one of the first three phases.  But with that thought comes a warning.  The phases are not linear.  Sometimes they overlap or interweave.  That is why community development is as much an art as a science for those who are the field of community development as an occupation.

What if you are stuck?  If you feel that your community is stuck in a phase you may want to consider changing roles and trying out new skills.  You can also take time to review those plans and goals that you envisioned back in Phase One.   Also, think about how the environment has changed in the community.  Have member leaders come and gone?  Has there been an event that has had a fundamental impact on the community?  If you feel that the community is falling apart, have an open and frank discussion about why members have left the community or are no longer involved.

When thinking about community building it us useful to recall the old Chinese proverb.

Go in search of your people:

Love Them;

Learn from Them;

Plan with Them;

Serve Them;

Begin with what They have;

Build on what They know.

But of the best leaders

when their task is accomplished,

their work is done,

The people all remark:

“We have done it ourselves.”

(Author unknown)


Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.


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