Public Involvement Techniques
1.B.a - Community-Based Organizations
What is a community-based organization?
A community-based organization is a group of individuals organized
by and for a particular community of people based on shared interests
and/or attributes. The community could be defined geographically
(e.g. a neighborhood), could contain members from diverse backgrounds,
and/or could be defined on the basis of something like religious
beliefs or a shared condition. Members may include various stakeholders,
such as the public, elected officials, advocacy groups, and business
A community-based organization focuses on issues and concerns
at the local level (e.g. neighborhood, layperson, city, county),
not on a national scale. They are often organized around a particular
purpose or cause and tend to be grass roots in nature, working from
the ground level upward to address issues. Community-based organizations
may also participate in regional coalitions with similar groups
in support of an issue such as affordable housing, water quality,
or connection of open space.
Community-based organizations use a number of names to describe
themselves, including association, alliance, and commission.
Many community-based organizations will hold regular meetings for
a specific period of time where they discuss the issues of common
concern. Participation on community-based organizations is generally
voluntary and open to any individuals with interest in the particular
One example of a community-based organization, Advisory Neighborhood
Commissions (ANCs), function as an integral part of major decisions
made in the District of Columbia. ANCs are composed of elected neighborhood
residents who advise the Washington, DC government of particular
issues affecting their areas including such topics as planning,
transportation, safety, sanitation, and social services. There are
37 ANCs in Washington, DCs eight Wards.
Another type of community-based organization found nationwide
is a Transportation Management Association (TMA). For example,
Transportation Solutions in Denver, CO is a public-private partnership
deigned to manage transportation demand by providing and promoting
programs to improve accessibility and mobility in the service area.
Transportation Solutions has two full-time staff members and 20
individuals who serve on the Board of Directors. Membership consists
of employers, property owners, municipalities, and neighborhood
representatives who are committed to better managing transportation
Why are community-based organizations useful?
Working with these community-based groups allows transportation
professionals to tap into key community players and an organizational
structure that has already been created. Regularly scheduled
meetings of community-based organizations can be used as a forum
for disseminating information and gathering input on transportation
plans, programs, and projects at a grassroots level.
Community-based organizations work directly with the public
and are aware of their basic goals, needs, issues, and concerns.
If the public has an issue that needs to be addressed, more people
would tend to go to the local level for assistance than a regional,
state, or national level. In addition, the public may trust representatives
from a community-based organization more than someone from a transportation
agency. Community-based organizations provide a common visible entity
with which community members can identify and rally around community
issues as a unit. They also give outsiders or supporters
a venue with which to participate in community issues in an organized
fashion. Because community-based groups are created by the public;
they can exhibit power in numbers and have strong credibility and
standing and well-developed connections within the community.
Working with community-based organizations can assist agencies
in hearing issues that are important to the community and in presenting
and resolving complex issues. Being involved with community-based
organizations allows practitioners and agencies to develop an information
network that can extend beyond transportation issues. If the community-based
organization is geographically focused, it also can provide an opportunity
to address a broad range of issues.
Does a community-based organization have special uses?
Not only do communities-based organizations represent the public
at the local level, they can also be the voice for a particular
community or neighborhood regarding regional, statewide, or national
Community-based organizations can encourage participation and
involve members of the community who may not otherwise participate.
For example, at the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in the Bedford Stuyvesant
community in Brooklyn, NY, children in the community generated involvement
from the community as they surveyed neighborhood residents door-to-door
and participated in segments of community meetings. More parents
and guardians became involved than might ordinarily have in the
past because of the childrens involvement.
Community-based organizations can also be used to gain consensus
about an issue or a project. They can be used to identify and
investigate particular issues in more depth (i.e., strategies for
reaching the vision of a plan, development of environmental mitigation
strategies, the minimization of environmental impacts). They can
also be used to gain community-level information (e.g., assessing
sidewalk conditions, local land use or lighting at bus stops). Community-based
organizations can be of particular use in a community impact assessment.
Community-based organizations may be particularly useful in
situations when transportation agencies encountering apathy or a
lack of interest about a particular issue (e.g., long range planning).
They might also be useful in situations where there are environmental
justice concerns. Low-income or minority persons may be more accessible
as members of community-based organizations than in other ways.
Who participates? And how?
Community-based organizations are typically organized at a grassroots
level, so participation tends to be broad-based. Virtually anyone
can be active in such a group, so they provide an effective mechanism
for working with the general public, as opposed to specific publics.
Some examples of community-based organization members include: individual
members of the public, representatives of community and advocacy
groups, church leaders, representatives of the business community,
and elected officials. Depending on the organization, members may
volunteer or may be nominated, appointed, or elected.
Many community-based organizations do not have professional
staff and some do not have formal office space or equipment.
This can limit their ability with professional transportation staff
during typical business hours.
The demands of participation may influence who can participate.
These might include how often the group interacts and the timing
of interaction (mid-day, evening, weekend). Participation can take
a range of forms, including face-to-face gatherings and e-mail exchanges.
How do agencies get involved with community-based organizations?
To get involved with community-based organizations, practitioners
should research what groups are in existence in the area they are
serving. This can be done by contacting local governments to
determine the players in the community, through word
of mouth, and by being alert to advertisements/fliers for specific
community-based organization activities. It is important for practitioners
to maintain up-to-date contact lists for community-based organizations
and key individuals in the community who can be tapped for discussions.
Human service coalitions, like the United Way, colleges and universities,
and national organizations often maintain contact lists.
Practitioners could then begin attending meetings and interacting
with leaders to learn more about the organizations and their
members, contact the organizations directly to discuss a particular
issue, and develop presentations and materials for use with community-based
groups. The practitioner may ask organization representatives what
public involvement techniques would work best in getting the community
engaged in the decision-making process. In addition, before interacting
with community-based organizations it is important for the practitioner
to clearly define what needs to be communicated to the organizations
and what is hoped to be gained from establishing a relationship
How do agencies use the output?
Agencies can use the output from community-based organizations
in several ways. These include:
- Gauging the reaction of the larger population that the community-based
organization was established to represent.
- Identifying the concerns or issues of members of the community.
- Incorporating the output into in community visioning exercises,
visual preference surveys, goal setting, and policy development.
- Establishing a pattern of continuing communications with the
community until the culmination of a process (e.g., when the plan
is developed, when the decision is made).
- Developing plans, programs, projects, goals, policies, strategies,
and alternatives and to resolve conflicts.
What are the costs?
Costs of working with community-based organizations are variable.
Monetary costs for the agency may be very little, unless the organization
requires technical assistance (e.g., resources, funding). Possible
monetary costs include outreach materials, food and beverages at
meetings, and facility charges.
The majority of costs to the agency would be staff time to attend
community meetings, work with group leaders, prepare agendas and
meeting minutes, and schedule meetings and facilities. This
may differ based on location or setting. A great deal of time and
effort may be needed initially to work with community-based organizations
in areas where people are not participating in many existing community
groups, especially if there are trust or apathy issues.
The major cost to individuals in community-based organizations
is time to contact community members about, and participate
in, meetings and events.
Neighborhood or geography-based organizations often have multiple
commitments; housing or crime, rather than transportation, may
be a priority. However, an agency can help build more capacity,
for example, by training community leaders. In this situation awareness
is needed with regard to local politics and the willingness of community
representatives to share their knowledge of how to get things
accomplished with others.
How are community-based organizations used with other techniques?
Community based organizations can be used with other public
involvement techniques easily, including charrettes,
open houses, video,
and public information materials.
Community-based organizations can be used with brainstorming
to develop ideas about how to proceed with a particular project.
Visioning can be
used to determine where a community wants to go in the future. Community-based
organizations can be included on mailing
lists for surveys, meeting notices, and special activities,
so that information can be disseminated through them to the individuals
in the community. Often, TMAs are linked into the planning process
and designated to disseminate information to all interested parties.
Community based group representatives could also be selected for
or elect to participate in a civic advisory
What are the drawbacks?
Community-based organizations may not be representative of the
overall community. If members are nominated, the overall community
may not agree with the composition of the group and may not feel
these members have their best interest in mind.
Working with community-based organizations for public involvement
can sometimes attract professional community participants,
i.e., those members of the community who have strong interest in
an issue or high availability and can always be counted upon to
attend group activities. Suggestions for broadening community participating
in these instances include:
- Asking the community to identify their leaders. This may render different
leaders than those that are frequently tapped. The community may not
identify leaders that are frequently-tapped as representing their
- Thinking about demographics (e.g., number of single parents,
number of elderly who may not want to drive to a meeting in the
evening) and the history of agency-public relationships in the
area. Local planning and economic develop agencies, colleges and
universities often maintain current demographic information.
- Seeking out and identifying the affected and targeted group
first. Finding out what a groups ideas, views, likes, and
dislikes are and targeting more advertisements in the affected
area to make sure the right people are getting the message.
- Going directly to the group to broaden the participation. It
might be best to start out by doing this at a project level, as
the project may be something more concrete that the public can
relate to (as opposed to the more abstract and nebulous planning
- Using the buddy system; ask each person who attends
a meeting to return next time with one other person. For the ones
who dont attend, try to find out why, then try to see if
theres a way to utilize their talents in a different way.
For example, if the community participation is voluntary and individuals
have to work during the hours of the meeting, they may be able
to perform background research or some other task through which
the information obtained could then be funneled to the group as
a whole or incorporated into the greater project at hand.
The agency can sometimes influence the decisions of the community-based
organization. In addition, sometimes community-based organizations
are not taken seriously and are considered to be trouble and a lot
of unwanted noise.
Working with such groups can be very time consuming. Community-based
groups tend to be small and focused on a particular geographic area
or issue. If a broader level of input and participation is desired,
transportation professionals may have to interact with several organizations.
It would time to build credible relationships and to adequately
educate each group on the transportation process, particularly if
there is a history of mistrust. Substantial initial time and effort
may be required in forming a new community-based group if one goes
beyond the most interested/most available people.
Generally, the benefits of working with these groups outweigh
the drawbacks because community-based groups are an effective
way to get directly to those impacted by transportation decisions.
For further information:
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).