Nine Reasons Why Community Projects Fail

All you need to know in a concise and insightful list.  (Reading time: 4 minutes)

Have you ever seen a community-driven project fail to get off the ground, or fall apart in progress? Sadly, this is often the fate of many well-intentioned community efforts. Why do these projects fail? It’s a daunting list. Participatory City, the community-building model I’ve been writing about for the last couple of posts, has assembled a powerfully concise and insightful list encapsulating the reasons why project ideas and projects fail.  This list is one aspect of Participatory City’s effort to bridge the incredible gap in civic participation identified in their research: that 60% of people are willing to work together to improve their neighborhood, but only 3% ever do.  If you want to know more about Participatory City, check out their beautifully composed and compelling Illustrated Guide to Participatory City, from which I’ve pulled the following list. All credit for the ideas and text below is owed to them, although I’ve added some of my commentary and one additional reason. And if you are interested in figuring out how to bring Participatory City to Seattle, let’s talk! Let’s dive in.

Nine Reasons Why Community Projects Fail

  1. Lack of Skills, Time, or Confidence

Ideas can fizzle on the spot. Bringing people together to grow an idea just seems too much. Where and how to find the people, skills, and resources the project needs?

Commentary: For people with great ideas but no experience, there is really no place to turn to for help getting a project off the ground. Faced with undertaking a daunting new initiative, it’s so much easier to just sit down with a nice cup of coffee!

  1. Planning sits on the shelf

These ideas get generated with much initial excitement through a public process or new initiative… and die in the pages of a report

Commentary: It’s always a tragedy when communities invest time and energy envisioning the places where they live, only to never have it realized. Unrealized projects feed bitterness, cynicism, and disengagement. This is the reason I have been advocating for the reinstatement of the Large Project Fund in Seattle, which typically funds construction projects, and has left countless community-driven designs and plans sitting on the shelf.

  1. Too many meetings and too little action

These ideas die because of meetings that are boring, ineffective, or controlling in style.

Commentary: There is an art and craft to facilitating community meetings that are efficient, engaging, and meaningful for its participants. It’s quite remarkable how often meetings are facilitated poorly and without clarity. Quantity is not a substitute for quality! After too many meetings, the only people typically left are those who are most tenaciously clinging to their personal agenda.

  1. Waiting too long

These ideas die because after applying for funding, the wait is often so long, everyone loses their enthusiasm and goes and does other things.

Commentary: Momentum is a precious resource in community projects. The most powerful projects are successful because community members can quickly see the impact of their contributions, rather than waiting years and years. Additionally, the philanthropic and government giving cycles that often support community projects are typically long and burdensome, especially in the gap between design and construction.

  1. Not enough people

People don’t know about the project and don’t turn up. Traditional flyers and notice boards aren’t working, and feel too competitive rather than collaborative.

Commentary: I covered this in my last post on “Why People Don’t Participate.” In brief: Inclusive and effective outreach is a major challenge to success, especially if the organizing group is not representative of the diversity of the people that should participate. 

  1. Missing practical elements or resources

When you have some things in place for success, but are missing crucial elements, such as effective promotions, experience, methods, or visibility.

Commentary: There are many components to a successful community-driven project. Again, there is really no place to turn to for getting help or funding with this multifaceted work.

  1. Relies too much on heroes

One or two people carry too much responsibility, the heroes. When they get tired, move to a new area, get a job, have relatives to care for ….the project dies with them.

Commentary: Yes! I have seen this one countless times: passionate, smart, and organized project leaders who burn out or get too busy with other work/life commitments. This is often coupled with people who struggle to delegate or share project control. 

  1. Focus on single, not collection of projects

These are usually ideas too small to be sustainable or achievable on their own because the impact isn’t big enough. They could be sustainable as a collective or co-production model.

Commentary: This is especially true for smaller community-building ideas.

These first eight points are from Participatory City. I would like to add one more:
  1. Process gets mired in controversy and polarization

It only takes one or two people to send a community engagement process spiraling into “Us and Them” positions where no one wins. This is becoming more common, as the behaviors modeled in our national political environment seep into our local decision-making processes.

What do you think? Did I miss any? Next time, we look at how Participatory City converts these insights into a set of two complementing systems – a participation system (ecosystem), and a support system (platform). Stay tuned!