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Publication #FCS9209

IFAS Community Development: The Importance of Local Community Action in Shaping Development 1

Mark A. Brennan, Muthusami Kumaran, Randall Cantrell, and Michael Spranger 2

This paper is part of a series of discussions on community development. This series will include specialized papers on civic engagement, community action, and other topics important to the development of community.


The need for local participation and the organization of local residents to meet the challenges facing their communities are becoming increasingly important (Schachter and Yang, 2012). Extension professionals and policy-makers are more frequently faced with the task of establishing community programs in settings characterized by different needs, values, and policy preferences among groups of stakeholders. In many communities, these differences are often between groups seeking to protect community quality and sustainability, and those who seek to exploit local resources (especially the local workforce and natural resource base) as a means of achieving economic development. Equally common is the consistent transfer of responsibilities for services from government agencies to nonprofit community organizations. Such conditions have resulted in local residents and community organizations taking on greater roles in providing services and planning for future needs (Sharp, 2012). In response to the pressures and changes in such communities, activists, community-based nonprofit organizations, and coalitions of concerned community groups have emerged to shape and guide the development process.

Similarly, organized local residents have played instrumental roles in identifying new development options in localities that historically were presented with few or no such options. Community-based action in these and other settings is seen as essential to community development and to the social and economic well-being of the locale.

Often, there are no easy solutions to these issues where there is conflict with differing needs, values, and preferences. Often referred to as “wicked problems,” these issues can be extremely complex where there may not be a final solution, but may be dependent on ensuring that all affected parties are involved in the discussions. These problems are not morally wicked, but are diabolical in that they resist the usual attempts to resolve them; the compromised solution often is relegated to whatever can best be done at the time (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

Community and the Action Process

The emergence of meaningful community development involves both interaction among residents and community action. Community action refers to the process of building social relationships in pursuit of common community interests and maintaining local life (Wilkinson, 1991). Community action is seen as being the foundation of the community-development process, because it encompasses deliberate and positive efforts designed to meet the general needs of all local residents. This process represents multiple and diverse interests in the locality, and consequently provides a more comprehensive approach to community development (Wilkinson, 1991). Therefore, the action process is intended to benefit the entire community and to cut across diversity that may exist (class, race, ethnicity, etc.).

In the overall process of community development, local residents’ action focuses on the improvement of social well-being and involves people working together in pursuit of their general interests. This power is manifested in the ability of individuals to come together and work toward common community goals. When diverse individuals and their organizations interact with one another, they begin to mutually understand the needs and wants that are common to all residents (Wilkinson, 1991; Luloff and Swanson, 1995). Such action provides local residents with the ability to retain community identities, maintain local control over decision-making, and address their own issues and development needs. It is a central component of community and social well-being.

The existence of community action directs attention to the fact that local people acting together often have the power to transform and change their community (Gaventa, 1980; Luloff and Swanson, 1995). Community action and corresponding development can be seen as the process of building relationships that increase the adaptive capacity of local people within a common territory. This adaptive capacity is reflected in the ability of people to manage, utilize, and enhance those resources available to them in addressing their local issues (Luloff, 1990; Wilkinson, 1991; Luloff and Swanson, 1995; Luloff and Bridger, 2003). As long as people care about each other and the place they live, every community has the potential for such collective action. This ability allows distinctions to be made between simple aggregates of people and actual communities.

The Community Action Process

To impact social well-being, community action must seek the development of the entire community, not simply the individual elements within it (Summers, 1986; Christenson and Robinson, 1989; Wilkinson, 1991). The community action process can be seen as containing far more than simple individual actions and efforts (Wilkinson, 1991). Most effective action efforts proceed through a series of steps that focus on solving specific problems and bringing residents closer together in the process. For community action to succeed, five sequential stages or steps can be identified: initiation, organization of sponsorship, goal setting, recruitment, and implementation (Wilkinson, 1970; Wilkinson, 1991):

  1. The first stage, initiation, focuses on promoting awareness of the issue related to the action. Initiation and spread of interest occurs when community members recognize and define an issue as being a problem or need, and they begin to discuss it as a potential focus for group action.

  2. The second stage focuses on the organization of sponsorship. This step addresses the structures, organizations, and resources available within and outside of the community. Such factors are important in relation to assessing community needs and the development of action efforts to address perceived problems.

  3. The third stage is goal setting and strategy development. This stage develops targets for action and identifies strategies for achieving community-decided goals.

  4. The fourth stage is recruitment and mobilization of needed resources including people, funds, and materials. Community members possess a variety of experience, skills, funding, materials, networks, and other resources vital to achieving desired community goals. Organizing and maximizing these resources significantly impact the success of community action efforts.

  5. The final stage involves the application of these resources in the implementation of plans to achieve the desired goals. At this stage, specific actions are taken, assessed, adjusted, and implemented again.


Community action and the emergence of community should not be seen as representing romantic or idealized notions of local harmony and solidarity (Wilkinson, 1991; Luloff and Swanson, 1995; Luloff and Bridger, 2003). The truth is that focused and deliberate actions represent something far different. Action emerges out of interaction between diverse social groups, who often have clashing or at least distinctly different points of view. Interaction facilitates the coming together of such groups to assess their common and general needs. From this process, they form plans for action that benefit all stakeholders and ultimately the community in general.

The importance of organizing diverse local residents to help shape community development cannot be overstated. By providing a comprehensive assessment of local conditions that represents all segments of the community, more efficient and successful programs can be developed. The input and guidance from local residents allow development to build upon the unique conditions and character of the community and allow local decision-making to remain in the locale. All of these create an environment where active local residents directly shape the community and its well-being.


Christenson, J. A. and J. W. Robinson. 1989. Community Development in Perspective. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.

Gaventa, J. 1980. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Luloff, A.E. 1990. “Community and Social Change: How Do Small Communities Act?” Pp. 214-227 in A.E. Luloff and L.E. Swanson (eds.), American Rural Communities. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Luloff, A.E., and J. Bridger. 2003. Community Agency and Local Development. Pp. 203-213 in Challenges for Rural America in the Twenty-First Century, edited by D. Brown and L. Swanson. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Luloff, A. E. and L. Swanson. 1995. "Community Agency and Disaffection: Enhancing Collective Resources." Pp. 351-372 in Investing in People: The Human Capital Needs of Rural America, edited by L. Beaulieu and D. Mulkey. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Rittel, H. and M. Webber. 1073. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences. Vol 4. Pp. 155-169

Schachter, H.H. and K. Yang. (eds.). 2012. The State of Citizen Participation in America. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Sharp, E.B. 2012. “Citizen Participation at the Local Level.” Pp. 101-129 in The State of Citizen Participation in America, Schachter, H.H. and K. Yang. (eds.). 2012. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Summers, G. 1986. “Rural Community Development.” Annual Review of Sociology. 12: 341-371.

Wilkinson, K. 1970. “Phases and roles in community action.” Rural Sociology. 35 (1): 54-68.

Wilkinson, K.P. 1991. The Community in Rural America. New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Suggested Websites

Civic Practices Network

The Community Development Society

Community Resource Group

Community Tool Box

International Association for Community Development



This document is FCS 9209, of a series of the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date March 2005. Revised January 2014. Reviewed January 2014. Please visit the EDIS website at


Mark A. Brennan, PhD, former assistant professor; Muthusami Kumaran, PhD, assistant professor; Randall Cantrell, PhD, assistant professor; and Michael Spranger, PhD, professor; Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL, 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.