This article is written from an evaluator’s point of view and although the examples focus on community-based organizations, they illustrate broader lessons about accountability, evaluation and participation that should prove useful to any nonprofit leader. As you read this piece, we suggest that you think about which elements of the practice described here can inform your own work.

Many community-based organizations (CBOs) experience two very different sets of demands. On the one hand, they want to connect more closely with the communities they represent and serve. Honest engagement with the community includes both understanding how residents view their situations and involving them in determining, evaluating, and then re-determining program goals. This is a dynamic and progressive process. On the other hand, CBOs need to show progress toward measurable outcomes because funding is increasingly contingent on specifying such outcomes before work gets started. This presents a conflict between openness and closure, although both point to the need for systematicways of gathering information. It is our belief that when CBOs establish participatory research and evaluation as a core part of their practice, they protect the quality of their work with their communities in a way that builds credibility, power, and influence with other stakeholders, including funders. Perhaps most importantly, it builds effectiveness.

This article examines ways that CBOs and community residents can become partners in knowledge enterprise. The examples cited here come primarily from our work in New York City, but the challenges and lessons learned have broader applicability. Since 1990, the Housing Environments Research Group (HERG) has worked with dozens of CBOs and surveyed over 8,000 residents of inner city neighborhoods searching with them for “practical truths” (Montero, 2002) that support action.

At the simplest level, if the projects and programs undertaken by CBOs embody a wish for change, then community development evaluations are designed to determine if the wish has come true. But as we seek to understand both the wish and the extent to which it has become reality, questions arise about the different perspectives and interests that define “the wish” and drive the actions taken in its name.

Tensions between the CBO’s interests and perspectives inevitably arise. For example, a CBO may want to understand who lives in the community and which housing programs work best for which residents. At the same time, the CBO may have a complicated set of interests to protect; for instance a CBO may own some of the housing and have funders who want evidence of successful outcomes.