Success and failure of community-led initiatives

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Many different criteria for success and failure of community-led initiatives are in use, drawing on a combination of internal and external factors. Evaluation methodologies also vary, depending on what is to be evaluated, by whom and for what reason, and give different, often complementary, insights into their work and achievements. Non-linear developmental trajectories and complex cross-scale effects mitigate against drawing simple and clear conclusions from such assessments.

Defining 'Success'

Reviewing the literature, Feola and Nunes (2014) identify the following factors widely recognised as indicative of success of community-led initiatives (CLIs):[1]

  • Within their local community:
    • The strength and quality of their social linkages
    • Their resulting contributions to building capacity and empowering social actors
  • Their external impacts, in terms of their contributions to either or both of:
    • Achieving identified environmental and/or social goals
    • Creating alternative trajectories of systemic change

The TESS research project, based on a survey of CLIs across Europe and extensive case study research in several countries, defined success in relation to one or more of the following criteria (see also Figure 1):[2]

  • Their emergence in correspondence to clearly articulated socio-environmental needs
  • Their continued existence, or survival, and consequent continued, perhaps increasing, contribution to meeting those socio-environmental needs within the community
  • Their growth and/or replication, and hence increased impact upon society's socio-environmental needs
  • Their use and dissemination of new technologies and business models
  • Their contributions to social and/or environmental justice.
Figure 1. Factors influencing the emergence, persistence and survival of CBIs identified in the TESS Project.[3]

A major study of success and failure of Transition initiatives showed them to define success in terms of four types of factors:

  • human: ability to attract and retain sufficient active volunteers or members
  • external: ability to realise concrete practical outcomes in the community
  • organisation: ability to generate a positive and ambitious outlook, thus sustaining motivation and enthusiasm
  • resources: ability to promote partipication by generating positivity, fun conviviality and a sense of community

The researchers noted that members of Transition initiatives tended to focus on internal rather than external factors, attributing this possibly to perceptions skills and/or priorities characteristic of initiatives in relatively early stages of development.[1]

Measuring Success

The diversity of potential metrics of success, and varied perspectives and interests they reflect, suggests a need for similar diversity in how success is measured. Approaches to monitoring and evaluation of community-led initiatives have accordingly taken very different forms, depending on their goals.

Successful approaches targeted at self-evaluation by initiatives have generally emphasised empowerment and flexibility, seeking to provide CLIs with appropriate tools along with guidance and facilitation for their successful application.[4] Accordingly, Transition Network, in collaboration with the Low Carbon Communities Network, Transition Research Network and researchers at Oxford University, developed a set of guidelines for monitoring and evaluation that introduces community groups to a range of potentially useful tools.[5] In a similar vein, the 'resilience compass' is a tool designed to help communities self-evaluate their own community resilience, taking into account four key dimensions:

  • Healthy and engaged people
  • Creating a more localised economy within ecological limits
  • Cross-community links
  • Building a creative, inclusive culture.[6]

CLIs' own methodologiess often incorporate forms of self-evaluation. Most approaches in permaculture design employ iterative design cycles whose steps include monitoring outcomes, evaluating them according to initial goals, and on that basis adjusting methods and/or strategy; the same methods can also form the basis of more formal evaluation and/or research.[7] Transition Network developed the Transition Health Check as a simple self-evaluation tool for Transition initiatives, based on seven key ingredients of Transition shown by experience to be essential for well-functioning groups: incorporating both internal structure and dynamics of the group and its visible achievements in the wider community.[8]

Tools also exist for community groups to self-evaluate according to their contributions to external goals, in particular reductions in carbon emissions. Examples include the Track-it Tool developed by the TESS research project, which allows community groups to calculate emissions reductions associated with changes relating to transport, food, water and energy generation. Global Ecovillage Network has created the sustainability impacts of villages based on the Sustainable Development Goals.[9]

Movement-wide evaluations have also used various methods, often in combination. A survey of the Transition movement in 2013 combined use of subjective measures (respondents' opinions concerning appropriate measures of success and self-evaluation of their own initiatives' performance) with more objective assessments based on duration, numbers of participants, and progress towards achieving the 'Twelve steps of Transition'. The TESS research project also combined subjective measures with generation and collation of data in areas such as Contributions of community-led initiatives to GHG reductions‎‎, and social and economic effects of community-led initiatives.[10]

External evaluations at initiative and project level have also often produced useful results and insights. An external team of academic evaluators conducted a successful evaluation of Incredible Edible Todmorden using Social Return on Investment methodology.[11] Evaluation of Transition Streets required in connection with its receipt of a government grant, conducted partly by members of the project team and partly by external consultants, combined quantitative measures of participation, renewable energy installations, emissions savings and financial benefits[12] with qualitative data on social benefits, based on the subjective impressions of participants.[13] Another external assessment conducted by public health researchers at Plymouth University and NHS Devon used a standard Health Impact Assessment methodology, concluding that the methods used to reduce carbon footprints had wider benefits in terms of social cohesion, environmental quality, with associated positive effects on physical and mental health.[14]

Success and Failure of Transition Initiatives

A specific in-depth study by researchers at Reading University assessed the success and failure of Transition initiatives, and remains the most comprehensive study of its kind.[1]

A key conclusion was that, despite their connection with wider (national and international) networks, the major factors influencing specific transition initiatives are situated and place-specific. The success and failure of Transition initiatives, and most likely other community initiative, are therefore determined largely by local contextual factors.

Their research found successful Transition initiatives generally to share certain features, in relation to organisational structure and relationship to geographical location.

  • Organization
    • Transition training and/or permaculture training among steering group members.
    • Organised around sub-groups, for example based on themes or projects
    • A tendency to have larger steering groups and higher time investment from steering group members, relative to less successful initiatives
    • Having good connections with and reputation among other local actors, often leading to ability to mobilise funding from external sources
  • Geographic location and diversity
    • Mostly located in villages, rural areas or towns.
    • Diversity of membership correlates strongly with success for urban and city-based initiatives, but not for initiatives in other kinds of location.

Effects of Scale

Examination of approaches to monitoring and evaluation in the Transition movement identified possible contradictions between different scales of analysis. Short-term, locally specific measures of success such as whether an initiative persists, numbers of members and other beneficiaries, and outcomes of specific projects may not relate in any simple or predictable way to long-term and systemic factors such as climate change mitigation and community resilience.[15] Additionally, factors behind the success of local initiatives may be particular to that context, while root causes of many global issues lie in structural factors beyond the possible scope at which community-scale action can exert direct impacts.[16]

Numerous empirical cases illustrate this point. A study of several different networks of community-led initiatives in Bonn, Germany, for example, found a common factor among them to tbe an emphasis on salutogenesis: creation of immediate social and/or physical environments consistent with the values and goals of protagonists, hence providing a sense of coherence supportive to meaningful action.[17] Researchers have suggested that for Transition initiatives and others rooted in established communities of place - and therefore more exposed to structural constraints that residents of ecovillages and other intentional communities - their real value may lie less in concrete achievements but in their ability to inspire and contribute to transformative action at higher scales.[18] In the field of urban transition studies, for example, it has been noted that Transition initiatives are distinctive among urban sustainability actors in that they take a working assumption that collapse of incumbent social-technical regimes is inevitable (due to climate change and declining energy availability), rather than working within and seeking to perpetuate these regimes.[19] A related suggestion about ecovillages suggests that their long experience and established practice in creating countercultural environments is a key factor empowering individuals and groups within the ecovillage movement to promote more effectively action towards transformative political and structural change.[20] In every case, actions at different scales and geographical location are complementary, but not in ways that make readily visible or predictable relationships between immediate measures of success and potential (or even realised) contributions to wider issues.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Feola, G., Nunes, R., 2014. Success and failure of grassroots innovations for addressing climate change: The case of the Transition Movement. Global Environmental Change 24, 232–250.
  2. Sekulova, F., 2016. Report on qualitative success factors.. TESS Project Deliverable 3.3.
  3. A. Hof, A. Holsten, H. Berg et al, 2016. Sustainability Transitions to Low Carbon Societies. TESS, ARTS & PATHWAYS Common Policy Brief.
  4. Hobson, K., J. Hamilton and R. Mayne, 2016. Monitoring and evaluation in UK low-carbon community groups: benefits, barriers and the politics of the local. Local Environment 21(1): 124-136.
  5. Hobson, K., J. Hamilton & R. Mayne, 2014. A step by step guide to monitoring and evaluation. Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University.
  6. Wilding, N., 2011. Exploring community resilience in times of rapid change. What is it? How are people building it? Why does it matter? Dunfermline: Carnegie Foundation.
  7. Remiarz, T., 2014. Introduction: using a permaculture design cycle to conduct your research project. In Chapman, P., R. Sinfield and C. Warburton-Brown (eds.), The Permaculture Research Handbook. Leeds: Permaculture Association.
  8. Accessed July 5th 2018.
  9. Accessed July 3rd 2018.
  10. Landholm, D., A. Holsten, P. Revell, C. Henderson, H. Groß, J. Kehrer, F. Martellozzo & C. Hendrickson, 2016. Carbon Reduction and Community Impact Scoreboard. TESS Deliverable 2.4.
  11. Morley, A., Farrier, A, Dooris, M. (2017). Propagating Success? The Incredible Edible Model.Final Report.
  12. Ward, F., A. Porter & M. Popham, 2011. Transition Streets Final Report. Totnes: Transition Town Totnes.
  13. Beetham, H., 2011. Social Impacts of Transition Together. Report prepared on behalf of Transition Town Totnes.
  14. Richardson, J., Nichols, A., Henry, T., 2012. Do transition towns have the potential to promote health and well-being? A health impact assessment of a transition town initiative. Public Health 126, 982–989.
  15. Transition Research Network 2012. Final workshop report: Measuring and evaluating resilience in Transition.
  16. Smith, A., Fressoli, M., Thomas, H., 2014. Grassroots innovation movements: challenges and contributions. Journal of Cleaner Production 63, 114–124.
  17. Maschkowski, G., Schäpke, N., Grabs, J., Langen, N., 2017. Learning from Co-Founders of Grassroots Initiatives: Personal Resilience, Transition, and Behavioral Change – a Salutogenic Approach. In Henfrey, T., Maschkowski, G., Penha-Lopes, G. (Eds.), Resilience, Community Action & Societal Transformation: People, Place, Practice, Power, Politics & Possibility in Transition, Permanent Publications, East Meon, Hampshire, pp. 65–84.
  18. Poland, B., M. Dooris, & R. Haluza-Delay, 2011. Securing ‘supportive environments’ for health in the face of ecosystem collapse: meeting the triple threat with a sociology of creative transformation. Health Promotion International 26(suppl. 2): ii202-ii215.
  19. Alexander, S., Rutherford, J., 2018. The “Transition Town” Movement as a Model for Urban Transformation, in: Moore, T., de Haan, F., Horne, R., Gleeson, B.J. (Eds.), Urban Sustainability Transitions, Theory and Practice of Urban Sustainability Transitions. Springer Singapore, pp. 173–189.
  20. Henfrey, T., Ford, L., 2018. Permacultures of transformation: steps to a cultural ecology of environmental action. Journal of Political Ecology 25(1): 104–119.