Abstract Background In this article, we describe the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Community Cancer Centers Program (NCCCP) pilot and the evaluation designed to assess its role, function, and relevance to the NCI's research mission. In doing so, we describe the evolution of and rationale for the NCCCP concept, participating sites' characteristics, its multi-faceted aims to enhance clinical research and quality of care in community settings, and the role of strategic partnerships, both within and outside of the NCCCP network, in achieving program objectives. Discussion The evaluation of the NCCCP is conceptualized as a mixed method multi-layered assessment of organizational innovation and performance which includes mapping the evolution of site development as a means of understanding the inter- and intra-organizational change in the pilot, and the application of specific evaluation metrics for assessing the implementation, operations, and performance of the NCCCP pilot. The assessment of the cost of the pilot as an additional means of informing the longer-term feasibility and sustainability of the program is also discussed. Summary The NCCCP is a major systems-level set of organizational innovations to enhance clinical research and care delivery in diverse communities across the United States. Assessment of the extent to which the program achieves its aims will depend on a full understanding of how individual, organizational, and environmental factors align (or fail to align) to achieve these improvements, and at what cost.