More than three decades after the community development field began to grow by leaps and bounds, community-based development organizations are still taking on the same challenges they did in the 1960s. Persistent poverty, neglected infrastructure, and a widening economic gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” are enormous issues for these small nonprofits to tackle on their own, so networking among peers and support from national associations have become critical tools in their day-to-day work. Mary Nelson, Board Chair of one such national association, the National Congress for Community Economic Development (NCCED), says ongoing challenges in the industry by no means signify failure.
“We are, in this country, always looking for the quick fix,” she says. “Community development takes patience, impatience, persistence, and networking. Results take a long time. Results and community impact need to be comparative. When one looks at the deteriorating conditions in low-income communities, then one has to compare what has happened in communities with active CDCs with areas where there is not CDC activity.”
Building the Industry
With more than 700 member organizations and a budget of close to $3 million, NCCED serves CDCs by providing information, technical assistance, and policy support, and by offering a wide range of networking opportunities through which local organizations can develop ways to support each other. The organization supports state associations, providing 18 such groups with funding for technical assistance, maintains a website and publishes a newsletter that gives members public policy updates, information on NCCED projects, and general information on CDCs. A new initiative on faith-based development, designed to strengthen partnerships between CDCs and the religious community, was launched in 1997.
Recognizing that the community development industry is also in need of organizational support, in 1996 NCCED launched an $8 million Human Capital Development Initiative (HCDI), a collaborative grantmaking strategy focusing on recruitment, education and training, career development, compensation and human resource management for community development organizations and practitioners. This project, a collaborative effort with the Ford Foundation and the National Community Development Initiative, focuses primarily on 13 communities around the country.
This new focus couldn’t have come at a better time, says Pat Smith, director of HCDI. “For the last five to seven years we’ve been grappling with the organizational capacity of CDCs,” she says. “We’re now saying it’s not about the real estate capacity or deal making, but about the people at the institution. We see that at times when CDCs experience tremendous growth and change, their infrastructure sometimes can’t handle the growth.” Through trainings focused on leadership development, as well as practical assistance in areas of human resource management and recruitment, she says NCCED can help groups meet the challenges of growth.
Smith also directs NCCED’s Emerging Leaders program, an effort to “orient the next generation of leaders to the field.” The program brings graduate students from a range of programs to Washington, DC, for a five-day program to immerse them in the history and background of community development and give them a sense of careers in the field. Now in its second year, Smith says that 27 of the first year’s 56 participants have reported that they are employed in the field, with an additional 12 looking for work and the rest still in school. NCCED also runs an internship program, placing students with CDCs to provide both the organizations with much needed staffing support and the students with invaluable learning experience and orientation to the field.
The networking and access to information NCCED continues to provide is invaluable to its membership, says Kevin Kelly, who after close to 12 years with the organization is now director of programs. Still governed by a board consisting entirely of community-based development practitioners, NCCED takes the lead from its membership, he says. The development of networking and information tools – like annual conferences, policy publications, and connecting members with other groups doing work similar to their own – is in response to what members have said they most need. Such resources wouldn’t be available to these groups if they were working strictly on their own, without the resources of a national association, says Kelly.
Alvin Goodwin, President of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, a member of NCCED since 1977, agrees. “National organizations like NCCED definitely have a role because they have access that we can’t have individually.” The organization “plays a big role in terms of education and capacity building for members,” he says, particularly around “the exchange of information and being able to talk to peers and find new ways or better ways of delivering services.” Thanks to NCCED, Goodwin says he has spoken with and met practitioners from all over the U.S. whose experiences have helped him a great deal with his work.
Trade Organization or Advocate?
NCCED has become “more mature,” and technical in nature now that it has been in existence for almost 30 years, Kelly says, and the organization has become a bit more about community development as an industry rather than a movement in response to the needs of member organizations.
NCCED has long straddled the line between being a trade organization and building a movement. “I never wanted to see NCCED just be a trade organization,” recalls Robert Zdenek, president of the organization from 1980 until 1993. “It was an interesting challenge in building a movement, not as a catalyst, but as a resource.”
NCCED’s current president, Roy Priest, comments, “We have to be a strong trade association. At the same time we have to be very strong advocates for the movement, expanding CDCs’ capacity and moving in a direction where potentially they can become self-supporting. I don’t think you can do one versus the other.”
“The work we do on the national level is translated right down to the CDCs, which are very involved,” Priest continues. “We count on them to do the grassroots work, like writing letters, calling representatives, and organizing. We set up a framework for them to work with, but without them our advocacy wouldn’t mean much.”
Priest emphasizes developing the capacity of CDCs so that they can best adapt to the changing funding and changing needs of their communities. “Rather than being driven by [their] strategic position or mission, they [CDCs] are chasing the dollars. I think that’s a problem. They never develop enough capacity in one area before they move into another area. As these groups get more sophisticated and stronger, they’ll chase opportunity dollars less and instead will chase strategic dollars in order to do more of what they want to accomplish in their neighborhoods.”
At the national level, Priest emphasizes partnerships with NCCED, building connections with organizations like the Brookings Institution, The Enterprise Foundation, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, avoiding duplication of services, and developing strategies together for strengthening the field. NCCED and other organizations have already begun participating in each other’s conferences, running workshops about their individual areas of expertise, and some specific projects are being developed between NCCED and other groups, including The Enterprise Foundation’s creation of a pre-development loan fund for NCCED members. NCCED’s annual spring policy conference in 1999, Priest says, is being planned with 10 other national organizations and associations, in an effort to “work together and bring a larger contingent of practitioners and advocates together at once, rather than making them come to Washington 10 different times over the course of the year.”
Partnerships also need to be fostered for CDCs, Priest adds. “Rather than continuing this proliferation of groups just for the sake of having a group, I believe you have to begin working across the different organizations to address more immediate and pressing needs.” These partnerships can strengthen and build the community development field, Priest says, and NCCED plans to play a vital role in fostering these partnerships. In some areas, he adds, the proliferation of groups has gotten to the point where mergers of two or more organizations might be appropriate.
“Given the kind of environment CDCs operate in, I don’t think that the goal of self-sufficiency is a real one in the short term,” says Priest. “I think it requires a significant investment strategy to get CDCs to a level where they can produce enough of their own project investments to really generate income to sustain.” Most CDCs that focus primarily on housing put much of the income from their housing projects back into subsidizing the units in order to keep them affordable, he points out. These organizations have a level of expertise that allows them to provide services that have value, he says, and they should develop ways to get a return on that value. Diversifying their efforts, by providing assistance to economic development projects through microloan programs, for example, can also provide income, Priest adds. NCCED will work to help CDCs develop these types of strategies to reach what he calls “the next level in terms of self-sufficiency.”
NCCED Through the Years
Founded in 1970, NCCED was initially an association of CDCs funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity under Title VII of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (amended in 1967 and 1968). The organization’s early work focused on advocating for the continuation of this program, and in 1973, when Congress threatened to defund Title VII, NCCED led the successful fight to retain those funds, and two years later won a fight to increase the programs budget from $25 million to $40 million.
But by limiting its membership to only Title VII groups, NCCED’s growth soon lagged well behind that of the community development field as a whole. In 1977, when the organization represented only 37 groups, a contentious debate led to a decision to open up NCCED’s membership to non-Title VII community organizations. Even with this change, Title VII organizations still dominated the organization, and when newer members tried to shift the organization’s focus to a broader picture of CDCs, some members of the organization left. At the same time, a racial and geographic split divided the organization when Hispanic and Native American groups in the West broke off and formed their own organization. Opening up the organization had quickly boosted membership to about 80 organizations, but these struggles cut that number almost in half by 1980.
These disagreements, along with significant cuts in federal programs that provided much of NCCED’s funding, led to significant cutbacks in the organization. Staff were laid off, membership plummeted, and several years passed before the organization became financially solvent again.
In 1980, Robert Zdenek became the president of NCCED and, along with the board, reaffirmed NCCED’s mission as representing all CDCs and expanded the organization’s focus to include a broad range of community economic development issues. The following year, NCCED organized the Campaign For Community-Based Economic Development to preserve the Title VII program. While the program was discontinued, NCCED did prevent the federal government from abandoning its commitment to community economic development by advocating for the creation of the Office of Community Services (OCS) Discretionary Fund to fund CDCs. This program continues to be a major source of funds for nonprofit developers.
Early on, when it just represented Title VII CDCs, the organization was quite narrow in its focus, says Zdenek, and an “us versus them” perspective prevailed. When they opened up membership to a wider range of organizations, though, the challenge became trying to make the goals of the organization meet the needs of a very diverse membership. Over the next decade, NCCED played a key role as a catalyst for new coalitions and networks. The Friends of Rural Development, the Coalition for Low-Income Community Development, The Council for Community-Based Development, and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition were all supported in their early stages by NCCED. Also during this period, NCCED created Religious Congregations as Partners, increased its budget to almost $650,000, and produced Against All Odds: The Achievements of Community-Based Development Organizations. This survey looked at groups that served low-income constituencies, were governed by a community-based board, and were ongoing producers with at least one completed project in housing, commercial/industrial or business enterprise development. Against All Odds and two follow-up reports highlighted the successes of the community development field, and advocated for strengthening the industry. [See sidebar this page]
The early and mid-1990s were a period of rapid growth for NCCED, with membership growing from 450 to 700 between 1993 and 1997, and the budget nearly tripling during that time, from $1 million to $2.8 million. With a current staff of more than 20, and a membership base of close to 800, NCCED is more diverse and provides a wider range of services to more organizations than ever before, says Kelly.
Bill Bay, whose CDC, Impact Seven in Wisconsin, was one of the founding groups of NCCED, says the group continues to be an invaluable advocate at the national level where individual groups wouldn’t have been able to have an impact. “This is not an easy industry to be in,” he says, and NCCED helps maintain a public face of the industry that evokes the potential and successes of CDCs. “We need NCCED because we’re a misunderstood movement, and there’s too much cynicism out there about what we can accomplish.”
Against All Odds provided, for the first time, a concrete measure of the accomplishments of community-based development organizations (CBDOs). Published in March 1989, the study noted that between 1,500 and 2,000 CBDOs had built nearly 125,000 units of housing, developed 16.4 million square feet of retail space, and created and retained close to 90,000 jobs.
The report noted that even though its focus was on quantifiable production, CBDOs’ “outputs” were a means as well as an end. The report explains, “They [outputs] are evidence – to residents, property owners and outside institutions – that a community can support economic activity.” NCCED produced two follow-up studies, Changing The Odds in 1991 and Tying It All Together in 1995.
The 1995 report noted that the production of housing units by CDCs had increased to 400,000 units, that 23 million square feet of commercial/industrial space had been developed, and that there had been $200 million in lending by CDCs for business enterprises. The report found that neighborhoods are being stabilized as CDCs play the role of “market-maker.” The survey noted that even though CDCs have diverse financial support, they still need continued federal funds. The study concluded that the community economic development field had become an industry.
NCCED is currently compiling information for another follow-up National Census of CDCs, scheduled to be released in early 1999.