#141 May/Jun 2005

The Power of a Community-Based Development Coalition

Building sustainable coalitions is an important element to strengthening community-based development organizations (CBDOs) and increasing their influence on local and state policies. To accomplish that, coalitions benefit from favorable political […]

Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


A view of the Chicago skyline on a sunny day with some clouds in the sky.

Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Building sustainable coalitions is an important element to strengthening community-based development organizations (CBDOs) and increasing their influence on local and state policies. To accomplish that, coalitions benefit from favorable political climates where the local government is receptive to community development projects, provides access to the planning process and offers financial resources. As much as possible, however, such coalitions need to develop an independent base of political power that will “weather the storms” of larger changes in political regimes and policies.

There are at least 20 statewide CBDO coalitions and many local CDC associations, especially in major metropolitan cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Detroit, and Portland. These associations often act as intermediaries between the CBDOs and funders, government and private firms, communicating the agenda of CBDOs.

When engaging with local governments, city halls and planning departments, coalition members must decide how cooperative or adversarial to be, how much control to give up or if they’re willing to shift their mission for more political gain. They may choose to work with only their limited resources, retaining complete autonomy, or they may obtain funding from outside sources and risk being beholden to and serving the interests of the funder.

This article examines the development – and eventual demise – of what was the largest municipal coalition of CBDOs in the United States. The Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Organizations (CANDO) was a leading advocate for CBDOs involved in local neighborhood economic development.

CANDO and its members were a major force in the creation of economic development programs by the city and state, the creation of planned manufacturing districts in the city, the involvement of CBDOs in neighborhood planning and, for a while at least, the increased stature of CBDOs in city development.

CANDO’s Mission

In the late 1970s, a number of Chicago CBDOs tried to finance business development projects using the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) 502 development company loan program, but were largely unsuccessful. Several of the groups enlisted the help of members of Congress and local officials in a campaign to chastise the SBA for failing to make loans in their communities. The CBDOs successfully negotiated an agreement with the SBA to streamline the program and bring money into their communities. The experience convinced the CBDOs that a more permanent coalition was needed, and CANDO was incorporated in 1979 with eight nonprofit CBDO members. CANDO experienced tremendous membership growth, and within a year it had grown into an organization with 24 board members.

CANDO did not face a terribly strong city administration in its early years and, therefore, had real opportunities to influence city policies. It is important to recall the economic and political context during the late 1970s in Chicago. Population loss in many city neighborhoods had accelerated in the 1970s. White flight, deindustrialization and other factors were taking their toll, leading to substantial disinvestment in many parts of the city. Retail strips in working class neighborhoods were suffering due to an exodus of many relatively higher-income residents and the encroachment of malls and newer big-box retailers in nearby suburbs. Manufacturing was undergoing significant decline, though the peak of that decline followed a few years later during the recession of the early 1980s.

Chicago city government was not attentive to neighborhoods or to the CBDOs’ neighborhood economic development concerns. When Jane Byrne became mayor in 1979, there appeared to be significant opportunities for policy change when she created a Department of Housing and a Department of Neighborhoods. But instead of working toward building better neighborhoods, the City Council became fragmented as many aldermen grew dissatisfied with the mayor on other issues. This contentious environment actually gave CANDO new opportunities to influence neighborhood economic development policies.

Policy advocacy was arguably CANDO’s most important activity. In 1979, when a developer proposed a suburban-style shopping mall on the city’s far North Side, CANDO members organized to block the development, fearing that such malls would decimate already struggling neighborhood retail strips. As a result of the pressure, the mayor blocked plans for the mall.

The revitalization of the retail economies of their neighborhoods had been a primary concern for CANDO members. However, with the Rust Belt recession of the early 1980s and the worsening flight of manufacturing jobs from the city, CANDO and its members became increasingly involved in industrial development and retention as a strategy for neighborhood development.

From Confrontation to Collaboration

When Harold Washington, a progressive, African-American politician, was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983, his administration and CANDO shared a concern for neighborhood economic development. Increasingly under Washington, there were fewer instances in which CANDO engaged in the sort of confrontational advocacy that it had under Byrne. The result of such a collaborative relationship was more city contracts for CANDO members (even CANDO itself) to promote neighborhood development.

With these contracts began a shift in the balance of CANDO’s activities from advocacy to program development. Although much of the early program development work still focused on the needs of its members, CANDO acted more as a service provider than an advocacy coalition. The organization struggled to maintain its mission of policy advocacy. Some members and staff thought of CANDO as more of a trade association than a coalition aimed at policy and institutional change. Even though its focus had changed, the level of cooperation between CANDO and the city gave the organization a new kind of stature. Members saw the value of CANDO being in the good graces of the city and continued to exert significant influence on city policy.

Despite the greater focus on service provision, CANDO still remained an important advocate for neighborhood economic development in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When Richard M. Daley became mayor in 1989, the fight for industrial development and retention became difficult for CANDO. Because of Daley’s ties to industrial landowners who wanted to convert their property into residential developments, he was not viewed as an advocate for industrial retention policies.

It took several years of advocacy work by CANDO to convince the Daley administration to adopt an industrial corridor policy. Between 1992 and 1995, the Chicago Plan Commission adopted industrial land use plans for the West, North and South sides. By 1996, 22 industrial corridors were approved, representing more than 2,500 firms, more than 160,000 employees and almost 2,400 vacant acres. The turnaround in the Daley administration’s position on industrial land use was a key victory for CANDO.

When Political Climates Change

A critical turning point in CANDO’s history – and perhaps in the history of CBDOs in Chicago – was the 1995 appointment of J.R. “Jeff” Boyle Jr. as commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). Boyle – who had little background in community development – took a marked turn away from the more CBDO-friendly policies of his predecessor, Valerie Jarrett, whose deputy commissioner was a CBDO leader and a former CBDO board member. Boyle’s appointment also represented a critical shift in the balance of power among the administration, the aldermen and the CBDOs. CANDO had gained considerable input into neighborhood development budgets and planning during Jarrett’s term as DPD chief. Under Boyle, this access was rolled back and power over neighborhood development was shifted almost entirely to aldermen and away from the planning department and the CBDOs.

With this shift, there was good reason to be concerned about neighborhood economic development. The city’s economic woes were far from over, and Chicago was lagging behind the rest of the region in economic growth and was suffering net job losses. The city lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs from 1991 to 1996, and the rate of manufacturing job loss exceeded that of the 1980s. There were also significant job losses in the wholesale, retail and financial services sectors over this period.

At the same time, improvements in the business services sector and the highly visible downtown gentrification made city officials less concerned about neighborhood economic development. In Mayor Daley’s second term, the political context changed and the relationship between the city and CBDOs generally worsened. By the late 1990s, CANDO no longer had significant political influence in the new calculus of city government.

In response to these changes, CANDO began taking a more aggressive position with the city on policy issues, returning to its more confrontational style of advocacy. While some CANDO board members were uncomfortable with such stances, others pushed CANDO to be even more aggressive with the city on policy issues. Many CBDOs did not feel the sense of respect and empowerment that they had experienced during the Washington administration or in the early years of the Daley administration. For CANDO, its own declining relationship with DPD and city hall meant that it was not on good terms with its single largest funder – which accounted for at least 35 to 40 percent of CANDO’s $1 million budget. Some officials were vexed that an organization funded by the city at such a substantial level was criticizing the city and its leadership. Despite a significant reliance on city funding, CANDO continued its adversarial relationship, and in 1999 and 2000, CANDO lost two large contracts with the City of Chicago. A major philanthropic funder also pulled out. This loss of funding devastated the organization’s budget. After several efforts to restructure and trim programs, which achieved only partial success, the organization’s membership voted to dissolve.

The Struggle to Retain Power and Remain Effective

CANDO’s demise can be partially attributed to drifting from its core mission, excessive program growth and dependence on city contracts. More importantly, CANDO neglected to build its members’ own political capital – particularly in their own wards – instead choosing to manage a number of narrow programmatic initiatives that did not build the power of its members or of the movement more generally. This, in turn, made the organization more vulnerable to changes in political climate and ultimately less valuable to its membership.

In CANDO’s early days, advocacy victories proved the worth of the organization to members more clearly and produced a greater feeling of solidarity. A continual struggle within the organization over how adversarial to be in its policy work reflected the changing relationship between the CBDO movement and city hall. In its later years, after the relationship between CANDO and city hall soured, CANDO’s ability to influence policy through friendly means declined. Internally, some members argued that, in fact, receiving city funding had a negative effect on the appetite of CBDOs for advocacy.

Although the struggle for power and the desire to remain in the city’s favor may have steered many CBDOs away from confrontational advocacy, changes in CBDO staff may have also played a role. As some CBDO leaders who had been trained in the tradition of the confrontational organizer Saul Alinsky moved on, they were replaced with executive directors who had more “professional” backgrounds and less connection to community organizing. With little political power and mixed support from its membership, CANDO was no longer able to advocate effectively.

Positive political receptivity and financial support from city hall or other powerful establishments should not be allowed to lull a movement into complacency or cooptation. Strong ties to such entities can lead to subtle yet significant ideological influence on an organization and its leaders. The needs of CBDOs vis-à-vis city power go beyond funding, and the task of maintaining some independence is not a simple one. Certainly, neighborhood development would be an easier endeavor in the short run if CBDOs always cooperated with the local elected officials. In the long run, however, CBDO influence also depends on developing a base of power independent of such officials.

The power of the neighborhood development movement is not a static product predicted only by some longstanding political culture of a city. Rather, the movement’s power is affected by changes in political climate and the ability of the movement to adapt and respond to such changes. When CBDO-city relationships are characterized by patronage is when building a viable and powerful coalition becomes the most challenging. It is also when such a coalition is most needed.


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