Out Front and In Sync

What kind of leadership does the community development field demand in the 21st century?

Community Development with a Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm

The world of community development in the 1960s and 1970s was much different from today. First, it was new, and few people knew what to expect. (To be precise, what was new was the model of locally led community organization funded mostly by government. Before that, community organizations were funded mostly by private donations and grants.) There were many fewer organizations and more government funding available for each organization. And perhaps most significant, community development organizations could take more risks and focus on their social service mission.

The preacher was the dominant model of successful community development leaders in the 1960s and 1970s. Preacher-leaders mobilized residents around a distinct vision for the future. Through their transformational leadership skills — which affected how followers believed and felt, as well as what they did — they were able to get the most of the dwindling resources of communities in decline. They were also creative. Just as clergy in religious organizations today are the spiritual centers of their congregations, preacher-leaders were also the face of their organizations to the outside world. With the support of government funders and large charities, preacher-leaders built the foundation of the modern community development field.

“Mobilizing skill was the key in the late 1960s,” said Xavier de Souza Briggs, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The fiscal environment was much more generous and much less driven by public-private partnerships and complex financial deal-making. There was more room to fail at financial and other ventures.”

The early executives of community development organizations were what are known as “transformational leaders.” These types of leaders are able to generate shared interest in a vision and shape their disciples’ beliefs about the opportunities, costs, and risks to achieving that vision. The earliest generation of community development corporation leaders was creating a new type of organization — locally led but largely funded by the government — and strove to convince residents and agency representatives alike that this model could work.

Just as clergy have to navigate between two worlds — the spiritual and the human — early community development corporation leaders had to balance the concerns of their government funders with the demands of residents who were sometimes angry with government policies and practices. This ability to move from what Briggs calls “the suites to the streets” was one of the keys to the success of Franklin Thomas, a New York City deputy police commissioner who founded the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in Brooklyn, according to a profile of the organization in the Pratt Institute Community Development Corporation Oral History Project. “Because of the respect he had earned in Bedford Stuyvesant, as well as the public and private sectors, Thomas was able to bridge some of the divisions in the community, the report says.

The early generation of community development leaders benefited from having charitable patrons in government, little competition, and the freedom to take risks and fail. That changed in the 1980s and 1990s, and so too did the type of leader that found success in the field. The transformational leader had to become a better manager.

A Steady Hand in Stormy Conditions

By the late 1970s, the community development field was enjoying success and growth. Organizations were diversifying their services and were being helped by national intermediaries that provided funding and technical assistance, as well as a supportive president (Jimmy Carter) and Congress. Then came the Reagan presidency. President Reagan, followed by President George H.W. Bush, cut federal funding for community development efforts, according to Alice O’Connor, who wrote about the history of federal policy in low-income neighborhoods in Urban Problems and Community Development. Programs such as Urban Development Action Grants, Community Development Block Grants, and others were cut or eliminated. “Pushed to do more with less, community development corporations (CDCs) moved aggressively to become more efficient operators and to tap into local and private sources of development support,” O’Connor says.

During the 1980s and 1990s, foundations and corporations were more supportive of community development, but became increasingly less charitable. Board members and program officers of funding organizations wanted their grantees to focus on tangible outcomes and to see their dollars as social investments, not charity.

In the ensuing 20 years, community development organizations became more like for-profit businesses in their growing focus on management systems, financial sustainability and accountability, as well as strategic, long-term, and succession planning. Executives had to learn to manage — that is, to control and command — as well as to lead. And they also had to become comfortable and knowledgeable about accounting and budgeting practices. The successful leader in that environment operated like a captain.

Captains control the direction of their boats, are responsible for the health of the crew and the efficiency of their systems, and navigate their boats through treacherous conditions. The captain of a community development organization focused on sustaining the organization — in other words, “keeping the lights on.“This often meant pursuing ventures that brought in more money, such as development projects outside of the neighborhood, even if they didn’t directly help community residents. It also meant putting more resources into financial and other management systems. Money that in the 1970s might have paid for a community organizer was now being used for a business administrator.

Because directors and executives had less room to fail, they sought out more people who were educated in business or management skills. That meant hiring more individuals who were not from the community and who may be from different ethnicities, cultures, and classes than their constituents. In 2003, New School University surveyed 80 people who were executive directors of community development organizations in 1987. About two-thirds of them were white and 70 percent to 80 percent of them were men. Although the community development field is growing more diverse, according to the New School study, people of color are still underrepresented, said Kenneth Wade, CEO of NeighborWorks America.

Keith Getter is a management consultant in the Northeast District office of NeighborWorks America.
Leonardo Vazquez is the executive director of The Leading Institute, and a creator of various leadership programs, including Leading from the Middle and Executive Class. He is an instructor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy of Rutgers University, where he also directs the school’s Professional Development Institute.


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