Interview with Michael Rubinger, former CEO of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation

Michael Rubinger. Photo courtesy of LISC

LISC, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, is one of the central community development intermediaries, financing, and supporting community development work for decades. Michael Rubinger was there at LISC’s founding and from 1999 to June 2016, he headed the organization, steering it most recently on a path toward comprehensive community development rather than just housing work. In a video marking his retirement, colleagues spoke of Michael as someone who remained intensely engaged with community organizations and their work, even after so many years overseeing a much bigger picture. We’ve known Michael since he became the CEO of LISC as a dedicated, persistent, pragmatic leader who encourages new thinking and finds ways to mine the promise of older ideas. And he’s got a pretty sharp sense of humor. Just before Michael left LISC, Shelterforce spoke with him to get his thoughts on the field he devoted his life’s work to.

Shelterforce: It seems like you’ve been in this field for most of your career. What drew you here?

Michael Rubinger: My first job was at the Ford Foundation [in] 1970. That was about the time they were developing their first community development strategy. I was in the national affairs division in the Office of Social Development working on this paper, which would become the program where Ford picked 10 CDCs [community development corporations] across the country and made a 10-year commitment to them of both grants and PRIs [program-related investments]. That was the beginning of it all, for them and for me. I was at Ford for five years and most of the time there I spent working with community-based organizations and CDCs.

Then I went off to work for MDRC [Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation], which started up at Ford in 1975. We were doing employment and training demonstrations around the country.

Then I went to work for the city of New York, also in the employment and training world. But from there I was contacted in 1979 by Mike [Sviridoff], who had been my boss at Ford, and he had come up with this idea for an intermediary, which would stand between community organizations and the private sector, get capital from the private sector, and make it available to community organizations.

This, of course, was LISC [Local Initiatives Support Corporation]. He asked me if I wanted to come back to Ford to work on it. So I did. And that was the beginning of my LISC career. I didn’t think [LISC] had a prayer. At that time, banks were not investing in low-income communities. They redlined a lot of them. The notion of private capital being invested in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods was unheard of. I didn’t think we had a shot. But I went back because it was the Ford Foundation and I thought, if this doesn’t work, something else will.

I took a leap of faith. And Mike was usually right about things and he was right about this. The timing was good, although just about the time we got started, Ronald Reagan got elected president and we thought, “Well, it’s all over but the shouting.” But it didn’t turn out that way, and I think it was partially [because] banks were somewhat motivated because CRA [the Community Reinvestment Act] had passed. A good deal of the money was coming from the banks.

I stayed at LISC for nine years. Mike was the president for the first four of those years, and then Paul Grogan took Mike’s place. He was my boss for the last five years I was there. Then I went off to the Pew Charitable Trust. My responsibilities were much broader. My community development interests were more targeted on Philadelphia for the years I was at Pew.

Was community development well received at Pew?

It was at that time, but they never really had an interest in community development before I got there. And as it turned out, it pretty much dissipated after I left. The trust is an interesting foundation and they’ve done amazing things, but community development wasn’t a high priority.

The definition of what community development encompasses seems to be that of a moving target. How do you define it and has that definition changed over the years?

The definition has changed, but, oddly enough, it’s gone full circle. If you look back to the earliest CDC, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, they were comprehensive in their programming. Restoration was one of the grantees in my portfolio so I knew them pretty well, and they were doing housing, employment and training, retail, commercial development, entrepreneurial training, social service delivery, [and] all kinds of things.

[Then] housing began to be the focus of most CDCs as you got into the 1980s, largely because that’s where the money was. Most of the CDCs got into that kind of programming partly because it was a way to clearly demonstrate what they were doing. You drove down the street [where] there used to be a vacant lot and now there’s housing there. You could say that you were accomplishing something and funders really liked it for that reason.

Was there pushback to some of the early CDCs that got too involved in politics?

I don’t know if it was the CDCs. It was certainly community organizations coming out of the War on Poverty. In the early 1970s when I was at Ford, Mike would say, “We’re moving from process to program.” What he meant was that a lot of these early organizations in the 1960s were accused of being in the organizing business. So there was a need to demonstrate that these organizations had a function other than community organizing. It was leading to improved living conditions, education, and health programs. So we were trying to make the case that we were about programs, not about process.

Congress passed the Tax Reform Act [of 1969], and that act basically went after the Ford Foundation. It prohibited political organizing and involvement in political campaigns for anybody in the nonprofit world that ever gets a grant. We were careful in the early 1970s to make sure we could not be accused of violating this act. And because Ford had really been the target, they were particularly sensitive to not rocking the boat. So the emphasis was on content and making sure the money we were providing to groups was going to produce programs, projects, or developments.

In those early days, how did you define a good CDC?

We never had an explicit definition. It was Mike’s belief, and I guess the rest of us believed it too, that when you found a good organization, you’d know it when you saw it. You didn’t want to be constrained because they were in technical violation of some law you had set. For us, [CDCs] had to have representation from the community. But we were looking for organizations that had capacity, strong leadership, and a track record of something. Maybe some were in the employment training business and some were doing housing, but they had a track record that you could build on.

We would go in and spend time with the staff of these organizations. We’d look at the projects and make sure that, at least to the degree that we could, [they] were going to succeed.

What made it a CDC as opposed to a social service agency or something else? Is there a unified goal that gave them a common denominator?

Yes. But by the mid-1970s, and certainly when LISC started in the early 1980s, most of the groups were not comprehensive anymore. They were almost exclusively housing, and if it wasn’t housing, they were doing other kinds of real estate development. The common denominator for CDCs at that time was physical revitalization.

How about now?

It’s broader now because communities have changed. In the 1980s, most cities were in bad shape. Revitalization was the only goal. Things like gentrification were not even known. We would have loved it if we had a little bit of gentrification in those days.

As a good barometer of that, when LISC first started, we did not make grants. We only made loans. We wanted to make sure that we were keeping ourselves focused on development. Mike felt that if we started making grants, we’d look too much like a foundation and we’d lose our way. So it was geared toward the physical side of the process.

Over the years, as new interests have evolved in terms of what CDCs or other community-based groups are involved in, that definition has broadened again. We’re still doing physical revitalization and that to some degree still defines what we do. I don’t know if you’d call them CDCs anymore. That term probably needs to be put out to pasture. We need another term because a lot of the groups we work with have such a broad program agenda. We work with groups that don’t do any physical revitalization.

With the broadening beyond physical revitalization, what’s the goal of community development now?

Comprehensive development is the way to go. I believed it in 1969 and I still do. We got off onto physical revitalization for other reasons, but it’s logical to me that you can’t revitalize or rebuild a community just by building housing. If you want to build a community, you have to pay attention to [what] matters in people’s lives. It’s about safety, access to jobs, education, and places to play. I once heard the Rev. [Calvin O.] Butts make a compelling case for the importance of arts and culture in inner city communities, as well. So you deal with them all. One is not necessarily more important than the other and they all have to happen at the same time. That’s what we’re trying to do now. And I think that’s the way the field’s going.

Engaging with school systems is different than building housing. There may be some overlaps, but it’s different. How do you knit that together?

If you would’ve asked me 25 years ago what LISC’s mission was, I would have started with the notion that we are building institutions. We’re building community-based development organizations. I don’t say that anymore. Now I say we’re building neighborhoods. We’re building communities. CDCs have a role, but so do a lot of other organizations.

We’re not looking for one organization that has all of these skills and [LISC doesn’t] claim to have all of these skills. But we’re much more engaged now in reaching out to other partners and working together within these communities so that we can deliver all of the services and programs that need to be delivered.

It’s not easy. We’re working with school systems, with the police, and with arts organizations. We’re all over the place. But they all come together [in] the neighborhood.

Have the skill sets within LISC changed over the last 25 years?

The skills have changed considerably. We used to have a much narrower focus. We now have people who know about health in communities, charter schools, employment and training, and housing. The trick is bringing them all together in targeted areas so that they’re working in the same communities toward the same goals. Unfortunately, the world is not perfect and there are a lot of organizations working in communities who don’t even know other people are there.

There was a time not too long ago when community development people and public housing people had nothing to do with each other and they were working in the same communities. That’s changed a lot today. A lot of those barriers have come down.

That’s certainly the case with health and community development.

Exactly. We’ve now gotten into this terminology of “social determinants of health.” When people start describing what that means, I say, “Oh, that’s what we do. We deal with housing, safety, jobs, and education. Yes, we do it all.”

So there’s new vocabulary and new relationships developing. But we still have a long way to go. It’s really hard to get people out of their silos. We all talk a good game in that department, [but] we don’t all play such a good game. It’s much easier to be in a silo. It’s much easier not to collaborate. But little by little, the barriers are coming down and changes are being made

We watched a video from your retirement party where you said you’d do it all again, but you might do some things differently. Can you give us an example of something you might have done differently?

I would have gone to this more comprehensive view earlier. Maybe the world was ready for that view 10 years before we did it.

LISC is in 31 urban areas and I’ve often wondered if we were only in 10 or 12 and put all our resources behind those places, would we have gotten further than we are now. It’s one of those unanswerable questions. Also, the reality of that, unfortunately, is that if you go from 30 places to 10 or 12 places, by definition you don’t have the same resources you had before because there are a lot of funders and lenders who are interested in the places you decided to leave.

So it’s not a reasonable question. I’ve been here 17 years and we’ve only added two new geographies. I wasn’t interested in more geography, I was interested in going deeper in the places where we already were to have real impact. So if I had it to do all over again, [I’d] find a way to get more impact and not dissipate resources.

When you have an institutional memory that’s being built through the integration of various folks and specialties, how do you roll that out?

The genius of LISC is that, yes, we’re a national organization, but those 31 local programs were done in a certain way. We have local boards that govern those programs. We go out of our way to make sure that we have stakeholders, whether it’s banks or foundations or other corporations. And I discovered several things. One is that you have to do it very intentionally. You can’t expect that just because you have a good program everyone is going to pick it up and do it. Somebody has to be responsible for rolling that out.

In this case, it was LISC, but we also had the second piece of the equation, which was the local participation. I’ve discovered in my foundation work [that people] have an immune response when you bring something from somewhere else, especially from New York or Chicago. You’ll go to Denver and you’ll say, “Hey, we have this great program and it’s working in Chicago and we want to bring it here,” [and you’ll hear] “Oh no, Denver is different from Chicago. That’s not going to work here.”

The real value of LISC is that we’re a delivery system. If you have a program idea and you want to replicate it, we’re the perfect vehicle because we already have roots in 31 urban and rural areas all over the country. We don’t have to reinvent it every time.

How is LISC bringing it beyond the 30-plus places?

We could tomorrow, if we had the resources. There is an explicit process we go through in assessing the local environment to determine whether we think what we do will take in that community.

We know what we need to be successful. Once we find those things, we create our local advisory committees, plan, [and] raise money locally. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens faster now than it used to because people know who we are and we have a better idea of what we’re doing.

The resources remain a problem. It’s hard to raise money. There aren’t a lot of federal sources that lend themselves to this kind of treatment. Raising money locally can be difficult. But [we also] need a certain core of nonprofit organizations that have the capacity to do what we do. We need local governments that are supportive and you would be surprised how many are not. We’re all used to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, [but] the rest of the world isn’t necessarily as ready to support community development. Finally, we need banks and local foundations to provide the resources. Without all three of those—the nonprofit capacity, the government support, and the private financial support—we’ve got a problem.

Do you have any urban policy suggestions for our next president?

This notion of comprehensive community development is the right approach. We know how to do it. Some places have done a terrific job with this, but the funding is still in silos. I have to give the Obama administration a lot of credit for trying to break down those silos. They created the Neighborhood Revitalization [Initiative] in the White House and pulled together all of the agencies, but they didn’t really have resources. Money doesn’t come to communities in a comprehensive way. It comes in a piecemeal way and invariably, you have conflicting rules and regulations [about how and when] you can spend the money.

I wish there was more focus on program substance and outcomes and less focus on compliance. [There’s so much worry] about people misspending and stealing money. I don’t want to give the impression that we didn’t care about whether [the groups we worked with] were in compliance, but that was always the next question. The first question was are they doing something worthwhile? Are they doing something that should be supported?

Why are you leaving now? What are you going to do next?

I decided to leave about a year ago because I turned 70 and I thought it [was] time.

I’ve been the CEO for 17 years and both for me and the organization, that’s enough. Any organization can use new blood, new ideas, [and to] pass the torch [on] to a new generation. And in Maurice Jones, I think we got a really strong person. He’s going to be tremendous and he is 20 years younger than I am. I don’t know where he’s going to take LISC, but I’m sure it will be fine and [he] will [bring ideas] that I never thought about.

I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t plan to just rock on the porch, although I plan to do a little of that. Hopefully I will be able to keep my oar in the water a bit and do some consulting, writing, or teaching. I’ve started to have some informal conversations around that. I like to write. I don’t have a book in me, but an article here or there while I’m rocking.

Thank you.

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