Ever since Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty, America has grappled with what lifts people out of poverty and revitalizes troubled communities. One of the strategies that emerged from this effort was the creation of community development organizations.
While the community development field has made significant contributions to improving the well-being of low-income families and communities, at the same time, the movement has fallen short of fulfilling its goal. Too many Americans remain trapped in poverty and too many communities are disenfranchised.
For anyone who is interested in understanding how the community development field has evolved over the last 50 years, how its practitioners have become both more effective and efficient, how it has scaled to achieve greater reach, and how it is adapting, Navigating Community Development: Harnessing Comparative Advantages to Create Strategic Partnerships is an important read. While clearly written for community development practitioners, authors Robert O. Zdenek and Dee Walsh also address other areas such as health care, education, and policy—fields that are also vital to improving lives and communities.
The 50-year history of community development is a fascinating one. It began in 1967 when senators Robert Kennedy and Jacob Javits, a Democrat and a Republican, “recognized that a major void existed in the War on Poverty” and after meeting with neighborhood leaders in Brooklyn, they helped launch the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, “the prototype of what is now called a community development corporation (CDC).” In the beginning years, it was assumed that a local CDC would pretty much do it all: provide job training, develop affordable housing, revitalize commercial strips, and attract new employers.
Over time the field evolved to include not just local CDCs but what the authors call regional housing development organizations (RHDOs), which specialize in affordable housing development across multiple communities, and community development financial institutions (CDFIs), which specialize in providing financing for small businesses, new facilities, affordable housing, and consumer needs on a local, regional, and sometimes even national level.
The field also advanced its business practices. For example, as community development organizations matured, “Executives had to learn to manage as well as how to lead. Efficiency and effectiveness became as important as vision and mission.” While this insight is true for how the field developed as a whole, it is also an important evolutionary step for many community development leaders today—it certainly was an essential stage in my own development as a leader and manager.
Over its first 50 years, the community development field largely moved away from the idea that one small neighborhood-based CDC could do all the things needed to revitalize disinvested communities. Through increased specialization and regionalization, organizations became more efficient and effective, achieved greater scale, served more communities, and leveraged more capital. But while greater specialization enabled the field to develop a lot more affordable housing and deploy financing to a lot more projects, many community development organizations lost the original multi-pronged approach pioneered by the first CDCs. And for good reason—you can’t get great at doing any one thing if you are trying to do a lot of things, especially within a small, under-resourced organization.
Which brings us to the central theme of Navigating Community Development: If specialization and regionalization are essential to being effective and getting to scale, how does the field execute a multi-pronged strategy needed to address the many factors that affect communities? The authors’ answer to this question is found in the book’s subtitle: Harnessing Comparative Advantages to Create Strategic Partnerships.
The authors argue that the key to improving “outputs, outcomes, and impact” is for organizations to hone their core competencies—their comparative advantages—and leverage those advantages by forming strategic partnerships with other organizations that have different but complementary comparative advantages. The authors provide an inventory of community development competencies that can be used by practitioners to assess their strengths and weaknesses, and identify where partnerships with others may be beneficial. The combination of these comparative advantages enables the partnership to pursue a multi-pronged approach while still benefiting from the efficiencies of specialization.
To illustrate the effectiveness of this approach, the authors offer seven in-depth case studies. All seven of the profiled partnerships seem to have increased outputs and outcomes, but their overall effect is harder to know. The community health–focused strategy led by East Bay Asian Local Development Organization and the collaboration formed around improving the Fairmont Indigo transit line in Boston seem especially promising. And the CDC of Brownsville’s small dollar loan program, which is delivered through a national network of nonprofit community lenders, promises to have a significant effect on helping people achieve greater financial security by providing a viable alternative to predatory payday lending.
Of course the strategic partnership approach is dependent on finding partners that can execute important aspects of the strategy. One of the book’s case study organizations is Chicago-based CDFI IFF. IFF’s strategy to help revitalize five suburban communities in West Cook County, Illinois, is impressive in that five local governments asked the nonprofit CDFI to coordinate their efforts—to, in essence, be their “quarterback.” The strategy involved rehabilitating and selling foreclosed homes to owner occupants. While IFF deployed significant financing to the effort and identified partners that could do the construction work and ensure buyers met program requirements, it could not find a partner in the Chicago region with a proven system to help potential buyers overcome barriers to qualify for mortgages—a component that would have built new demand for homes and greatly increased the impact in the targeted communities.
The idea of community development organizations working together to multiply their effect is certainly not a new concept. Several years ago, foundations were promoting “comprehensive community development.” Today the more common term is “collective impact” or the idea of a “community quarterback” who guides the common effort. This book did not have such examples, but I would have been interested in an examination of a collaboration that came up short as a way to better understand how best to leverage organizational competencies.
No matter what we’re calling it today, the proposition that the community development field will achieve greater impact through strategic partnerships formed around different but complementary comparative advantages is helpful. This way of thinking helps the field move beyond collaboration for collaboration’s sake in order to focus on real strategies, leverage real competencies, and align to accomplish worthwhile goals.
This book, however, doesn’t settle all the issues that it raises. For example, while the authors cite several examples of past comprehensive community development efforts that failed, it would have been helpful to include more analysis of what contributed to those failures. But it does further discussion of how to make the community development field more effective, spurring practitioners to ask new questions about their work. More than anything, it is these new questions that will help advance our collective work-in-progress.