Opinion Moving Community Development Forward

Want Leaders in Community Development? Develop a New Hiring Strategy

It's easy to stick to the tried-and-true pipeline when hiring for community development roles. But forming connections with people from different industries and generations can make our teams stronger.

IFF's Indiana team on a walking tour of Indiana Avenue with Sampson Levingston. Designated a national historic district, the area is an epicenter of Black history in the city of Indianapolis where efforts are now underway to center equity in its redevelopment. Photo courtesy of Amandula Anderson

This article is part of the Under the Lens series

Moving Community Development Forward

In this series, we examine the state of the community development field, the challenges and tensions it faces, and some promising approaches to this work.

Do you ever wonder what the next era in community development looks like? In my 20-plus years in the field, I have been privileged to work with an array of professionals with backgrounds in the arts, architecture, construction, psychology, accounting, and development. What has always intrigued me is that even though we have such diverse backgrounds, we still come together for the greater good: to build parks, housing, and streetscapes, and for community empowerment. As I look out into the field now, I still recognize those same skill sets, yet whenever I see job postings, I see that we typically seek the same type of candidate, and that postings lag for months looking for the “right” person. It makes me wonder if we are holding ourselves back in community development because we aren’t reaching deeper into our communities to find talent.

As a leader who has sought talent at many jobs, I find myself leveling up my search criteria. No longer am I just looking for someone with a nonprofit background. I seek out people who bring a new perspective that will build on the experience of the team. For example, emerging professionals who attend business networking events. They are likely there to build their current careers—but selfishly, I want to show them how much more rewarding the same technical skills can be when used with a community development purpose! Recently I met woman who was a branch manager for a local bank at one of these events. As she asked questions about my role, I could see the lights turned on for her. She later reached out to me about a role that she found interesting at a CDFI, still working with small businesses, but providing technical assistance to help owners become loan-ready. The time and energy she put into underwriting loans is now spent giving advice and support to clients she may have never encountered at her bank.

With this in mind, I am sending a call to action to my fellow leaders to think differently about recruitment. We have to start reaching outside the standard networks of conscientious community leaders to recognize the potential of people who have never been exposed to the true rewards of this field. While this may seem contrary to what you’ve previously been told, I promise it will lead to engaged, passionate, curious teams. Below I outline some key ways to cultivate a diverse, multigenerational team that will be the future of community development.

Create Active Relationships

Perusing your LinkedIn, you are likely to find a few interesting connections. What if you invited one of them to coffee, not with hiring in mind, but just to get to know them? In an interview, we are focused on a set of skills or technical expertise to align with a specific job—but if we just spent time learning what makes someone tick, how much more might we discover? Use your early morning coffees or afternoon teas to engage with someone you might have nothing in common with on the surface. Seek out connections who challenge your thinking about what the “right” age, education, or experience are for community development. Research shows that multigenerational teams have a positive impact on long-term success and growth for a company, but in order to cultivate a multigenerational team you must look outside your circle. Older candidates can bring vast experience from their life and work, complementing the younger generation’s new perspective and ideas.

I once met a young woman in the construction field and asked her to lunch so I could learn more about her. I was looking to fill a new role and took several people out to lunch to learn if they might fit. Her first question to me was, “Why did you think I might be a good person for your role, I’m in construction, not real estate?” Construction IS real estate, but it struck me—if she saw her work through a wider lens, maybe she would be more open to new opportunities that build on her current strengths and challenge her. Sometimes people get caught up in the corporate world, looking for a path to more meaningful work, and it is our duty to guide them. All the talents and skills needed to succeed at a for-profit job—such as being analytical, customer-centered, and organized—are exactly what is needed to succeed in the nonprofit sector. Often folks just need someone already in the field to highlight this.

Level up Job Postings

Oftentimes people can’t see themselves doing the work because the job description has industry talk, specialized educational requirements, or work experience that someone outside the field can’t relate to. Consider adding language such as, “the ideal candidate enjoys helping others” or “seeking candidates that are eager to help create solutions to…” Ask your current team their “why” in this career and use this language to share how a job at your organization can be fulfilling. Rewrite job descriptions to match the actual work and not be hyper-focused on certain degrees or certifications. Call out duties, such as “the opportunity to work one-on-one with a client” or “help us implement a grant to create more homeownership in the community.” Help candidates see themselves in the work. Further, as you seek out candidates, consider posting roles in new places like the local business magazine and young professionals job boards and networking groups.

Be Willing to Coach Up

I’ve often heard people say they don’t want to be a mentor because it takes too much time and effort. The truth is that one mentor cannot be all things to anyone. I have found that the people who have been willing to spend time with me on my journey each hold a special characteristic that I value and want to emulate. It’s a mistake to think of coaching as a job; it can be a fulfilling part of your career. Seeing someone reach a goal they never thought possible gives me so much joy. 

I love to see others win! Coaching goes two ways. When I take the time to learn more about an industry or profession, it helps me to see how community development connects to the world around me. Get to know not just the person, but also the work they do. It will make a more compelling case for why they should consider our field when you can make connections and use examples. The lessons you have learned as a professional can’t be taught in a classroom. Share your perspective on what’s happening in the news or your work and life experiences—this helps to build character in both of you and opens you up to different ways of thinking.

[RELATED ARTICLE: New Research Gives Different—But Complementary—Looks at the Community Development Field]

Remember, when you bring in someone new to the industry, it typically takes six to 12 months for them to learn what they are supposed to be doing. Every single person on my team has heard me say, “You are where you are supposed to be for the length of time you have been doing this work; here’s where you can focus next.” By providing encouragement and direction, you are being empathetic and building them up. Coaching may not come naturally, which is why investing in tools may help, such as understanding DiSC styles, learning to manage up and down, and the art of deep listening. And lastly, know when to make a quick referral and follow up. There is always someone smarter than you on a specific topic. Share your network.

Keep Engaged Even After Hiring

The work doesn’t end by just bringing in new, diverse talent. Forming a team is one part of the job, but supporting the individuals on that team is another. The community development profession often requires a lot of someone, like grant writing, stakeholder engagement, and assessing financial feasibility. Take explicit efforts to support that individual in succeeding. In practice, this may look like scheduling 30-minute one-on-ones, grabbing coffee or lunch to chat, driving to a meeting or function together, asking them to sit in on a meeting that has nothing to do with their current role so they can see how the overall organization functions, or pairing two people with different skill sets to work together to find solutions. When we strategically open up our world of work, we share in our fulfillment in the work and people are able to envision themselves in it.

Lastly, I think that we can all agree that community development is hard. It takes someone who is willing to mix their passions with technical skills. Have you ever tried to build a capital stack? It’s like making lasagna, only you have to keep running back to the store because you forgot an ingredient. For us to answer real-world problems we need to continuously evolve how we develop solutions in community development. This requires challenging ourselves to seek people with diverse skills and abilities who have a desire to make a difference. It is possible to have a work life that excites you—which this field does for me nearly every day.

Other Articles in this Series

Moving Community Development Forward