This article originally appeared on the Shelterforce website.

To truly help a neighborhood you need a lead agency to organize, plan, and coordinate many actors.

When I hear the “debate” regarding whether CDCs should work “comprehensively,” and whether comprehensive work is or should be “fundable,” it makes me smile.

For 35 years I served as the executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Corporation—a place-based, geo-bounded, nonprofit neighborhood CDC working on the southwest side of Chicago. From the day I started the job on Jan. 15, 1976, I knew we would be working comprehensively (although, at the time, we never used that word).

Why did we think this way? If our goal was to revitalize a neighborhood, it just made good sense. All of the elements of a good neighborhood—good schools, retail vitality, decent housing, safety, employment and entrepreneurship, nutritious food choices, and opportunities for youth—had to be present. In high-quality neighborhoods all of these items, and more, have to rank somewhere between adequate and excellent.

GSDC’s Story

How did we come to think like this? Greater Southwest Development Corporation was created by the Southwest Community Congress (SCC), an Alinsky-style community organization located in southwest Chicago, of which I became the executive director in 1971. We were a classic broad-based umbrella community organization with members including other local agencies, organizations, and institutions. Every year we would hold an annual congress in which all of our 103 member organizations would come together to set the platform for the following year. Each year the platform consisted of goals for education, employment, housing, safety, health care, transportation, youth activities and retail revitalization. It was our job to think holistically about the neighborhood, and for each of these issue areas we set about trying to fight negative things and produce positive things.

When I came to GSDC, the same banks and savings and loans we had been fighting in the redlining battles of the previous five years had come together to form a neighborhood real estate investment pool. We used this money to finance community development projects. Our initial work began in retail revitalization, targeting vacant and blighted buildings along the commercial corridor. We would rehabilitate them and attract merchants to occupy them. We began to promote the retail corridor as a shopping center with events such as an annual Christmas promotion parade that ran on 63rd Street for 33 years. In 1983 we developed a supermarket site that attracted a national chain grocer. To fund this activity we established a Special Service Area (SSA is the Illinois legal name for a BID, or Business Improvement District). In its first year the SSA generated $130,000, and in the year I left GSDC it generated $710,000 to finance the commercial revitalization work.

Even though our initial work was commercial revitalization oriented, we were still busy conceiving ways to work in the local industrial corridor, and on schools, health care, and yes, housing. It took us 14 years to first conceive of, and then advocate for, a public transit line that would link our population to downtown jobs, and in 1993 we celebrated the opening of the Chicago Transit Authority’s Orange Line, which links Midway airport (our Western boundary) to downtown Chicago.

By the time I left GSDC in July of 2010 we had put $500 million in projects on the ground across a wide array of program areas including retail stores, industrial manufacturing and assembly plants, health clinics, single-family/multi-family/well-elderly/assisted-living housing, office space, educational facilities, and more.

Communities Are Complex

After doing this work for almost four decades I firmly believe that communities are complex environments where interdependencies are critical.

Here are a few examples:

  • The ability for single moms to enter and thrive in the work force is enhanced by the presence of day care, as well as workforce training and referral.
  • Neighborhood safety is increased by the presence of youth sports and activities, and is also influenced by the quality of parenting and the vibrancy of neighborhood social networks.
  • Local businesses fare better when customers have jobs, and when those businesses do better they are able to grow and provide more local jobs.
  • Employability rises when local schools perform well, and families engender strong values and a strong work ethic.
  • Physical health is greatly aided by high quality nutrition, grocery stores, and sports and physical exercise opportunities, as well as the presence of primary health care services.

The comprehensive community development (CCD) approach recognizes that in a complex community environment, simultaneous and connected work in all of the disciplines and program areas that are important to a community’s quality of life is critical. It recognizes that housing, safety, health, economic development, retail revitalization, entrepreneurship, workforce develoment, education, recreation, and youth opportunities are not only important in and of themselves but they are also important and strategic to each other.

Yet, the work of community development largely exists in program silos. Local efforts to improve affordable housing, education, workforce development, entrepreneurship, youth programming, day care, violence reduction, etc., are usually performed as programs that are isolated from one another, eliminating the possibility for these efforts to add value to each other and denying the complexity that is the very essence of the neighborhood environment. Meaningful relationships rarely exist across silo boundaries. Educators know other educators, health care professionals know other health care professionals, but rarely do educators know health care professionals. And it is even more rare that they use their relationships to think through how the disparate work of each can be of mutual benefit.

Comprehensive community development seeks to change this. Its potential lies in the identification and creation of a strategic set of program approaches, planned by local leadership, to be carried out by an array of partners that, when achieved, yield results beyond what these programs can achieve by themselves, because of the value they add to each other. When practicing community development comprehensively, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

You Can’t Be Comprehensive By Yourself

So how do you launch a comprehensive community development approach? When I was coming up, we would work on something like retail revitalization, get good at it, and then add something else, and so on. Our goal was to get good at and do everything. I now know that this approach is fatally flawed, for three reasons:

  1. It takes forever, and while you are learning things, the community will get worse.
  2. No organization can do everything.
  3. In the nonprofit world everything is underfunded. Pick a program area, any program area. I challenge you to find one that isn’t underfunded. If one CDC tries to do everything, they will be sure to quickly grow their budget deficit. Definitely not a good business model.

So now we have a dilemma. Working comprehensively is the most strategic approach, but if you try to do it you will quickly go bankrupt. How do we reconcile this?

The answer is comprehensive community development can’t be the work of one organization; it must be the work of several.

Remember the old adage, “Many hands make light work?” For CCD we might alter this to say, “Many hands make the work possible!” If our comprehensive strategy array calls for housing, day care, workforce training, industrial attraction/retention/expansion, retail revitalization, health care, safety, etc., we must have agencies, organizations, and institutions who know how to perform these different types of work on board and committed to doing so in a way that complements each other.

But how do we get folks to want to come together? How can we count on them to willfully perform work that advances a common community vision?

First they need to come together to create that common community vision. To do this we start with really good community organizing. Before visioning, before planning, before implementing, we need to build a dense and strong network of relationships among a community’s resident/citizen leaders and the array of agencies, organizations, and institutions that can perform important work in that community.

The organizing, visioning, and planning process, as well as coordinating the implementation to make sure the parts are continuing to work in concert toward the same goal, requires some sort of lead or convening agency.

Here is the rub for the community development world: the prime talent that needs to be deployed by a local “lead agency” is not real estate development capacity, it is community organizing skill.

For sure, real estate development acumen will be important to implement specific plan elements, but it is the ability to organize that will cause disparate actors and leaders to want to come together to create a collective vision and then want to stay together to implement that vision. A good lead agency knows how to understand self-interest and broker and grow relationships. Most often it is a CDC that plays the role of a convening agency, but it can also be another well-founded organization or institution in the neighborhood such as a community based organization, school, health care facility, etc. The critical factor is that the lead agency must recognize that this work is not about itself, it is about advancing the collective effort.

Here is the sequence we employed as a lead agency to launch comprehensive work in a given area. This sequence has also been used by local lead agencies in the launch of several LISC Building Sustainable Communities target neighborhoods across the country.

  1. Engage neighborhood leaders by listening to them—it is actually the perception of being listened to that engages them. Ask them what they think is most important.
    • There are two types of leaders to engage. Those who are citizen/resident leaders because they have a following (constituency), and those who are agency/organization/institution leaders because they have a capacity to implement programs or projects that have been or will be conceived.
  2. Convene those leaders to:
    • create a local network dedicated to improving local “quality of life” through advancing and supporting each other’s work and interests;
    • create a future long-term vision for the community; and
    • draft a plan that will identify the programs and projects that, when accomplished, will achieve the long-term vision.
      1. Recruit partners—agencies, organizations, and institutions that will agree to implement specific plan elements.
      2. Stage public events such as a quality of life plan rollout designed to engender support for the community’s collective efforts.
      3. Undertake, and continuously manage, the simultaneous implementation of the array of plan elements, by the complement of partners.

Should Our CDC Think of Itself as a Convening or Lead Agency?

To answer this question, first ask and answer two more basic questions: Why was the CDC formed? How was the CDC formed?

Here are some common answers:

  • A broad range of local community leaders came together and decided that community development was the most appropriate option for revitalizing their neighborhood.
  • A church was looking to provide affordable nearby housing opportunities (or some other form of service provision) for members of its congregation and/or members of the community.
  • A social service agency sought to add affordable housing to its service mix.
  • An organization that is dedicated to the advancement of a specific population, ethnicity, or constituency formed a CDC to serve that body of people.
  • These are just a few examples and I’m sure there are many more.

The CCD convening agency role—that of broker, manager, and organizer—is really only suitable for the first type, where local leaders are seeking to revitalize a neighborhood. CDCs that are formed for specific service provision or specific populations may be better suited to act as implementing partners.

Why? It is within the purpose of a neighborhood revitalizer to think about the health and functionality of the disparate array of systems and services that are important to place-based revitalization. “Housers” and “service providers” have a much sharper focus on who their beneficiaries should be, usually a specific population (such as, the poor, disabled, women, ethnically defined, etc.) with more emphasis on population and less regard for place.

I have encountered a number of examples where service provider CDCs have signed on for the role of lead agency assuming that being the leader would generate more resources (money) to support their core mission, only to be disappointed and feel the tension of assuming responsibility for managing progress on activities that really lie outside of the purpose they were formed for. It would be better for these actors to participate in the collective visioning and quality of life planning, advocating for service provision to their constituency throughout the process, and then signing on as the implementing partner to provide those services. They would then be productive partners, accomplishing their purpose within the larger community transformation strategy, and they would have the comfort of knowing that other partners were working to transform the community in a way that would also benefit both them and their constituents.

When this works well, the convening agency not only brokers and manages implementing partners, it also assumes a responsibility for those partners having what they need to succeed. It is not uncommon for resources attracted by the comprehensive work to pass through the lead agency to implementing partners.

There are many places where local leaders convened and formed an organization to revitalize their place, and when they sought to begin the work they were led to the array of existing funding and programs and began working on what was fundable instead of what was strategic to their purpose. (See sidebar, p. 37.) These CDCs became vendors to those wishing to purchase social product.

Earlier I talked about the Special Service Area taxing district we formed at GSDC to fund the commercial revitalization work. In 1970s Chicago there were no programs to fund commercial revitalization. By organizing to create a taxing district we were able to actually generate revenue to support the work from those who would reap its benefits and we would be held accountable if the benefits didn’t occur. Our efforts were serving local constituents as opposed to outside funders. At GSDC there are several other instances where we were able to create a sustained local revenue stream that was directly derived from the work we were doing. We were actually able to reach a level of self-sufficiency that greatly mitigated the mission drift that might occur at the direction of outside funders.

I am not saying this is easy. It is easy to be seduced by the array of existing funding and program mix, and the paint-by-numbers CDC work it produces. To be successful we need talented local leadership that is both capable and willing to first discern how to strategically serve their purpose without regard to prevailing funding and programs. It is only then that local leaders can actually co-opt existing resources to serve the neighborhood’s purpose and not the other way around.

What About the Future?

At the end of March, the national CRA team of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency had a staff meeting in Chicago. I was invited to join a panel discussion on CRA’s origins, past, present, and future. During a question and answer session, the OCC team asked this question:

“We’ve noticed a couple events that may suggest that comprehensive community development may have lost some favor with major funders: e.g., Living Cities (among whose funders include Bank of America, Citi Foundation, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley) and LISC at the national level. What is the future of comprehensive community development?”

LISC remains fully committed to the practice of Comprehensive Community Development as exemplified in their “Building Sustainable Communities” (BSC) work. BSC has been the the central guiding force to all of the work of LISC, both at the National level and also at each of it local sites across the country

But the real answer is: It doesn’t matter what the funders (some of whom are the very same actors who caused the foreclosure crisis that has undermined 40 years of good community development work) think. People in communities will always come together to make their neighborhood better. People were coming together to do this when I was a child, and people will be coming together to do this when my grandchildren (three beautiful little girls) are elderly. It is, I think, the best part of being American. It’s called governing (note the lower case “g”).

People come together, bringing their aspirations and investing talents, skills, time, and energy to collectively imagine and produce a better future. There are lots of examples where people without much money have accomplished much, and just as many examples where money without people accomplishes little.