News Archives InfoFax Affordable Finance Initiatives research mainpage <Back to Infofax Archive Page>

3/25/01: The following is a hodgepodge of articles from a variety of sources (ShelterForce Magazine, NeighborWorks, LISC, and HUD) that highlights an interesting question CDCs in Miami-Dade are currently facing: what is the fundamental role of CDCs? Are they just nonprofit affordable housing providers or something much more?

Empowering Redevelopment: Toward
a Different Kind of CDC

The Problem:

The many promoters of CDCs cite their housing productivity. Without CDCs, advocates contend, there would be no redevelopment in urban Americas most deteriorated neighborhoods. Further, CDCs are more likely than for-profit developers to meet the needs of the poor and even raise expectations that will lead to political pressure for social change.

But some activists and analysts counter that however much housing CDCs produce, they have not reversed social decay, empowered community residents, or changed the balance of power at any political level. Some even wonder if CDCs are a case of social movement cooptation. They charge that CDCs have separated from their grassroots base and become just another developer..., rather than organizing and fighting for the social change necessary to sustain communities. While CDCs have taken on a heroic task in trying to rebuild communities devastated by disinvestment, the lack of CDC success at anything but housing is profound, their funding base is threatened more each year, and the reality of their cooptation is generating more and more disillusionment.

New Roles for CDC Movement

An important and positive shift is taking place in the community development movement, a shift that holds great promise for poor communities in America. This shift, known as "community building," has come to stand for a more comprehensive approach to community renewal than has been practiced in the past. It is based on an understanding that the best way to fight poverty and increase economic opportunity in poor neighborhoods is to invest in the kinds of social capital that comprise the "fabric" of community: mutual assistance networks, social and economic relationships, public safety, and education, to name a few. Today, the emergence of the community building movement is challenging community - based organizations such as CDCs to broaden their efforts and reconnect with residents. In the process these same organizations are re - tooling and re - examining their relationship with, and role within, the communities they serve. Practitioners, funders, and policy experts in our field now have an opportunity to practice a more direct and aggressive strategy of community renewal.

While the term "community building" tends to cover a wide range of approaches, for CDCs at least, it has come to be defined by a number of important shifts in the practice of community development:

  • A shift toward more comprehensive approaches to community development that involve a wide range of non - bricks and mortar activities. Also, a perspective that recognizes the multiple linkages between housing and economic development and the wide range of social development efforts
  • A heavier emphasis on community organizing as a strategy for identifying and developing community leaders and shaping the kinds of local issues that effect the progress of the community renewal effort.
  • A renewed emphasis on community planning, and the development of a community building plan, as a prerequisite to development activities.
  • A more intensive effort to include and involve neighborhood residents in the organization, planning, and implementation of community renewal efforts. This stems from a recognition that when residents have a stake in making positive change, the change is likely to be more long lasting.
  • More emphasis on making sure there are clear lines of accountability between the CBO and the community that it represents.
  • More interest in developing collaborative relationships among CBOs and achieving a continuum of support at the neighborhood level
Emerging Models of Neighborhood Planning

Most community building efforts challenge CBOs to do more planning, both internally and within their target neighborhoods. In some initiatives, the first year or two of work is dedicated to developing a community plan. This can be a difficult adjustment. Few groups have experience in planning particularly community planning. The entrepreneurial culture of many of our most successful CBOs can work against a serious investment in planning, particularly in organizations where the top staff and key board members see themselves as "product" people and the organizers as the "process" people.

Traditional planning processes have proven to be too limited for this work. Newer, hybrid models that combine community organizing strategies and more creative planning techniques are emerging. These are proving effective in identifying community strengths and assets, and solutions that are more organic to the community's values, culture, and situation.

The Dudley St. Neighborhood Initiative has developed a style of long - term neighborhood planning that is integrated with shorter term community organizing "signature campaigns" short, winnable issue - based efforts that feed people energy and substance to the longer - term, slower - paced planning work. This strategy has proven successful in moving a comprehensive community renewal effort forward. Also, the "asset - based planning" style being taught by John McKnight, Jody Kretzmann, and others is much more conducive to community building work because it focuses on building hope, linkages, and leadership, and teaching people about the inner - workings of their communities.


The future work of community development must be focused on doing a few things well.

1) Developing Core Capacities in Organizing and Planning:

There remain too few opportunities for those in the field particularly young people to access quality training and support in the basic tools of community organizing and community planning, such as community analysis and assessment, one - on - ones, small group facilitation, coalition building, and so on. Unfortunately, much of the organizing training available is either steeped in dogma or directly connected to specific models of organizing. Organizing chauvinism and the myth of pure or "real" organizing has not served our movement well. Not every organizer will be or needs to be another Saul Alinsky. Organizing has to be seen less as a sacred priesthood and more as a set of skills that can be learned and practiced by all kinds of people, in a variety of organizational settings. Specifically, we need to:
  • Increase support for training and recruitment of young community organizers, who can thoroughly be trained in the art/science of community building styles of organizing and community planning.
  • Expose executive directors and key board personnel, whose organizations are participating in community - building efforts, to new organizing approaches such as Consensus Organizing. They should also be trained in, or at least become acquainted with, the variety of neighborhood planning models that can be applied in various situations.
  • Break down the chauvinism in the field between product and process people. We need to elevate community organizers and planners to senior positions in CBOs and move them toward a pay scale that is equivalent to the technical staff.
  • Engage urban planning networks in new discussions about grassroots community planning techniques being practiced by community building groups.
  • Organize forums among practitioners and activists to take more control over defining this work and developing pragmatic measures of success and standards of practice that will elevate the common denominator in the field
2) Building Organizational Strength

One wouldn't build a skyscraper on a foundation of sticks and mud. Yet, there is some danger of this happening in the community - building movement. The foundation of this entire movement is the CBO and its ability to play an effective role both representing and serving its community. Yet there remains comparably little investment in core operating support and helping to re - tool CBOs so they can develop the new capacities needed to do this work effectively. Organizational development resources and technical assistance need to be a sizable component of any community building initiative.


  • CDCs, whether with a staff of three or 15, are stretched thin doing development. Funders and neighborhood needs keep pressing them to increase output.
  • CDCs feel that they can't be all things to all people.
  • Groups that came into existence for a single purpose, such as to run training and employment programs, may not at their founding have had a social mission for the neighborhood.
  • CDCs are Shaped by Funders: No one is funding social cohesion. No one even gives a CBDO credit for doing it. Funders have only recently funded social service initiatives as part of their 'holistic' community development concept. They certainly aren't funding organizing or activities they would say are 'soft.'
    • A look at the movement's history provides another explanation. Funders' philosophies and priorities have largely shaped CDCs. Private foundations, corporate donors, and the federal government are not institutions often known for their courage, tenacity, and risk-taking.
    • Initially, CDCs were to be more than generators of housing and economic development. Behind the Special Impact Program - later Title VII of the Economic Opportunity Act - lay the notion that comprehensive efforts were needed to attack the problems of poor neighborhoods and communities. CDCs would assist in the economic, social, and physical revitalization of low-income communities. They would develop jobs, improve services, build indigenous leadership, and involve private enterprise in the rebuilding process. Neighborhood residents would be an integral part of this work, both serving on CDC boards and as an active constituency...
    • Lured by the siren call of funders, many CDCs dropped their organizing, advocacy, and community leadership development activities.
  • Not much is known about what works in social cohesion practices, and how to measure success.
    • Community building projects are often ill - defined at the point of funding. Early efforts tend to be loosely organized with little quality control. Because the quality and outcomes of this work can be more difficult to measure than housing production, it can be difficult to distinguish between excellence and mediocrity, between a group that is going through the motions and a group with real ambition. We, as a field, have not yet developed a strong enough body of best practice or industry standards for this work from which to easily separate the high quality performers from the rest of the field. CBOs and funders alike are grasping for ways to define success
The Promise of Community Building

Community building is helping to re - focus our movement on the full range of changes needed to renew community and rebuild poor neighborhoods. It represents a more honest view of the complexity and richness of the struggle. The promise of community building will not fully reveal itself in three years, seven years, or even 10 years. It may require at least a generation of sustained support, dialogue, and major investment in evaluation and peer learning in order to mine from this work the new paradigms that will guide the progress of American community life in the next century.