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Training Tomorrow's Leaders: Building the next generation of community development leadership

The path for aspiring doctors or lawyers is pretty straightforward: Pick one of a myriad of schools from which to earn a professional degree, graduate, and go to work in the industry. By contrast, there is not a clearly defined path to a career in community development. It is a complex industry, blending real estate finance, human services, city planning, organizing and public policy, but always rooted in community values. While some schools offer degrees in community development, many of the industry’s professionals come from other disciplines, such as banking, social services and the public sector. Leadership development programs can help bridge gaps in industry knowledge, build and mature the capacity of staff, and prepare the next generation of diverse leaders.

Building bench strength

Daring to Lead, a 2011 Compass Point survey of more than 3,000 nonprofit executive directors, found that 67% of directors planned to leave in the next 5 years. Organizations need to ensure they have the capacity to carry on when leaders – especially founders – depart. An important element of this preparation is building the bench, the middle-level and junior employees who will move up the ladder to lead the organization one day.

Increasing diversity at the leadership level

The community development industry also needs increased diversity at the leadership level. Community based organizations largely work in majority-minority communities. While they often have diverse staff, their leadership has not traditionally reflected the people they serve. Leadership development targeted to people of color is one way to encourage career opportunities for people who are members of the communities they serve.

Retaining talent in small communities

Leadership development can also help to combat the “brain drain” of professionals and young people leaving the community to establish their careers, particularly in rural areas and small towns. By building leaders within the community, these programs offer opportunities for advancement and enticement to stay.


Leadership Development in LISC Communities

Through its programs across the country, LISC supports leadership development initiatives that target all of these needs: closing knowledge gaps, building bench strength, increasing diversity and retaining talent. For this article, we showcase successful programs in California, Milwaukee, and rural Appalachia.

Housing Development Training Institute (HDTI)

LISC’s three California programs work together to put on the Housing Development Training Institute (HDTI), a 25-year-old program aimed at improving the real estate development skills of CDC development staff. Project managers from nonprofit developers all over California meet on a college campus for two one-week periods over the course of a year. They stay in dorms and attend intensive training classes during their weeks on campus, where the residential setting enables them to focus on the task at hand without the distractions of their day-to-day workloads. Trainees work in teams using case studies of real projects to dive into the deals in a comprehensive way and understand not only how to put the numbers together, but why the financing works the way it does. The HDTI Class of 2016 graduated 44 participants, its largest-ever cohort.

Jesse Elton, Senior Finance Project Manager for The Community Builders, is a graduate of the HDTI Class of 2008. She says the training was what she needed as she took on more responsibility in the role of Project Manager, at that time for BRIDGE Housing in the Bay Area. “Once you are in the field, you start to realize how much there is out there ... In affordable housing, you learn on the job, so you never really get to sit down and ask questions,” Elton says. By starting with fundamentals – essentially a “Housing Development 101” – and moving to more complex material, HDTI filled in the gaps in her knowledge, such as how a budget gets formed.  Says Elton, “I went from feeling a general comfort with pro formas to having confidence that I could really understand and own it and take the initiative to be creative. [I felt] I can confidently lead financial decisions for my organization with this project.”

Specific HDTI curriculum items, such as negotiation, advance participants’ leadership skills along with their development knowledge. “The training in general is about the well-rounded picture,” according to Elton. “Not just how to calculate the eligible basis for tax credits, but how are you going to be the person out there representing yourself in the industry?”

Associates in Commercial Real Estate (ACRE)

In 2005, Professor Mark Eppli of Marquette University noticed a dearth of people of color in the Milwaukee development scene. He created Associates in Commercial Real Estate (ACRE) in response. ACRE trains mid-career professionals of color in real estate development in order to bring more minorities and women into the industry. LISC Milwaukee took over coordination and recruitment for ACRE in 2014. Professors from three universities in the Milwaukee area and other industry professionals teach courses on a volunteer basis in financial modeling and analysis, construction management and other topics in residential and commercial real estate. The program has now graduated more than 260 professionals, many of whom have gone on to have careers in nonprofit and for-profit real estate development and business or community leadership. LISC Milwaukee Executive Director Donsia Strong Hill and Lending Program Officer Francisco Bravo, who manages the ACRE program, are both ACRE graduates. 

ACRE students spend 26 weeks studying residential, commercial, mixed-use and industrial spaces, learning about the components of financing and the types of financing available, such as different tax credits and bank financing. Graduates cannot become community development experts in just 26 weeks, but Strong Hill notes that the benefit of leadership development programs like ACRE is that they provide the fundamentals future leaders can build upon.

Even with a grasp of these fundamentals, though, it can be hard for a new developer to get off the ground without an established portfolio and balance sheet. To help address this gap, LISC Milwaukee this year debuted a second phase of the ACRE program, called the Practicum. This 24-week intensive takes on a small number of participants (all ACRE graduates) for a deeper dive into creating a pro forma for their own small project of $1.5 million or less. Students receive close guidance from knowledgeable advisors and mentors, who might even decide to invest in their projects. In fact, LISC Milwaukee is raising money for the Dr. Mark Eppli Venture Fund to provide revolving grants to capitalize ACRE student projects. Bravo says LISC Milwaukee hopes that participants will emerge from the Practicum with a “feasible, well-thought-out project that they can take out and sell.”

"Many times, it’s hard to get those from the outside to invest in rebuilding communities unless we are going through gentrification. The ACRE program empowers folks that are already working in the community."
— Francisco Bravo, LISC Milwaukee

LISC Milwaukee aims not only to build the capacities of the individuals taking part in ACRE, but to ensure the work of ACRE graduates improves the neighborhoods LISC serves. One element of the new Practicum is a clustered approach, in which student projects are located in a tightly focused area along a block or two in a neighborhood where LISC Milwaukee is working to create neighborhoods of opportunity. If the Practicum works out as intended, says Strong Hill, “we could really see an incredible boost for the community by people who are by and large from that community. ”

Rural Leadership Development

Two Rural LISC partners – Fahe, a collaborative network of more than 50 nonprofits in Appalachia, and the California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH) – have internship programs based on cohort models.  

Fahe’s program – The Community Housing & Economic Fellowship, or “CHEF” – places college student interns with Fahe member organizations throughout Appalachia, where the interns complete specific projects to address the host organizations’ needs. The CHEF program therefore accomplishes three goals: student interns learn on the job, the host organizations increase capacity, and the program builds future leaders for the Appalachian region.

The CCRH Intern Program targets rising senior college students of color from bicultural, low-income, farmworker and immigrant backgrounds. According to Rural LISC Program Officer Nadia Villagrán, “It’s been interesting to see who applies. What they’re finding is [a lot of] applicants who either lived in affordable housing or have gotten some exposure to community development... folks who have had a young awareness of social issues and are recognizing through their education and professional development they can be part of a solution.” This program has shown remarkable success, with nearly 100% of its interns completing college and a 50% retention rate in the industry after graduation from the program.

Rural LISC supports both groups with LISC funding and has helped identify other sources of funding, including matching the groups with banks looking for worthy grant investments. LISC also includes the interns in the professional development and networking opportunities it offers to all its partner organizations, encouraging Fahe and CCRH to send their interns to the annual Rural LISC Seminar. “We definitely want them to get the stimulus that comes from being in the same room with other practitioners facing the same issues,” notes Villagrán.


The Benefits of Leadership Development Programs

Leadership development training is beneficial for the trainees, but in the programs LISC offers, it has value that extends beyond the participants themselves. The organizations that employ the trainees also gain, with higher-capacity employees who are dedicated to the work. Not only can these employees now do their jobs better, but they make connections during training with other community developers and leaders in the field. Elton says at least half of her fellow HDTI classmates remained at their organizations a decade after graduating. “It’s helpful in their careers to know each other but also helpful for industry for people to make connections, share knowledge and work together on policy advocacy,” she notes.

The communities that leadership development trainees serve also benefit from having more experienced and knowledgeable people at the reins, and from smooth leadership transitions that enable organizations’ work to continue with minimal disruption. With ACRE, the communities benefit from having people that are part of and invested in the community grow their capacity to help. The ACRE Practicum’s clustered approach helps LISC Milwaukee and neighborhood partners accomplish their community development goals even as the training cohort builds capacity. Within Rural communities, the lack of bench strength is a challenge. These small towns profit from having skilled, homegrown leaders that are committed to the work and the community. Elton summed up the benefit to trainees, employers and communities alike, saying simply, “It’s a good investment.”

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