As she steps into her new roll as COO for LISC, Annie Donovan, former head of the CDFI Fund, shares some reflections on the current promise—and challenges—of doing community investment, the origins of her personal commitment to service and creating equitable opportunity, and the reasons she decided to come to LISC.
Q: You’ve dedicated much of your career to various aspects of community investing. Was this something you always knew you wanted to do?
A: I guess I would say that the work found me, rather than me setting out to find it. In the late 1980s, I served in the Peace Corps in Jamaica, and in the wake of a devastating hurricane, it was clear that the people in the village where I lived needed both capital and support if they were to recover. So, to help local fishermen repair and replace damaged boats, and shopkeepers to replace their roofs and their inventory, I created a revolving loan fund based on a peer lending model. And, I worked with a group of women entrepreneurs to launch and grow a new business making jams from readily available fruits and marketing it to tourists. I learned powerful lessons about entrepreneurship and community finance—and about the capacity for community members to drive their own success if they have the right resources. I wanted to do more of that kind of work after I returned home.
What do you see as the greatest opportunity for the community development field?
There are many opportunities, and so much important work to be done. Figuring out how to get to the next level of scale while staying true to the mission is always challenging. It requires us to be thoughtful about our business models, and perhaps be willing to break out of them. Right now the industry is limited by the availability of equity-like capital and grants to close opportunity gaps and leverage more investments from traditional investors. Improving the invisibility of more communities is another opportunity. This is an area where LISC has historically been stronger than most, but there is room to do more.
The CDFI Fund oversees some of the field’s most vital programs and contributes to a more equitable distribution of community development capital. What about your time there stands out the most?
When you think about where community development was 20 years ago versus today, the evolution has been pretty remarkable. For most CDFIs, a fierce commitment to communities is still their North star, but now they bring a great deal more financial sophistication, program innovation and data to the effort. More and more, evidence-based strategies have become the norm, not the exception, and I think the CDFI Fund has helped fuel that growth--not just with its capital, but by the way it has structured programs to attract private financing to places it would not otherwise go. Some of that happens behind the scenes, in the way the Fund itself is able to capture and manage data, for instance. And those internal processes make it possible to serve an array of organizations—large and small, urban and rural—based on their ability to meet the needs of underserved populations and communities.
What is it that attracted you to LISC?
That’s an easy one—it’s the deep, long-term connection to communities. I’ve spent much of my career working at the national level, with a national point of view. And, while I was at the CDFI Fund I had the chance to think more systemically about the field and how to advance it. I’m excited about pulling all of those pieces together in an intentional way that directly connects to communities. I’m also excited about the overall vision and energy that I see at LISC. Even after 40 years of doing this work, LISC is still innovating, still reaching and still listening to the needs of its partners and communities. It’s incredibly compelling.
What comes next? What is the first thing you plan to do as COO?
When it comes to catalyzing opportunity there is no “one” thing; it takes a truly comprehensive effort. That’s why LISC is so important. The range of programs, partnerships and in-house expertise is incredible. We have people here who literally helped build the field of community development working alongside those who are generating some of the field’s most dynamic new ideas. I’m looking forward to plugging into all of that, and to connecting with people across the country who are leading transformative work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Annie Donovan, COO
Annie Donovan joined LISC In May 2019 as COO. Immediately prior, she was a Senior Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Community Investment at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Annie’s distinguished career in community development and impact investing include serving as Director of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund).