What do LISC, Enterprise, NFF and CSH Have in Common with the Dodo? Nothing. (Part I of VI)

The dodo has nothing to do with this blog series. Really. – Image by Daniel Eskridge

Dear reader, as part of a special report for Shelterforce I sat down with the heads of four of the largest community development intermediaries in the country and asked a simple question:  Are you still relevant?

This six part series looks at the evolution of their role in the community development sector and their strategies for the future.  To binge-read the full report, click here.


Part I – So, What Exactly Is an Intermediary Anyway?  

We tend to think of intermediaries as the middlemen: an extra layer that’s somehow always in the way; a necessary, bureaucratic inefficiency; a pass-through delivery mechanism; a glorified gatekeeper that makes retail out of wholesale.

I believe intermediaries are misunderstood. Not just in their intentions, but in their capacities, their scale, their reach and their roles.

I’ve been a funder and lender to many nonprofit intermediaries over the years, and I’ve also run a nonprofit intermediary of sorts myself. I’ve argued in the past, and not exclusively from self-interest, that intermediaries play a critical role in the community development ecosystem, sitting at the center of a web of relationships that both binds and strengthens connections between nonprofit service providers (CDCs in particular) and supporters in the public, private, and philanthropic sectors.

But our world keeps a changin’. CDCs are both more and less than they used to be. Many of the more sophisticated community development nonprofits have moved beyond their community organizing roots, relying less on external advocacy and more on internal capacity to get things done. These organizations have grown both horizontally and vertically complex, highly professionalized, and multijurisdictional.

The days of plain vanilla are over.

At the same time, other CDCs have faced contractions resulting from challenges in maintaining effective operations and management, fewer development opportunities, and changing market conditions. These groups now have even less capacity to deal with aging and struggling housing portfolios, putting substantial sections of the affordable housing stock at risk. Even those nonprofits that have, for lack of a better word, remained successfully “artisanal” in their focus on a specific community or development strategy can find themselves struggling with more complex projects. For many, the days of the “plain vanilla” development opportunities are gone. They’ve either been done, or they are now handed off to those scaled developers who can shave the margins and deliver projects in a cheaper, faster way.

How have community development intermediaries evolved and adapted to this new environment? What role do they see themselves playing in this brave new world? What risks and challenges await? And what effects will these changes have on CDC partners?

I spoke with the leaders of four of the largest community development intermediaries in the country: Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund; Deborah De Santis, president and CEO of the Corporation for Supportive Housing; Terri Ludwig, president and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners; and Michael Rubinger, president and CEO of LISC. The consistency of their responses was somewhat surprising given their different organizational priorities and cultures and the reflections, corrections, and directions they lay out are quite telling.

Based on the thoughts of my four esteemed interviewees, I have glimpsed the future. It’s, well, complicated.

Stay tuned – your Man About Town is publishing all six parts of this series over the next week.  

Next up:  Part II – Think Locally, Act Globally