Building on What Works and Investing in Progress


Brandee McHale, Citi Foundation

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Volume 12, Issue 1 | September 12, 2017

Six years ago, the Citi Foundation decided to make a grant to the Low Income
Investment Fund (LIIF) to explore innovations in the field of community
development. We wanted ideas for improving low- and moderate-income
communities—and the lives of the people who live there—and we were interested
especially in initiatives with the potential for significant impact and scale. We got them.
Those initiatives eventually became the foundation for the book, Investing in What Works for
America’s Communities: Essays on People, Place & Purpose

As I was sitting across a table from LIIF President Nancy Andrews that day six years ago,
I could not have imagined the impact this book would have on the field because, quite
frankly, it was not a happy conversation. I remember feeling frustrated and disheartened as
I looked at statistics that showed the percentage of Americans living in poverty had steadily
increased from 11 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2011. This was equal to what it had been
in 1964 when President Johnson first launched the “War on Poverty”—and actually even
worse in absolute terms, since the nation’s population has grown significantly since the mid1960s.
This means millions more Americans are struggling to make ends meet.

It seemed to me that we as a nation and an industry were running into growing, complex
challenges and that progress was slowing. And I wondered if we should completely rethink
how we invest in the field of community development if our current work wasn’t really
making a difference. Nancy appreciated my frustration and expressed some of her own. But
she was also quick to point out a few shining lights across the country that were doing things
differently and getting results—groups like the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City,
Purpose Built in Atlanta, and BakerRipley (formerly Neighborhood Centers, Inc.) in Houston.
She openly pondered what the secret of their success was and if it could be replicated at scale
across the country. Based on that conversation, the Citi Foundation decided to provide LIIF
with a grant to research these groups’ “secret sauce” and to write a paper about it, so that
others might learn from their example.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of working with Nancy knows that she does nothing
in half measures. So it was no surprise when we checked in a month later to learn that LIIF
would be partnering with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (FRBSF) to expand
the research paper we had discussed into an anthology of community development from
different perspectives, written by some of the field’s greatest thinkers and released in book
form. Thus, Investing in What Works for America’s Communities was published in 2012.

What did surprise me was the immediate and positive response this book received. The
FRBSF distributed more than 50,000 hard copies of Investing in What Works for America’s
, and readers from across the country downloaded many more e-copies. The
text was adopted as required reading in public policy classes at colleges and graduate schools
around the country and reached more than two million people on social media. Apparently,
the field of community development was just as frustrated as I was with the status quo—and
just as eager for breakthrough solutions that would achieve different results.

Clearly, we had hit on something big. We felt the need to respond in a way that would
sustain the powerful momentum that Investing in What Works for America’s Communities had
unleashed. So instead of just talking and writing about the status quo and the need to shake
things up, the Citi Foundation decided to actually test some of the book’s key ideas. One of
the core messages is that persistent poverty has multiple, tightly intertwined, and mutually
reinforcing causes, and that tackling any one of them in isolation will not work in the long
term. Instead, efforts to battle poverty must be integrated across multiple sectors. The book
argues that people-based efforts, such as education, health care, and workforce development,
and place-based efforts, such as housing, transportation, and community safety, must be
coordinated around shared goals and joint accountability. The book further posits that by
working together across sectors to achieve a common goal, partners would be more effective
than they would be separately. In the chapter “Routinizing the Extraordinary,” the authors
had challenged the field of community development to create a new cadre of “Community
Quarterbacks” who could lead the charge in breaking down the artificial silos that had
created the status quo.1

So that’s exactly what we did. In 2013, the Citi Foundation again partnered with LIIF
to launch Partners in Progress, a two-year, $5 million pilot initiative that provided flexible
support and technical assistance to 14 community-based organizations to help them become
Community Quarterbacks. They were charged with:

  • Mobilizing a shared vision for community-based change to improve the lives of
    community residents;
  • Developing a comprehensive strategy, integrating the best of people- and place-based
    approaches, to implement that vision;
  • Building a cross-sector collaborative of partners to support the vision and strategy;
    · Providing the collaborative with timely, useful data to guide continuous assessment
    and improvement.

What follows this chapter is a series of case studies highlighting the experience of six
organizations that participated in our Partners in Progress initiative. I’m proud to say
that during this two-year pilot, our Partners in Progress grantees became living examples
of how the Community Quarterback model can lead catalytic change. Fairfield County
Community Foundation
championed a resident-driven community development process
at PT Barnum Public Housing in Bridgeport, CT, that gave residents a voice in negotiating
with the city for economic development projects that affected their neighborhood. East
Bay Asian Local Development Corporation’s
San Pablo Avenue Revitalization Coalition
highlighted the link between environmental causes and health disparities and inspired new
partnerships between public health and community development in Oakland, CA. CASA
mobilized thousands of residents of Langley Park, MD, to engage with regional planners
of the Purple Line, the planned 16-mile light-rail line, to minimize its potential to displace
low-income families or small, immigrant-owned businesses and to ensure that its benefits
will be equitably distributed. True to its name, BRIDGE Housing Corporation in San
Francisco has made remarkable progress building a bridge over the economic and class
divide that has long separated the North and South Portrero neighborhoods. It is pursuing
a community integration strategy informed by a major innovation, “trauma-informed
community building,” which recognizes that all of BRIDGE’s work must take into account
the psychological battering that long years of poverty and social isolation have taken on
Portrero’s public housing residents. Community Solutions conceived a bold campaign to
bring 5,000 jobs to Brownsville, one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods where nearly
40 percent of people live below the poverty line and whose two square miles contain 18
public housing projects—the highest concentration in the country. Neighborhood Housing
Services of South Florida (NHSSF)
proved the cross-silo approach in an especially
compelling way: Its work in the 79th Street Corridor did not conform to any generally
recognized neighborhood but instead spanned portions of five jurisdictions between two
separate cities, Miami and Hialeah. Through patient engagement with justifiably skeptical,
long-neglected residents of the corridor, and with all the different officials, NHSSF is on
its way to bringing jobs, affordable housing, small-business services, and perhaps most
important, a sense of hope and buy-in to the Corridor for the first time in decades.

Across the country, Partners in Progress organizations are leading the charge on reimagining
how the field should “do” community development—seeking out new partnerships, breaking
down silos, and driving results while guided by data-rich decision-making—a true embodiment
of the best ideas that emerged from Investing in What Works for America’s Communities.

Beyond the national dialogue it sparked and the example we set for front-line practitioners
with the Partners in Progress pilot, the Citi Foundation’s involvement with the book also had
a tremendous impact on us as a funder. As we designed our Partners in Progress initiative
around the spirit of the book, we realized that we ourselves needed to work smarter, to reexamine
our approach to grant-making and grant administration. We wanted to better harness
the energy and excitement that is out there all across the country demanding change, and to
focus the Foundation’s strategy on replicating the innovations that are getting real results.

So three specific takeaways will inform our community development grant-making going

  1. General operating support—The unrestricted nature of the grants the Citi Foundation
    provided proved to be extremely important. As you will read in the CASA case study,
    nonprofit finances are a complicated jigsaw puzzle—and jigsaw puzzle pieces are not
    interchangeable. CASA itself relies on more than 150 funders to assemble its $7.5 million
    operating budget, and those include public-sector sources that place tight restrictions
    on overhead costs, limiting the availability of necessary staff resources to pursue new
    initiatives. The flexibility of the Citi Foundation’s support gave grantees the “glue
    money,” as CASA put it, to work in cross-sector collaboration. It also provided the
    latitude to innovate as well as pivot in the face of unexpected challenges—nothing is
    static, and situations can change after the grant is awarded. Our Partners in Progress
    grants truly functioned as “seed money” that enabled our grantees to take risks and
    explore new areas, and account for what worked and what didn’t.
  2. Peer-to-peer engagement—At our kickoff event for Partners in Progress, we quickly realized
    that the groups in the room had more to learn from each other than we could ever
    offer through paid experts. So we prioritized grantee interaction and encouraged the
    frequent sharing of best practices and lessons learned. The resulting connections that
    grantees made led to grantee-initiated conference calls, site visits, information exchanges,
    and true friendships that bore fruit beyond the Partners in Progress initiative.
  3. Data measures and management—Becoming a data-driven organization requires much
    more than just choosing a software platform. The Citi Foundation actively encouraged
    Partners in Progress grantees to develop the internal capability to collect and use data on
    behalf of their community collaborations. But we underestimated the dramatic organizational
    changes that accompany a more data-driven approach and the technical complexities,
    steep learning curve, and cost and time commitment required for success. Data are
    ultimately meant to be a tool to support projects, not a project in themselves. Organizations
    need to realistically assess their data capacity and potential before launching a
    data-dependent strategy for any given project.

Taking these lessons to heart, when the Partners in Progress pilot ended in 2015, the Citi
Foundation decided to take the best ideas that we had learned from both Investing in What
Works for America’s Communities
and the Partners in Progress pilot to launch a new initiative
at a much larger scale. Our new Community Progress Makers Fund is a $20 million, two-year
initiative designed to support 40 high-impact community organizations that are driving
economic opportunities in their communities. These 40 change agents are addressing a range
of urban challenges, from economic development and affordable housing to environmental
sustainability and urban infrastructure. In addition to providing core operating support,
Community Progress Makers includes a grantee learning collaborative to share best practices,
as well as support for grantees to assess and improve their data-using capacity.

The most successful community innovators have long understood that there is no one-size-fits-all
solution to complex social and economic issues. Thanks to Investing in What Works
for America’s Communities
and Partners in Progress, there is increasing evidence that working
comprehensively and collectively across silos—with nonprofit partners, businesses, government,
and residents themselves—can dramatically increase the pace of progress for all.

The Citi Foundation is looking forward to continuing to lead this charge by supporting
the next generation of transformative local solutions through Community Progress Makers.
One of the greatest satisfactions a funder can have is the chance to work steadily over time to
nurture good ideas and the people who execute them—testing approaches, identifying what
works, refining, adjusting, testing again, and going to scale. It’s the model the for-profit sector
calls “patient capital.” And as I reflect on the Citi Foundation’s work during the past six
years, I am reminded that the word patience has the same root as the word passion. Patience
originally described the kind of passion that does not burn itself out from its own intensity
but rather the kind that is grounded in commitment and only grows stronger over time.

Five years ago, Investing in What Works for America’s Communities captured some of the
best thinking from the field that has long been the Citi Foundation’s passion—expanding
economic prospects for low-income families. Then two years ago, the Partners in Progress
pilot tested those ideas. Now Community Progress Makers will take them to scale, and we will
know even more about what works best to build vibrant communities. The Citi Foundation
will evolve accordingly, our patient capital guided by our genuine passion for the values of
equality and opportunity for all Americans, wherever they live, wherever they came from,
and whatever their economic circumstances.

For now, it is my honor to join in celebrating Investing in What Works for America’s
, the book that started it all. On behalf of all of us at the Citi Foundation, I hope
you find these stories as informative and inspiring as we do.

1. David Erickson, Ian Galloway, and Naomi Cytron, “Routinizing the Extraordinary,” in Investing in What
Works for America’s Communities: Essays on People, Place, & Purpose
, ed. Nancy Andrews et al. (San Francisco:
Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, 2012).

Brandee McHale is president of the Citi Foundation and Director of Corporate Citizenship at Citi. She
oversees the Citi Foundation’s global grantmaking strategy and leads Citi’s citizenship efforts, including
volunteerism and environmental sustainability. For over three decades, Brandee has dedicated her career
to philanthropy and developing a forward-thinking portfolio of grant initiatives that connect low-income
residents to onramps of economic opportunity and a secure financial future. As the board chair of
Prosperity Now (formerly CFED) and a member on the board of directors of the Local Initiatives Support
Corporation (LISC), Living Cities, and America’s Promise Alliance, Brandee helps chart the direction of
numerous efforts to create lasting change in communities across the country.