How to hire great employees

September 2nd, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

Last Sunday, while Hurricane Irene roared through Boston, I had extra time to read the Sunday New York Times and found my way deep into the Business Section where I found a very interesting interview with Andy Lansing, the chief executive of Levy Restaurants in Chicago.  Mr Lansing is asked about how he hires good employees and he gave an answer that I thought was fascinating. He says, "I have a pretty nontraditional approach to hiring. I hire for two traits — I hire for nice and I hire for passion."

Mr. Levy elaborates: "If you sit down with me, no matter how senior you are in the company or the position you’re applying for, my first question to you is going to be, are you nice? And the reactions are priceless.   Then I say, “What are you passionate about in your life? What does passion mean to you?” And I’m looking not necessarily for the magic answer, but I love it when I hear that someone has fire in the belly."

Mr. Levy's insights immediately resonated with me. When I think about the MACDC employees who have been the most successful over the years, they had both of these qualities. And certainly the current group here at 15 Court Square are both nice and passionate. That is why we are able to work together effectively, overcome challenges, and enjoy coming to work every day (well, most days!)

Now, of course, employees need to have a variety of technical skills and knowledge. But, as Mr. Levy says, "If you give me someone who’s nice and who’s passionate, I can teach them everything else. I don’t care what school you went to, I don’t care where you worked before. If you give me someone with those two traits, they will nine out of 10 times be a great success in the company."

While I think I have always looked for these qualities in the employees that I hire, I have never asked either of these questions before. But to any readers who might someday apply for a job here at MACDC - you have been warned!

Happy Labor Day!

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The right to smoke versus the right to breathe

August 15th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

The first advocacy campaign of my life did not involve housing, community development, civil rights, the environment or even Vietnam. Instead, it was a years-long effort to get my mother to quit smoking! Every day, for years, I would interrogate her after school about how many cigarettes she had smoked that day. I was relentless, using every tool I had – facts, nagging, shame, and most of all guilt (“you are going to die!”)  Eventually, my mom finally acquiesced and quit smoking when I was about 11 years old. I’d like to think I had a role in helping her live a full and active life until she passed away last year at the age of 82.

At the time, the early 1970s, smoking was still widespread and accepted just about everywhere. Over the past 35 years, however, smoking has been banned from virtually every indoor and even many outdoor venues. Despite my roots as an anti-smoking crusader, I sometimes wonder if perhaps we have gone too far – smokers should have rights too. 

All of this came to mind recently when I met with leaders from Health Resources in Action and the Boston Alliance for Community Health who are working to encourage CDCs and others to implement no smoking policies in their rental housing.  Shouldn’t people be allowed to smoke in their own homes, for goodness sake, even if they happen to need subsidized housing? Should low income people have to give up their rights?

Upon reflection, however, I think the reasons to go smoke free outweigh any hesitations that I or others may have. Smoke free housing is healthier, safer, cheaper and preferred by the majority of tenants. In the words of Ava Chan at the Allston Brighton CDC, “it's about the right to breathe rather than the right to smoke.”  And smoke free housing appears to be the wave of the future as it quickly emerges as a “best practice” for providing safe and healthy housing to our communities. A wide range of housing groups are adopting such policies, including the Boston Housing Authority, the national nonprofit group, Preservation of Affordable Housing, and several of our members.

Implementing smoke free housing is not easy. It requires education, organizing, and ultimately some tough love. Elderly tenants who have smoked in their homes for years may be a particular challenge. Thankfully, affordable housing owners who want to go smoke free don’t have to do it alone. Health Resources in Action is providing funding and technical assistance to five CDCs (Allston Brighton CDC, Asian CDC, Dorchester Bay EDC, Grove Hall NDC, and Jamaica Plain NDC) to help them adopt such policies and they can help others. The Mass. Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control (the other CDC) both have resources to help CDCs and others implement smoke free housing policies.

CDCs have always been committed to creating healthy communities. I hope more of our members move in this direction because smoke free housing is a tangible and significant way to improve the lives of our tenants. And I’m sure there are many boys and girls living in these apartments who will very much appreciate an ally in their own campaigns to get their parents to stop smoking! And those parents, like my mother, will be glad they did.

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Neighborhood Revitalization: The White House has spoken but who will listen?

August 1st, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

While the Tea Party’s manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling sucks up all the oxygen in Washington, the White House quietly released an important new report in July entitled Building Neighborhoods of Opportunity that outlines best practices in neighborhood revitalization around the country.  The report highlights the work of CDCs, community based groups, schools and local governments and discusses how the federal government could more effectively support such efforts.

When I sat down to read it, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they identify five key elements to successful neighborhood improvement – and I agree with all of them (I don’t always agree with the White House these days!) Specifically, the White House report highlights these five things: 

  1. Resident engagement and community leadership catalyzes and sustains comprehensive change efforts;
  2. Developing strategic and accountable partnerships leads to lasting change;
  3. Maintaining a results focus supported by data presents a strategy for achieving specific objectives, helps to focus multiple stakeholders on a common goal, and can lead to a common dataset to measure progress;
  4. Investing in and building organizational capacity helps organizations meet their objectives; and
  5. Aligning resources to a unified and target impact strategy builds a critical mass of efforts in a neighborhood to reduce neighborhood distress.

We can see each these elements in action today in the work that community developers are doing in Boston and around the country.

I was particularly pleased to see items #1 and #4, as much of the current momentum in our field is moving away from these two concepts.  I worry that the drive toward regionalism, centralization, consolidation and organizational scale that permeates much of the national dialogue will inexorably weaken opportunities for meaningful resident engagement and community leadership - what I and others call “demand driven community development.”  Don’t get me wrong – scale and efficiency are good things. But, I am glad that the White House report is reminding us about the importance of community engagement. I hope it will inspire policymakers, funders and practitioners to think about how we can create a system that is both more efficient and more genuinely community based.

The White House is also correct to underscore the importance of building the capacity of organizations to initiate, implement and sustain community improvement.  I hope this serves to push back against what I perceive as a growing “capacity building fatigue” among some funders and policy makers who prefer to work only (or mainly) with well established (and usually large) groups that already have substantial capacity.  Capacity building, like education, needs to be a permanent feature of a well organized, high performing and adaptive community development system.

While there was much to like in the report, it does not offer a strategy for supporting resident engagement and capacity building in a systemic way that gets us to serious scale. Most of the highlighted programs are models and pilots serving a few dozen neighborhoods. But the question that the White House and all of us need to ask is how we support this work in hundreds or even thousands of neighborhoods.  For that, we need sustainable business models that support long term capacity building and resident engagement at the local level.  MACDC’s proposed Community Development Partnership Act is a key part of our answer to that question.  And we also need to make community development programs and projects profitable for community based non profits so they can earn the flexible funds they need to build and sustain their own capacity over time.  Adjustments in federal rules and guidelines could help with that objective.  

The White House report lays out some exciting ideas for generating sustainable economic development at the neighborhood level - something our country desperately needs. Let’s hope that the debt ceiling deal does not kill these efforts before they have a chance to bear fruit.


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Does the Community Development Field Suffer from a Generational Gap?

July 16th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg


In recent years there has been a growing discussion about the coming generational change in the leadership of the community development field. As the founders of our field move toward retirement, a new generation of community developers are eager to make their own mark on the field. Of course, this transition is not without challenges as some fear it is happening too fast without sufficient preparation, and others are frustrated that it is happening too slowly as they are forced to wait and wait for their turn.

Two recent articles on this subject are worth reading. Rick Cohen, a long-time community developer and writer started the discussion with an interesting blog post on NACEDA’s website. Rick interviewed several younger people in the field who expressed their frustrations with how they feel treated by those with more experience. This prompted NACEDA staffer, Frank Woodruff to share his own thoughts as a 28-year old working in the field. As someone who sits squarely between the baby boomer generation and the Millenials I have always found this conversation to be challenging. I find myself agreeing and disagreeing vigorously with voices from both camps. (Born in 1963, I am technically a baby boomer, but I can assure you that I don’t feel like one!)  For many years after starting at MACDC in 1993, I was almost always the youngest person in the room as “real” baby boomers (those born in the late 1940s or 1950s) dominated the field. Now, finally, that is no longer the case and I am thrilled -- well, maybe not thrilled to be getting older, but thrilled to see new leadership, new ideas, new skills and new faces at the table.

Rick's article highlights the desire among younger community developers to seek collaborative and comprehensive solutions to today's challenges. I agree!  They also want to find a better work/life balance and better pay. I think I agree with that too, although my kids might say that I don't adhere to this philosophy.  But I found many of the comments in Rick’s piece troubling. While each person voiced understandable frustrations, the collective weight of their comments struck me as whining. While ageism certainly exists in the field (in both directions, no doubt) I firmly believe that the community development field offers many opportunities for talented people to prove themselves. Should older practitioners be more supportive and welcoming of younger ones? Of course!  But don’t wait for an invitation to lead – just do it. 

On the other hand, Frank’s article really resonated for me – despite the 19 years between us. Frank’s brilliant piece is both funny and insightful. Perhaps my favorite segment from Frank is as follows:

"State by state, community development boards and staffs are fighting tooth-and-nail for programs like HOME, LIHTC, Section 4 and other tools of previous decades. Being supportive, Millennials begrudgingly submit to the acronyms and jargon while secretly hoping our careers in community development are not spent budget-cycle after budget-cycle clinging to the accomplishments of our predecessors.

We quietly ask ourselves, “What if those programs went away? How would we replace CDBG? Or would we want to? What would a modern-day ‘CRA’ look like? Or is CRA necessary? Can financial institutions be compelled by opportunity instead of regulation?” These programs were created at a singular point and time with a certain definition of social justice.:

It is precisely this openness to change and new ideas that younger leaders can bring to our field and that our field desperately needs.  We don’t want to ignore the hard lessons learned over the past 40 years, but neither can we allow long-standing traditions to become rigid orthodoxies that can’t be challenged and changed.  And many of us have tired from hearing about the Glory Days in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Community Development movement is destined for major change. Much of this change will be driven by outside forces as our economy and our communities evolve and change. But much will be driven from the inside as new leaders take the helm and lead us to a future that may not be fully defined, but will, I believe, be brighter and better not just for our field, but for our communities as well.

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Five reasons why June 1 was a great day

June 21st, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

On June 1, 2011, the Joint Committee on Small Business and Community Development held a hearing at the Massachusetts State House on the Community Development Partnership Act. This bill, which is MACDC’s number one priority this year, would create a donation tax credit designed to spur public/private investment in high performing community development initiatives across the state. The hearing was a critical step in the long process of taking an idea, crafting it into legislation and ultimately getting it enacted into law. So, I was very happy to see how well the hearing went. Why was it a great day?

1. Our members have really engaged with the campaign to pass the CDPA and they helped us generate over 70 letters of support from a wide array of nonprofit organizations, community leaders, municipal officials, private businesses, and local CDCs. We also had four members deliver powerful and compelling testimony about how the legislation would enhance their communities. I encourage you to read the testimony from Gail Latimore, Elizabeth Bridgewater, Danny LeBlanc, and Emily Rosenbaum.

2. Eighteen people testified in person at the hearing, representing an equally broad array of people who understand the importance of community economic development. We heard that day from Mayor Kimberly Driscoll of Salem, Mary Borque, the incoming superintendant of schools in Chelsea, from Tom Kiefer, Executive Director of the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center, Melissa Hoffer, Vice President of the Conservation Law Foundation, Boston Police Officers Lacey Seighton and Izzy Marrero, and Sean Caron from CHAPA. Their testimony provided powerful evidence that community development does more than build homes and create jobs, it also improves educational and health outcomes, and reduces crime and pollution. As Mayor Driscoll said, community development is essential to creating great cities and great places to live.

3. We were also joined at the hearing by some of our CDC colleagues from New Jersey, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania who came up to tell us about their experience with similar programs in their states. In fact, MACDC originally came up with the idea to draft and file this legislation precisely because of what we learned from our colleagues in other states. This was a powerful reminder of why national networks, like the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations (NACEDA) are so important to our work. Without NACEDA, these connections, and indeed this bill, would not exist.

4. The hearing also provided an opportunity to partner in a new and deeper way with some of our long time funding partners, including the United Way, the Boston Foundation and LISC. Each of these organizations testified in favor of the bill and have been helping us to advance the legislation.

5. Finally, June 1 was a great day because it offered us an opportunity to talk about the importance of community development on its own terms. Since the CEED program was eliminated nine years ago (CEED was a state budget line item that provided flexible funding for CDCs from 1978 to 2002), MACDC has successfully advocated for many programs and laws related to housing, small business development, foreclosure and economic development. However, this was the first time we were able to break out of those particular silos and talk about comprehensive community development - to talk about communities and neighborhoods, to talk about civic engagement and community participation, to talk about creating great places for families to live, work and play. This is what our members work to achieve every day so it was a thrilling to have the chance to “state our case” to the legislature.

As we move forward from the June 1 hearing we hope to celebrate more great days, including hopefully, a day sometime in the next year when Governor Patrick signs the Community Development Partnership Act into law.

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Mourning can be the key to growth

May 21st, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

I just read an excellent article by Ann Houston from Chelsea Neighborhood Developers (CND) and Hilary Marcus from Neighborworks America. The article talks about the difficult, yet ultimately productive, process that the CND board of directors went through in deciding whether and how to expand their services to Revere. The article offers important lessons for all CDCs considering a geographic expansion or any other major shift in their organizational strategy or focus.

The major thrust of the article is the importance of discussing the governance implications of expansion early on in the process. For me, however, the the most interesting aspect of the article was the discussion of how important it was for the board to reflect on, and respect, both the sense of loss, and the actual loss that might come from expanding to another city. CND has been focused on serving Chelsea since it was founded and the board members joined the board specifically because of their commitment to Chelsea. Would expanding to Revere dilute that focus? Ann and Hilary talk about how the board approached this question with respect and care. The board ultimately decided that expansion would be good not just for the organization but for both Revere and Chelsea. But part of that process was to mourn in meaningful and tangible ways the loss that inevitably comes with change.

In reading the article, I realized that I often fail to respect that sense of loss and fail to take the time with others to mourn and honor the past. Expansion and change are often necessary and good - but they do not come free. Those who might oppose a particular change or expansion are not simply bad people who are obstructionists or narrow minded. They may simply be fighting for the same community and the same people for whom they have always fought. Their sense of loss is often real - expansion can mean dilution for some communities. This should not necessarily stop change, but it is important to give respect and voice to that which is lost.

I encourage others to read Ann and Hilary's important article. I'm glad I did and I hope to apply its lessons as MACDC continues to change and evolve in the coming years. Mourning loss and change may be the key to our future growth and success.

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The Washington Post Gets It Wrong

May 21st, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran  a series of articles alleging widespread failures in the federal HOME program administered by HUD and hundreds of local and state government agencies. The articles claim that hundreds of projects have died, millions of dollars have been wasted and that HUD and local housing agencies have failed to protect the taxpayer's money.

The articles certainly uncover some distressing stories and clearly HUD and our local housing agencies need to do a better job. The story also underscores the importance of providing non profit developers with support, oversight and capacity building services - especially during challenging economic times like these.

However, the Washington Post articles do the country a dis-service by grossly exaggerating the problems and failing to put the small number of problem projects in the context of the one million homes developed by this program over the years. Even Adrian Gonzalez strikes out occassionally and we cannot expect a federal program with thousands of projects underway across the entire country to never have any problems - especially during the worst real estate market since the Great Depression.

Perhaps the most glaring error is the claim that 1 in 7 HOME projects are delayed when in fact less than 2.5% are delayed, and most of those have either been resumed or are delayed due to market conditions. This is not a minor mistake. Check out HUD's response to the Post for more factual errors in the article.

By failing to get its facts right and by failing to put the problems in the context of the overall track record of the program, Post demonstrates either laziness or a desire to create a scandal where none exists. It is unfortunate that the Post seems eager to jump on the "government is broken" bandwagon, especially when articles like this will create real harm for struggling families and communities.

MACDC staff and leaders will be joining with our NACEDA colleagues to take this message to Congress during our annual NACEDA Summit this week. Let's hope our elected representatives take the time to look at the facts and not just the headlines.

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MACDC Explores Potential for Statewide Community Business Partnership

May 16th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

The Community Development Innovation Forum has helped to spur numerous efforts to expand and deepen collaboration with the goal of improving effectiveness and efficiency in the sector. With the help of new funding from Citi and Bank of America, MACDC is now leading a major planning effort to explore the efficacy and viability of a statewide partnership among CDCs and others who provide technical assistance to local entrepreneurs.

For years, MACDC members have helped entrepreneurs start, grow and sustain small businesses that provide jobs and opportunity for local communities. In 2010, our members served over 2,000 entrepreneurs develop business plans, find new locations and markets, access financing and deal with the slumping economy. CDCs have frequently partnered in these efforts with each other and with other organizations such as Small Business Development Centers, local governments, banks, and CDFIs (many of our members are CDFIs themselves.) Perhaps the most sustained and deepest of these partnerships has been the Community Business Network in Boston through which several CDCs have worked together since the mid 1990s.

Earlier this year, MACDC received funding from Citi and Bank of America to explore the potential for a statewide partnership that builds and expands on these earlier efforts. We formed a planning committee comprised of practitioners, public officials, bankers and scholars to guide our planning effort and hired two experienced consultants, Leslie Belay and Jason Friedman, to conduct research, planning and program design work.  Jason is examining best practices around the country and Leslie is conducting interviews and focus groups with stakeholders here in Massachusetts. At a recent meeting with the SBA and their partners, national SBA Administrator Karen Mills joined the meeting and voiced her strong support of the effort and specifically encouraged SBA partners like the SBDCs to partner with CDCs and vice versa.

The planning efforts has already identified several areas where collaboration could yield significant benefits. These could include: shared information technology and outcome measurement systems; shared protocols for intake, assessment and business plan assistance, shared expertise in specific sectors or areas of support (e.g. food industry, or green technologies); shared market research that would provide local businesses with access to better market data; joint partnerships with other organizations, professional development and training for practitioners, joint fundraising, and special projects.

We expect the planning process to proceed through the summer with the hopes of making a determination by early Fall as to whether such a Partnership makes sense. If we decide to move ahead, the next stage will include fundraising, recruitment of the initial class of members, and refinement of the program design, structure and services.

If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, please contact me.

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Is the Collaboration Trend Getting Old?

April 30th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

Collaboration has become such a popular word in our field that one wonders at times whether it has lost its meaning and importance. Has collaboration become a cliché? Is it a passing fad? Has it been oversold?

I would have to say, from what I am seeing in Massachusetts and around the country, that the answer is an emphatic no!

When the Community Development Innovation Forum was launched in 2008, we established a collaboration working group that produced a report on different models of collaboration around the Commonwealth. The Forum has promoted collaboration as a critical strategy for increasing impact and gaining efficiencies.

Recently, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has published a terrific new report that highlights examples of new collaborations from around the country – including one from Boston (the Fairmount Collaborative in Boston.)  The paper, The New Way Forward: Using Collaborations and Partnerships for Greater Efficiency and Impact, was written by Dee Walsh and Bob Zdenek, two of our country’s leading practitioners. I highly recommend it to all community developers.

Meanwhile, on a recent trip to South Florida to speak at the Annual Summit of the Florida Association of CDCs, I learned about the Broward Alliance for Neighborhood Development (BAND.)  BAND is a coalition of more than 30 CDCs and nonprofit organizations in Broward County (Ft Lauderdale) who are committed to providing decent, affordable housing in their communities. The mission of BAND is to foster non-profits that create quality housing and strong neighborhoods. The goal of the organization is to increase the capacity of its non-profit members so that the varied housing needs of all residents of Broward County are met. BAND members have pooled resources to hire central staff and to secure NSP dollars for their communities.

Back here in Massachusetts the Catalyst Fund for Nonprofits  has announced its first set of grants to nonprofits that are pursuing innovative collaborations and two of the initial grants are going to MACDC members.  A recent article in the Boston Globe describes grants to Chelsea Neighborhood Developers to develop a Family Economic Center and to Urban Edge and Allston Brighton CDC to pursue a joint asset management strategy.

I think it is clear that collaboration is here to stay in the community development sector.

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A Smarter Way to Reduce Health Care Spending

April 25th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

The first meeting I ever attended on behalf of MACDC – way back in 1993 – was at the Bowdoin Street Community Health Center. The purpose of the meeting was to strategize ways to reduce childhood lead poisoning by building a coalition of community development, housing, environmental and public health advocates to fight for changes in policy and practice that would better protect our children. Over the ensuing years, we successfully won major legislative change, new funding for lead abatement, and a robust effort of abatement, education, prevention and treatment that has nearly eliminated lead poisoning from the Commonwealth (although the risk is still serious in much of our older housing stock.)

The success of that collaborative effort came to mind the other day when I was attending the Health Communities Conference co-sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Mel King Institute’s Innovation Forum and several other partners. The conference explored the benefits of linking community development to community health efforts as a way to reduce chronic disease and improve wellness. The importance of this effort was underscored by Paul Grogan, President of the Boston Foundation, in his keynote remarks where he highlighted the fact that health care spending is now completely crowding out public investment in virtually every other area – education, recreation, housing, community development, food supports, and public transit. Yet by investing in these other areas we could actually reduce the need for costly medical care and improve the quality of people’s lives. Indeed, providing a homeless family with stable, safe housing might do more to reduce hypertension, asthma, and other chronic illnesses than all the medicine that money can buy.

The Conference included a number of interesting speakers from both the community development and the community health sectors. We heard about cutting edge research that documents that close correlation between socio-economic status and neighborhood quality with health outcomes. We also learned about innovative programs at the ground level that are beginning to make an impact. Materials from the conference are expected to be available soon on the Federal Reserve Bank’s conference web site.

MACDC intends to work with our partners in the public health field to build on the excitement from the conference to explore opportunities for innovation in public policy and community practice. With health care at the top of the priority list in both the State House and Congress, there will be many opportunities to gain traction. Perhaps someday, doctors will have the ability to fight the causes of disease by prescribing rental assistance subsidies, job training and T-passes instead of being limited to simply treating the symptoms of disease with costly medical procedures and pharmaceuticals

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