“What is a CDC?”
I have probably been asked that question 1,000 times since I started working at MACDC in 1993. It seems like a rather simple question and certainly one that the President of a CDC association should be able to answer.
But it is not so easy. There are many different definitions in use around the country and many use words like “often,” “usually,” and “may,” when describing a CDC's structure and activities. Certain themes emerge - housing development; economic development; community engagement; neighborhood revitalization, etc, but no clear definition exists that is universally used in the field. The resulting confusion creates a problem for those who want to build and strengthen the sector.
In Massachusetts, we have had a state law define the term since 1975. However, over the past decade or so that law became a dead letter as the definition became more outdated -- one provision of the law required that CDC board members must have 3 year board terms. So if a nonprofit had board terms of 2 years – it was not a CDC! Moreover, the benefits associated with the definition were minimal and there was not even a process by which groups could be officially certified as a CDC so there was no list of who even qualified for those benefits that did exist.
A few years ago, the Massachusetts Community Development Innovation Forum decided to explore two questions: What is a CDC? And does it matter?
After countless meetings and discussions and research about how the term is used throughout the country, we agreed that it was indeed important to define the term because we can’t grow stronger CDCs if we don’t know who or what they are. We also settled on a new, updated, 21st Century Definition of a CDC that reflects the diversity of our field and the diversity of our communities.
And thanks to legislation signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick on August 5, 2010, our new definition (Section 86) is now officially part of state law.
Our definition boils down to three core elements – the organization’s mission, its activities, and its governance. Specifically, Massachusetts’ new definition says that a CDC is a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts that:
- “. . .has as the corporation’s purpose to . . . develop and improve urban, rural and suburban communities in sustainable ways that create and expand economic opportunity for low and moderate income people;”
- “ . . . engage[s] local residents and businesses to work together to undertake community development programs, projects, and activities;” and
- “[can] demonstrate . . . that the corporation’s constituency, including low and moderate income people, is meaningfully represented on the board of directors . . . “
Our vision is that this definition will encompass a broad range of groups – far broader than the set of organizations traditionally considered CDCs in Massachusetts. We are trying to recognize and validate the different communities, histories, models and strategies that have evolved over time – so long as they share the three core elements above.
The statute also requires the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development to develop guidelines and procedures for certifying groups as being a CDC. Over time, this will allow us to say specifically who and what a CDC is in our state. It will increase accountability and credibility for the field. And it will enable us to develop an intentional and comprehensive strategy for strengthening and sustaining these organizations over time – thereby creating and ensuring that we have the capacity to empower local residents and expand economic opportunity throughout the Commonwealth. Such a strategy can learn from and improve upon our past experience in Massachusetts as well as other models like the CDFI and CHDO models developed nationally in the 1990s.
We are thankful to the Legislature and the Governor for enacting this important legislation. The stage is now set for an exciting transformation of the community development system in Massachusetts that builds on its extraordinary history of achievement while laying the foundation for even greater success and impact in the future.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mel King, Governor Michael Dukakis and many others established the legal, financial and intellectual foundation for the Massachusetts community development field that allowed a nascent movement to grow into a powerful sector that generated $1.67 billion of economic activity over the past seven years. This is their legacy – one that provides new benefits year after year. Now it is our turn. Today’s community development leaders must work together to bolster, expand, and strengthen the field so our communities and the people who live and work there have the opportunity to work together and with others to create neighborhoods and communities of choice throughout the Commonwealth.
Let’s get to work!