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Community Revitalization: Implement and Maintain

Comprehensive revitalization efforts require close attention both to the work itself and to the conditions both within and outside your organization that will influence the success of your endeavors. Both in the planning stages and throughout implementation, you need ensure that you secure the necessary support from your organization's leadership and staff and from local residents, stakeholders, policymakers and funders to further your objectives.

Critical factors to consider are:
A young boy is held up by his brother and their mentor

Moving from housing production to more comprehensive revitalization

Many housing nonprofits are primarily focused on generating housing-related production — such as building or rehabbing affordable housing units, counseling homebuyers or making loans — to create direct benefits to individuals and families. An organization engaged in revitalization work may operate similar programs, but it is also concerned with improving conditions on multiple fronts and bringing back investment and confidence to a particular neighborhood or set of neighborhoods.

There are a number of potential differences in how programs — and the organization itself — operate if the focus is revitalization instead of production. Fundamentally, the emphasis of the work is on looking ahead, developing a strategic approach, and then marshaling internal and external resources to pursue that vision. This is in contrast to traditional programmatic approaches that are predicated on addressing deficiencies as they arise. Consider how to structure your organization so that it can transcend business as usual to create and carry out a plan to meet the community's strategic goals — whatever they may be.

Embarking on a comprehensive revitalization program often requires an organization to move from running one to two programs to running multiple programs that are interrelated. Organizations in this position need a range of expertise that they did not before. Not only might the types of work you do expand, but the housing that you do might look different than it used to. For example, you may need to do projects that are smaller or larger than your typical project or projects that serve a mix of incomes or incorporate a mix of uses. The priority should be what serves the community you're targeting rather than what opportunities exist regionally.

Comprehensive revitalization involves a potentially enormous range of organizational skillsets, but your organization must maintain focus on a clear niche and value-add in your market. Trying to be all things to all people will result in mission drift and will not serve the organization or the community. Your organization should concentrate on the work that makes sense for you and recruit partners to achieve the other part of your plan. Working in partnership will allow you to implement a more comprehensive set of programs.

More ideas and resources for moving to a comprehensive approach:
  • One helpful tool for thinking through organizational niche is presented in Jim Collin's book, "Good to Great." Using what Collins terms "the Hedgehog Concept," the most effective niche for the organization is conceived of as the intersection between three sets:
    • What the organization is deeply passionate about.
    • Where it might develop true excellence compared to other organizations.
    • How it can sustain itself financially.
  • Competitively Positioning Your Organization for the Future

Managing partnerships

A woman and man examine the screen of a laptopOrganizations must concentrate on implementing the components of their community revitalization plan where they add the most value, which means they will need to bring in partners to address the other areas of plan effectively. Comprehensive revitalization work will require your organization to build and maintain a vast network of partnerships with a wide variety of other organizations, institutions, and even informal neighborhood groups and associations.

One strategic option your organization may choose is to function as a sort of "neighborhood intermediary" or "community catalyst." The roles of such a group can include:
  • Building networks of relationships among and between residents, community groups and organizations and institutions outside the neighborhood.

  • Facilitating research, planning and advocacy processes for neighborhood improvement.

  • Assisting grassroots groups to apply for and manage funding for neighborhood projects.

  • Encouraging organizations to try new approaches and new partnerships to address neighborhood challenges and opportunities.

  • Working with cross-sector partners to address a range of issues at the community level and at the broader "systems" level.
Playing the neighborhood intermediary role makes it critical for your organization to have the capacity to convene and facilitate interactions between these players, to maintain positive perceptions of itself and its accountability to the community, and to conduct constructive negotiations with partners in matters regarding organizational self-interest.

Partnership tips:
  • Make sure roles are clearly stated from the outset and everyone understands who is responsible for which tasks, how you will communicate, what success looks like, what the timelines are and where funding will come from. Make it clear who is in the lead on each piece of the plan or partnership – where does the buck stop? Typical roles include:
    • A lead partner that coordinates planning and implementation efforts, convenes the other partners and acts as the public face of the initiative
    • Funding partners and/or intermediaries who directly fund the effort or marshal funding from other sources and serve as fiscal agent to the partnership
    • Subject matter experts that are responsible for specific pieces of plan implementation such as youth programming, housing, financial stability or health
    • Research or data partners that establish baseline data and track indicators over time to evaluate the success of the effort
    • Neighborhood partners such as resident associations that help drive grassroots participation in planning and implementation and ensure the community is fully represented

  • You may find that other organizations are already pursuing revitalization activities in your targeted neighborhood. These entities can make for natural partners, especially if your organizations have differing (and complementary) programs and skill sets. Tread lightly in areas on which you differ and concentrate on how your work can benefit one another's efforts. You may find it useful to hire a professional facilitator to help you navigate the structure of your collaboration.

  • Look for organizations like churches, large anchor institutions and others that may have similar goals, but are unsure how to approach them from a community development perspective. They may have funding or expertise to offer that will enhance your efforts.

  • Ensure that every partner has a real role with true responsibility for some aspect of the overall effort. Partners will not stay engaged if they are given only token roles with no opportunity to add value.

  • Convene partners regularly to ensure that everyone stays up-to-date on the status of plan implementation and specific projects and to address any issues that may arise.
Learn how to engage cross-sector partners.

More managing partnerships ideas and resources:

Leadership, staffing and organizational culture

Shifts in neighborhood needs and funding sources may necessitate increases in some types of personnel (e.g., community building and organizing staff; housing rehabilitation project managers) and decreases in others. This creates the need to think flexibly about how staff can be re-trained and re-deployed, and whether some staff will likely have a limited stay with the organization.

Change does not come easily to most organizations, but you can help by encouraging traits and skills within your staff. Are they:
  • Entrepreneurial, idea people?
  • Relationship builders and brokers?
  • Flexible and creative?
  • Skilled at planning and assessment?
  • Problem solvers?
  • Visionary — seeing what could be?
  • Culturally competent and responsive to diverse communities?
StoryCorps: Rebuilding community, better than before
StoryCorps, commissioned by NeighborWorks, interviews Mary Tran-Nguyen, founding director of Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp. 

All of these traits will be needed as you embark on a comprehensive revitalization effort. Even if your staff members do not use these skills and qualities in their current work, they may exhibit them when a shift in organizational direction presents new opportunities. Even so, additional capacity building will likely be needed and you should commit to providing it as an ongoing part of your revitalization work.

A helpful way to think about the mindset that is needed to do good revitalization work is to consider the "guerilla" approach instead of the "gorilla" approach.

Gorilla Approach

Guerilla Approach

Waits for something to happen Makes something happen
Feels constrained by the rules, what they can't do Sees opportunities and possibilities; rules are just a starting point
Concern with not doing anything wrong Takes risks to achieve the vision
Believes resources are limited Believes resources are expandable
Views community participation as a burden Views community participation as an opportunity
Spending down the budget = fixing the problem Solving the problem = knowing what's going on, setting outcomes and strategies, evaluating progress
Explains programs to customers because they have no choice Sells programs to customers because they do have a choice
Program driven; administers programs Results driven; programs are tools; manages outcomes
Believes they have little control because there are so many factors Believes they have control because of their ability to influence
Source: Michael Schubert, "Organizational Skills for Success in Revitalization."

Revitalization work also has implications for core board responsibilities:
  • Board members must play a role in setting the revitalization outcomes of the organization and reviewing its performance in this regard.

  • In its fiduciary role, the board will find the organization taking on new kinds of risks (e.g., riskier real estate projects, partnerships with small grassroots organizations, political risks of supporting neighborhood advocacy efforts, implementing programs with uncertain long-term funding prospects, etc.) and must be able to appropriately weigh these risks against the rewards of achieving mission impact.

  • In the nominating process, board members may find the need to include more voices from neighborhood stakeholders and partner organizations in the revitalization process. It must then build its capacity to include and manage these diverse voices during board deliberations.

  • Successful revitalization organizations need to think quickly and act flexibly even when their funders move slowly and have rigid rules (although some funders may also need to change their thinking to support good revitalization work).
More organizational management ideas and resources:

Funding your plan

One of the challenges of transitioning from a focus on housing to a more holistic array of programming is that your new programs often are unlikely to generate earned income the way that housing development brings in developer fees. This is especially true in the early stages, when your work is focused on activities like planning and community organizing. During this stage you will need to seek alternate sources of operating funding.

Once your plan is complete and implementation has begun, however, your new strategies may pave the way for new activities that are revenue generators, like additional housing development or commercial space development. The process of engaging in revitalization work and tackling new kinds of programming may also help you to build new relationships with additional funding partners.

Comprehensive revitalization strategies may require several types of funding:
  • Operating or administrative expenses for staff and overhead

  • Financing for acquisition, construction of housing, commercial or community facilities projects

  • Grants for programming like arts, education, financial stability and other programs that are not revenue generating

  • Program-related investments for large-scale revitalization efforts
Turning the Tide on Persistent Rural Poverty in Oklahoma
By engaging residents, Little Dixie Community Action Agency revitalizes a vacant track of land and a park.

Potential sources of funding include:
  • Government (federal, state and local): Look especially for ways that your work aligns with public sector place-based priorities, either local government priorities or federal initiatives such as Promise Zones.

  • Financial Institutions: There are opportunities for lending capital for development projects as well as grant funds through bank foundations. Community Reinvestment Act requirements mean that financial institutions are often looking for opportunities to invest in neighborhoods in their service territory.

  • Foundations: Many national foundations and local community foundations focus intentionally on community development, but also explore those with specific priorities that might align with some pieces of your work and be creative about it. There are often opportunities around youth issues or health programs, for example.

  • Intermediaries: These entities offer grant and loan funding, and many complement their funding opportunities with technical assistance.

  • State housing finance agencies: These agencies usually administer HOME, CDBG and LIHTC funding, among other programs.

  • Major employers and "anchor institutions": Seek out the major local employers and institutions, such as hospitals and universities, especially those located in or adjacent to your target area.

  • Other real estate industry (Realtors®, appraisers, builders, etc.): These may be sources of general donations or may assist with specific projects.

  • Utility companies: Large utilities often have community giving programs.

  • Faith communities: Churches and religious institutions can have similar community revitalization priorities, but not always the capacity to deliver.

  • Individual donors: Many organizations have made this strategy the cornerstone of successful fundraising programs.
Fundraising tips:
  • Fundraising, whether from a large foundation or a single individual, is about relationships. Take time to talk to potential donors and acquaint them with your work and discover what their interests are, rather than sending an identical unsolicited appeal to every prospect.

  • Seek out ways to align with funder interests. Adopting a comprehensive revitalization agenda allows you to appeal to a broader audience than your work used to do. For example, a foundation focused on education-related activities may not be interested in 90% of what you do, but may fund the discrete part of your plan that has to do with education.

  • Expect to devote staff time and capacity to doing this work well, especially when needing to steward multiple new funding sources.

  • When raising money from community or individual donors, try to find a champion that will put up challenge or matching grant money, essentially doubling what you can raise from the community.

  • Also look for in-kind contributions. Many corporations look for volunteer opportunities for their employees. Community spruce-ups and minor home repair "blitz" projects can provide a chance to receive labor or donations of materials, saving your precious funding for other purposes.
More fundraising ideas and resources:

Policy and advocacy

Many times, local governments have the same revitalization goals that you do, but must depend on local actors to realize them. In this situation, you may find that your town or city government is very supportive. In other circumstances, you may need to make your case, either because there is active dissent or because you need to stand out from the noise of all else that is going on. This means you will need to engage in advocacy to build local support for your efforts.

Advocacy tips:
  • Don't assume elected officials already know what you're doing. Invite them to tour your community and see your work and hear about the vision for themselves. Ask them questions and have a clear sense of how they can support you. They will often ask what they can do for you and it is helpful to have one or two brief and easily digestible responses, such as "Please vote yes on funding for our project," or "We need more attention from the Parks Department."

  • Invite them to events and celebrate your success with them. Thank them publicly for their support.

  • When issues arise that affect your community, attend public meetings and hearings and make your voices heard. Organize your community members to do the same and make sure you all have a clear and cohesive message.

  • Budget talk may be dense and dull, but that is where the action happens. Know your community's budget development and approval schedule. If you have a funding request, make sure you are timing it right: ask before budget negotiations begin and remind your elected officials of their commitments throughout the process, right up until the vote.

  • Communicate regularly and clearly. Include elected officials and influencers on your mailing lists, social media feeds and invitation lists. Keep them informed of both what you've accomplished and what you still need.

  • In turn, you can help your local officials advocate for your community at the state, regional and national levels, by telling your story and supporting what's important to you.
More policy and advocacy ideas and resources:
A boy with light blond hair holds a cup

Measuring outcomes

The final step in developing a place-based plan for revitalization is to measure your progress against expected outcomes and use that information to refine your strategy.

Why is outcome measurement important? It tells you if you are achieving what you set out to achieve, to what extent you are doing so, and how quickly. It tells you if you need to adjust your strategy because something isn't working the way you wanted it to. It allows you to make your case to funders, policymakers and other stakeholders to garner support for what is working. Individual stories and anecdotes can be very powerful, but funders typically want concrete data about what is working, and how it's working, when they are investing their money.

Outcomes define the condition you want to see in your community if the work is successful. The baseline is the condition in your community when your work is beginning. Indicators are ways of measuring whether the outcome has been achieved. Data sources will give you the information about the indicators.

Example: Outcome Regarding Neighborhood Physical Conditions
Outcome Vacant properties are returned to neighborhood-friendly uses
Baseline Percentage or incidence of vacancy in the community at the time the plan is created
Indicators Number of vacant structures

Use of formerly vacant structures
Data Sources Visual observation

Assessment data

Using Indicators

  • Indicators help define the outcomes and make them observable

  • They are a way to measure the degree to which an expected outcome or change has been achieved

  • Outcome measurement should be accurate and informative, and the task should not be too burdensome. To that end, your selected indicators should be:
    • Measurable or observable
    • Engaging (people in the community agree that the indicator is important to watch)
    • Affordable to measure with accessible data
    • Specific (it is clear what is being measured, using what data)
    • Understandable
    • Relevant to the outcome and help define it (measuring "need to know" information)
    • Evenhanded (the data is from credible sources and is consistent over time)

Tips for Data Collection

  • Collecting data in reliable, credible and valid ways will allow for confidence in the results.

  • Document your data collection methods to ensure that you can duplicate them precisely in subsequent collection efforts. In other words, make sure you are measuring the same things in the same way every time.

  • Collecting baseline data at the outset of your revitalization planning process will assist you in understanding the market, designing appropriate strategies and then providing a point in time against which to measure progress.

  • Evaluation should be designed and started in the beginning of strategic interventions. Continuous monitoring can then provide feedback to strategically adjust programs as they are being implemented.
More outcome measurement ideas and resources:

Managing risk

By definition, revitalization involves bringing investment back to areas that don't have enough. This may require nonprofit organizations to be the first investors in neighborhoods perceived by others as risky bets (e.g., being the first to develop housing or commercial property). In turn, organizational activities must generate additional sources of funding to protect original investments.

While revitalization activities demand new and more diversified sources of funding, those sources can be challenging to maintain. Funders may become impatient with the long timeframes required to achieve certain neighborhood changes. Revitalization work may also require advocating for policy changes or making other politically risky commitments. An acceptance of these risks is needed to engage fully in the work of revitalization.

Organizations can partially mitigate certain of these risks by planning ahead and anticipating challenges, diversifying their activities and investments, engaging with strong and credible programmatic partners and communicating carefully and respectfully with political players.

More risk management ideas and resources: