Wednesday, March 30, 2005

What Did I Learn?

My workshops were outstanding this week. They are the first in a series on single family affordable housing development. This week we were just doing an overview of the development process, so I already knew a lot of it, but there were still some very good things that I came out with. It was also sobering to read some of the stories of failed community development organizations. So many of these groups have learned tough lessons and either come through them or failed that it's tough to understand why people just getting into the field don't pay close attention to those mistakes. One of our local CDC's (community development corporations) failed a few years ago. I see a current CDC (not the one I work with) following in those same steps. It's not that they are doing bad development, but they are taking on the role of antagonist and making too many enemies. Should they ever reach a point where they need help, there won't be anyone around to give them a hand. That is one thing that my organization does very well. We don't run around telling people all the things they are doing badly or what it is that we disagree on. We work very hard at keeping lines of communication open and keeping a steady head on our shoulders. Sure, I've seen us fail at it once or twice, but certainly not to the point where we've made significant enemies.

At the same time, I did see some of the mistakes that we've made reflected in the CDC's that have failed. It was a good reminder that small mistakes can have a terrible effect on an organization that does a lot of good. I've really been thinking through the importance of starting out correctly. In the community development field, that is vital. Too many groups start out by going into debt and then spend the rest of their existence trying to dig out of it. CDCs need to be better at getting the money up front, moving into development slowly (don't run out and buy a bunch of property just so you've got something), and leveraging as much money as possible to make development happen. They also need to approach development as a business, not as a social investment. Too often there is an emotional drive to accomplish and the business side is put aside. Lose the emotion (it is property, after all!) and focus on being successful from the very beginning. Also, read up on the CDCs that have failed and those that have succeeded. Pay close attention to the details and learn from others' mistakes. A community center from Rockford was at the workshop, thinking about getting into community development. They need to do some VERY serious thinking and planning before diving in. There is no excuse for making the mistakes that others have made. They are too public and too easy to see if you want to know what to avoid.